Local farms and residents are collaborating in arrangements called “community-supported agriculture.”
The arrangement brings early-season revenue to local farms and consumers benefit from healthy diet options while getting a taste of agri-tourism.
At Clark’s Elioak Farm in Ellicott City, farmer Nora Crist grows vegetables for her summer community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, which is fully subscribed with about 40 families.
Though the petting zoo at the farm is currently the biggest source of its income, CSA revenue, which is paid in advance, greatly helps with cash flow. Since CSA members pay in late winter or early spring, Crist can buy seeds, plants and equipment and hire labor before the farm starts producing food.
The cost of a CSA full share is $375 and a medium share is $250.
“Farmers are now more aware than ever that they need to diversify their income sources,” said Crist.
She has offered a vegetable CSA since 2013, at one point expanding to about 60 families but settling into the current 40, which for Crist brings the right balance of sales versus labor.
In addition, Clark’s Farm also hosts a beef and pork CSA. During each 3-month season, consumers pick up meat once a month, with a large share selling for $600 and a small share for $250 for the season.
The vegetable CSA is always filled, said Crist, who offers it to returning members first, then to new families. As far as competition from meal kit delivery companies such as Blue Apron, Crist believes for there is room enough for both.
“The CSA model lets me focus on growing food,” said Crist. “I don’t want to be a delivery person.”
She also wants people to know the unique advantages of buying directly from the farm. At Clark’s Farm, with its bucolic beauty and baby goats cavorting around, a CSA pickup gives consumers a break from the rush of daily suburbia. It’s a little dose of agri-tourism that keeps people in touch with their food.
“And as far as value,” said Crist, “compare the prices to the grocery store.” She never wants her CSA to come across as an aloof operation only for kale-centric, wealthy people.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of people who say they can’t join my CSA because they don’t like kale,” Crist says with a smile. “No, no, no! We can work this out.” (Although for kale-lovers, Crist’s is top-of-the-line.)
The dish on CSAs
There are about a dozen CSAs operating in Howard County each season, with some fading in and out depending on a particular farm’s focus, expenses or ability to cope with the weather. CSAs peaked in Howard County about three years ago and then decreased, said James Zoller, agricultural coordinator for the Howard County Office of Community Sustainability.
“If you talk to any farm running a CSA currently that had one five years ago, they would tell you that the number of participants in their CSA has decreased,” said Zoller. “Initially, this decrease was due to new CSAs being created, then later more consumers opting for meal kit programs and buying clubs.”
Yet CSAs have steadily remained an important source of farm revenue. “CSAs allow farms to have income to help with planting costs and also allows them to better plan, having a committed customer base,” he said.
And the resident-to-farm connection is also very important, Zoller reflected. “When someone joins a CSA, they have direct contact with that farm for several weeks. They see the different crops coming in depending on the season, and see the farmer each week when they receive their share.”
CSAs continue to evolve in other ways as well. Some offer volunteering options and work-share programs which let people experience life on a farm firsthand. “Now farms are offering choices of what you get in your share and also offering home delivery. CSAs are a great example of the ingenuity of our local farms to meet the communities’ needs and generate income. This ability to adapt to current markets is necessary for our local farms to survive.”
If you grow it they will come
David Liker has so much faith in the CSA model that the entire income of Gorman Farms depends on its 600 CSA participants.
Liker’s 2019 summer CSA offers 20 weeks of vegetables for $830 for a full share and $635 for a medium share.
Over the decade since he started the farm, Liker has added an early winter option as well as special strawberry picking and local honey to CSA members.
The amount of rainfall in 2018 – nearly 72 inches as opposed to the average 40 – was by far the biggest challenge Liker has ever seen. “I’m proud of the fact that we survived 2018, that we pulled that off,” he said.
Though Gorman Farms has, from its beginning, identified as a CSA-based operation, for a few years Liker operated a farm stand. “The farm stand was really popular, but we had to make some difficult business decisions. We asked, what’s going to produce the best results for us? Bottom line is, we exist because of the community.”