Farm-share arrangement splits risky business with local farmers
Community-supported agriculture model is seeing a surge in popularity
Back in 1998 Kris Vester launched his first CSA program — community-supported agriculture — as a means of connecting the produce grown on his 160-acre mixed farm, Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farms, directly with those who want to eat it.
One of the first CSA arrangements in Calgary and the only that started back in the 1990s still running, Vester, now joined by his wife Tamara, now supply about 85 shareholders each season with a weekly box.
It's a selection of the dozens of crops they grow, plus the option of eggs, pork or chicken, picked up in Marda Loop or Hillhurst on Thursdays or Saturdays.
"I really believe in the value of the relationship between the grower and the eater — the producer and the co-producer," Vester says.
"It's the only one that really allows for that in a significant, continuous way. As opposed to the farmers' market, which is still direct and awesome, but you don't develop that long-term relationship with people that way."
The CSA model is seeing a surge in popularity as local growers face the challenges of getting fresh produce to market.
There can be slim margins when selling through retailers, and it can be hard to estimate how much to harvest to bring to farmers' market stalls. Too little and they'll run out, too much and the picked produce will have to go back or find another outlet.
Knowing exactly how many shareholders will be coming to pick up their CSA boxes allows farmers to harvest exactly as much as they've already sold.
Another bonus: buying a CSA share early in the season supports farmers in the spring, when they need it.
It also shares the risk. If there's a drought or hail, for example, farmers won't take as big a hit. If it's a good year, the added bounty comes through in shareholders' CSA boxes.
"You're sharing risk with us when you buy a CSA share," says Vester. "And it's a risky, risky business."
This was a tough year. The lack of rain and high temperatures affected all the crops, with some, like brassica vegetables and potatoes, more seriously affected.
The Blue Mountain crew harvested only 10 to 40 per cent of their typical yield.
But the shares were still generous and the opportunity to connect with the farmers each week, learning about weather and soil conditions on the farm, helped build a stronger relationship and deeper understanding of farming in Alberta, and the challenges our local growers face.
"The value of it too is that you, as a consumer, learn what's going on," says Vester.
"And how the weather affects you, which you wouldn't if you're just going to pick stuff up. It's an educational process on both sides."
There's also that element of surprise. When you go to pick up your CSA share, you might wind up with kohlrabi, romanesco broccoli or bok choy or something else you might not normally have on your grocery list.
It's nice to be nudged out of your comfort zone and typically farmers are eager to share suggestions of how to prepare it.
Blue Mountain shareholders get a newsletter by email each week, which includes a heads up about what to expect in their box and a few recipes to try.
A few weeks ago, the Vesters sent off the last CSA shares for the 2017 season. The late summer and fall boxes are typically the most robust, and the shares included beets, cabbage, chard, spinach, broccoli, radish, kale and fingerling potatoes.
It's like saying goodbye to friends at the end of summer camp, that last week pickup, after crossing paths with the same people all season long.
- Restaurants for Change addresses food insecurity at the dinner table
- Alpine Edible Schoolyards project feeds growing minds
They're shooting for at least 100 CSA shares next year, which will be available in late February.
Anyone who has previously had a share has first dibs before they open it up to the waiting list — they currently have about 50 on the list for 2018.
"Sometime in November, when the seeds are all collected, garden plots cleaned up, field tillage complete for the season, and requisite work done in preparation for the coming winter, we will truly take a break and rest," wrote the couple in their final newsletter, alongside photos of dried flowers and snow-covered radish beds.
"Then we will begin to plan for next year."