August 26, 2009 / 11:03 PM / 8 years ago

FEATURE-U.S. farmers warm to community agriculture model

* More than 12,500 U.S. farms trying new model

* Farmers see more secure revenue stream

* Consumers like quality, connection to seasons

By Scott Malone

MILLIS, Mass., Aug 27 (Reuters) - As he finished packing corn, tomatoes and blueberries into shopping bags at a Massachusetts farm, software engineer Alex Lian said his new shopping habits had changed his attitude to food.

“As a city person, I’ve never had this much connection to the seasons and eating things as they’re picked,” the 32-year-old said as he looked out over fields at Tangerini’s Spring Street Farm where his produce had been grown.

Tangerini’s is one of a growing number of mostly small-scale U.S. farm operations that have turned to community-supported agriculture as a new business model.

The 74-acre (30-hectare) farm sells shares of its crop of vegetable and fruit crop in winter and early spring. Its 230 customers pick up their share of the produce every week at the farm, starting in June and running through the growing season.

Laura Tangerini has been farming for more than 20 years. But in the two years since she’s adopted community-supported agriculture, her family’s outlook on the farming business has changed dramatically

“What I‘m seeing with the CSA is a future for my farm past me,” Tangerini said in an interview at her farm about 20 miles (32 km) southwest of Boston. She no longer has to borrow money to buy seeds and pay other early-season expenses, and her college-aged sons are starting to show an interest in farming.

SHOOTS OF GROWTH

The CSA model traces its roots to experiments in cooperative farming in Germany and Japan in the 1960s. It arrived in the United States in 1985 when activists in western Massachusetts founded Indian Line Farm, which remains in operation today.

Recently, the number of U.S. farms using the CSA model has spiked, according to people who study it. People have become more interested in locally-grown produce after reading books like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollen and “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver.

“There is a big new growth shoot that has taken place,” said Elizabeth Henderson of Peacework Organic Farm in New York state, author of “Sharing the Harvest.”

“They finally get it -- why buying from a local, family-scale farm is important,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released figures this year showing that 12,549 U.S. farms had sold products through CSAs in 2007. It had not previously tried to count CSAs in its census of agriculture, which is conducted every five years.

“There are more CSAs in the country than there were five years ago ... Our database is growing by leaps and bounds,” said Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest.org, a Web site that tracks them. The site has added 690 farms to its roster of 2,905 this year.

‘JUST GORGEOUS’

Several CSA members interviewed said they were attracted by the quality of the produce. Typically CSA farms pick fruits and vegetables the same day they distribute them, either at the farm, some central distribution point in a nearby city or through home delivery.

“It’s so much fresher than what we get in the grocery store,” said Sara Ervin, 28, an interior designer who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “It looks just gorgeous.”

Farmers who run CSAs, which represent less than 1 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million farms, said the model allows them to take a different approach.

While “big agriculture” farms focus on producing just a few crops in immense qualities or raise one kind of livestock, CSAs need to grow a wide variety to satisfy their customers.

“It allows us to be extremely diverse. I can grow lots of different things, and if one thing doesn’t work out ... there are so many other things that are available,” said Elizabeth Keen of Indian Line Farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Having a backup plan -- multiple varieties of greens, for instance -- is critical since members share the farmer’s risk. If a particular crops fails, members typically have to go without or find another source.

“Anyone who has ever tried to grow vegetables, or any type of plants, knows that sometimes you lose them,” said Susan Speers, 59, a member of Tangerini’s CSA.

In practice, the process takes stress that normally falls on the shoulders of the farmer and spreads it out.

“It’s a wonderful way for farmers to maybe not get caught up in that lending and financing thing, because if they have a bad season, that can put them under,” said Christine Mayer, program manager of the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which tracks U.S. CSAs and also runs its own 6-acre (2.4 hectare) farm.

“It takes a lot of the risk and a lot of the fear out of the farming,” said Ben Doherty, who co-founded Open Hands Farm outside Northfield, Minnesota in 2006. “If we have mediocre or bad tomatoes for the year, we don’t make $5,000 or $10,000 less. Everybody gets a few less tomatoes.” (Editing by Alan Elsner)

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