Orange County resident Matthew Benson has a lot of mouths to feed. Every Saturday from June through October, the photographer/writer/farmer supplies 100 people with organic, freshly harvested produce and eggs through his CSA — short for Community Supported Agriculture — at Stonegate Farm, a historic property in Balmville, Orange County. “We grow it all on one intense acre,” says Benson.
Stonegate is one of dozens of CSAs — an arrangement wherein a farmer provides fresh produce each week to consumers — that, slowly but steadily, have been popping up around the Valley. “We’re not seeing that much growth in the number of CSAs,” says Teresa Rusinek, a senior educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension service in Millbrook. “But they are expanding their offerings. Winter shares are becoming more popular: Farmers are storing root crops, such as carrots, beets, and potatoes. And they’re raising chickens, turkeys, and livestock so they can expand.”
Here’s how it usually works: In early spring, you pay the farmer up-front for the full season of your share of the produce, which helps raise the capital needed to get the crop going. During the growing season, the veggies are harvested and distributed weekly to the shareholders, usually in 10- to 15-pound allotments — or enough to feed four or more people for a week. Sometimes shareholders are required to work on the farm, sometimes it’s your choice, or there is no work option. Full-share prices vary from about $400 to $750, depending on what is being offered and whether or not it’s organic. Members are usually allowed to divide their share among one or more friends.
Many CSAs have a specialty niche. For example, Stonegate offers edible and decorative cut flowers, unusual salad greens like sorrel, and uncommon fruits like quince (more recognizable produce — like heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers — is also grown). Cropsey Community Farm in Rockland County specializes in hard-to-find heirloom varieties, including corno di toro (“horn of the bull”) Italian frying peppers, sweet deer tongue lettuce, and pie-perfect Long Island cheese pumpkins. Fruit shares are usually separate purchases at CSAs, although Fishkill Farms in Dutchess bundles berries, currants, white nectarines, and cherries in with the usual suspects like tomatoes, peas, and cukes.
There is even a CSA for herbs alone: Field Apothecary in Germantown offers seasonal bundles ($130 in the summer, $160 in the winter) of remedies like salve and bug spray made from herbs; members can also harvest their own fresh herbs at the farm. This summer, the operation is teaming up with Growing Heart Farm in Pawling. “They are offering our CSA to their members as an added value, which seems to be a big benefit to veggie growers since there are so many veggie CSAs,” says Field Apothecary owner Dana Eudy, who farms with her husband, Michael.
Generally speaking, the bigger the CSA, the more variety of items offered. Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook has a mega-operation, with 1,000 shareholders spread across Columbia County, the Capital Region, Westchester, and Manhattan. (This farm pioneered CSAs in New York State by offering shares at the Union Square Greenmarket back in the 1990s.) Aside from a full gamut of produce, the CSA offers meat and chicken shares. Members work at distribution centers, or at the farm itself, once a month.
While most CSA memberships are irrevocable, some — like those offered by Huguenot Street Farm in New Paltz — allow patrons more leeway. “No one ever does leave, though,” says head farmer Gavin Rinkor. “Most people ‘get it,’ and wouldn’t want to opt-out unless they had to move.” Members pick up their produce weekly, either at the farm or at a location in Newburgh. Increasingly, CSAs are offering deliveries to central pickup sites off the farm, including hospitals and larger office complexes.
In terms of options, one of the most flexible CSAs is the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, located at Vassar College Farm at the intersection of Raymond and Hooker avenues. Now in its 16th season with 400-plus members, it carries full-season, summer-only, and fall-only shares. Vegetable pickups are displayed in a tent “market style,” with 15 to 20 options at a time, so patrons make their own selections instead of receiving a prepackaged produce bag. “We also have low-income shares; about 25 to 30 families take us up on that,” says farm Manager Leon Vehaba. “In addition, we make donations to food partners, so roughly 20 percent of our food goes to low-income people in Poughkeepsie.”
In the past, CSAs (and Mother Nature) sometimes goofed, producing too much kale and not enough tomatoes. Today — as farmers get more experienced in running a CSA program — that problem is diminishing. “They’re getting better at planting appropriate amounts, so they’ll have different offerings,” says Rusinek. “And they’ll pull in fruit or sweet corn from another farm so they can offer more than just kale or carrots.”
When it comes to choosing a CSA, it all depends on what you’re looking for, says Rusinek. “Some folks have a preference for organic, others just care that it’s local. Some people find value in offerings of eggs, meat, or cheeses. I see some CSAs even have cider on hand. I think you just have to do a little research. Do you really want cut flowers? That might be something that makes or breaks the deal.”