CSA farms prepare for new season of giving customers bounty of produce

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Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 12:00 am

The operators of the Darlin' Reds farm in Raymond, Neb., last year found themselves with a little money in the bank at the end of their first season as a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, farm.

There was just one problem: Business partners Erin Frank and Margaret Milligan didn't factor in their labor.

“We didn't pay ourselves,” Frank said.

Frank, who grew up on a farm and ranch near Long Pine, Neb., and Milligan, a “city girl” who grew up in Lincoln, launched their CSA farm last year and sold 40 full and half CSA shares. CSA customers typically buy “shares” in the farm's harvest before the growing season and then pick up weekly portions of the harvest.

Many local grocery stores, including Hy-Vee and Whole Foods, carry and label locally grown fruits, flowers, herbs and vegetables, and the Omaha area has a number of farmers markets each summer. But some consumers prefer to pick up a weekly CSA share from a local Nebraska or Iowa farmer.

The Darlin' Reds business partners met while working and volunteering at Community Crops in Lincoln, a nonprofit that operates a training farm. Frank and Milligan farm a two-acre tract owned by Branched Oak Farm. “We help care for their dairy cows,” Frank said. “In exchange, they let us use their land for our CSA.”

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And the name of their CSA, well, that comes from the fact that Frank and Milligan both have red hair.

Both Frank and Milligan have full-time jobs outside the farm. (Frank is a community organizer for the Center for Rural Affairs, and Milligan works at a coffee shop.) And providing CSA shareholders in Lincoln and Omaha with 20 weekly boxes of straight-off-the-farm vegetables and fruits is another full-time job.

The influx of money at the start of the season as customers buy shares helps with the farmers' cash flow and allows consumers to get to know “their” farm and “learn more about how food is grown,” according to LocalHarvest.org, a nonprofit group that tracks CSA farms across the country.

The CSA money at the start of the season “is huge,” said Kevin Loth, who operates Shadowbrook Farm in Lincoln with his wife, Charuth Van Beuzekom.

“It keeps our goats fed and fat. It's an opportunity to buy seed and have a successful year without having to go to the bank. Essentially our shareholders are our bankers, but the risk is diversified,” Loth said.

The couple operate a “market-style CSA,” offering a debit-card-type system that allows customers to invest as little as $50 or as much as $1,000. Shareholders can use their “debit cards” to choose what products they want to put in their basket.

All of Shadowbrook Farm's pickups are at local farmers markets or on the farm. Loth said his CSA farm is profitable.

Consumers who opt to participate in a more traditional CSA, with the farmer choosing what goes into the weekly share, may be disappointed if they have their heart set on delivery of a certain fruit or vegetable.

“You're signing up to be part of the farm,” Frank said. “If something happens to our napa cabbage crop, you might not get all you want, or if we have a really good crop, you'll get lots.”

Full shares that can feed from two to four people can cost about $200 or more, depending on the contents of the weekly share and the length of the program, which usually ranges from 12 weeks to 20 weeks. Most CSA programs begin in May or June.

CSAs got their start in the mid-1980s in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Consumers provided “pre-plant payment and/or farm labor in return for a share of the harvest,” according to a recent study of 205 CSA farms by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

CSAs have expanded in popularity with the growth of farmers markets, organic foods and the locavore movement, the report said.

About 48 percent of CSA farms had been in operation for four to six or more years. Each CSA had on average about 75 members, the report said.

There are at least 29 CSA farms in Nebraska, according to LocalHarvest.org.

Nearly five years ago, husband and wife Charles and Laurie Kay made a “leap of faith,” and signed up for a CSA share.

“A friend knew we like farmers markets and said we would love a CSA,” said Laurie Kay, an Omaha photographer and mother of two children, Evie, 12, and Miles, 14. “The first year we signed up, we didn't know what we were getting into.”

Less adventuresome eaters may not be good candidates for CSA shares.

“It forces you to try new things,” Kay said. “We started getting things in our box I knew nothing about. What do you do with kohlrabi? What do you do with turnips? I had never eaten a turnip in my life.”

But the surprise offerings that showed up weekly in the CSA box expanded the family's palate.

The parents enacted the three-bite rule. “You have to take at least three bites before you decide you don't like it,” Kay said. “As a parent, you have to be the one to introduce your kids to healthy foods.”

Kay consults the Internet, friends, farmers and family for recipes.

Last year, the couple bought a full CSA share from the Darlin' Reds, and this year they plan to do the same. A full share costs $500; half shares, $300.

“They had melons. Not everyone has fruit,” Kay said, explaining her choice.

Kay and her husband also enjoy the Darlin' Reds' add-ons, including eggs, cheese and beef, which will cost extra this year. The beef comes from Schoenberg Farm in Long Pine and the milk and cheese from Branched Oak Farm in Raymond.

When Laurie Kay visits the grocery store, she often comparison-shops the produce aisle, checking out the store's offerings with what the family receives in its weekly CSA share.

“We really feel we're getting our money's worth,” Kay said. “My husband and I are both into the local food movement. Even if we're paying a little more than at the store ... it's so worth it.

A few weeks ago in Lincoln, Open Harvest, a cooperative grocery store, held a three-hour CSA Fair in the parking lot, said Amy Tabor, the store's outreach coordinator.

Ten CSA farms participated in the event, which allowed potential customers to meet the farmers and find out what would be included in their shares. Many farmers, in addition to fruits and vegetables, offer herbs, flowers and, increasingly, milk, broilers and grass-fed beef in their shares.

In fact, one CSA, Robinette Farms in Martell, Neb., includes gelato, Italian ice cream, in its shares, Tabor said.

More than 200 people visited the fair and “shopped” for the CSA farm of their choice, resulting in more than 40 signups. “They vary in price. They vary in length and how you get your box — some deliver, some have pickup points,” Tabor said. “This was a good chance for everyone to connect.”

This week, the Darlin' Reds began seeding the ground with arugula, carrots, spinach, peas and radishes. The partners this year hope to double the number of shareholders and cut themselves a check.

“We absolutely hope to pay ourselves this year,” Frank said. “We know it wasn't sustainable like it was in year one.”

Looking for a CSA?

Interested in participating in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program? Government agencies typically don’t track CSA farms, so some sources to try include:

>> Localharvest.org/csa

Offers CSA information by state, city and ZIP code.

>> Edibleomaha.com/2014/2014-csa-directory

Directory that offers Omaha-area CSA pickups.

>> Nebsusag.org/food.shtml#consumer

>> Nebraskafood.org

>> Gardens.com/local/csa/nebraska/all

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