LACONIA — Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a partnership between the farmer and consumer that provides the first with the means to plant the seeds, raise the crops and harvest the bounty and the second with the opportunity to enjoy fresh food, locally grown, purchased directly from its producer.
The consumer partners with the farmer before the growing season begins by purchasing a share of the forthcoming harvest. The farmer applies the proceeds from these subscriptions to meeting the costs of sowing, growing and harvesting the crop and in return provides the subscriber with a constant supply of foodstuffs throughout the season. Traditionally farms primarily provided fruits and vegetables as they came into season, but now many offer eggs and meat — chicken, beef and pork — as well as products like maple syrup, honey, and jams.
Aaron Lichtenberg, a small grower at Winnipesaukee Woods Farm in Alton, described the business model as one of "shared risk and shared responsibility for producing the food we eat."
The New Hampshire Department of Agriculture lists half-a-dozen farms with CSA programs in Belknap County. Stretching from one end of the county to the other, he six, which all have websites with information about the pricing, terms and operation of their CSA programs, are: Surowiec Farm in Sanbornton, Picnic Rock Farms in Meredith, Beans & Greens Farmstand in Gilford, Still Seeking Farm in Gilmanton, Sticks & Stones Farm in Barnstead, and Winnipesaukee Woods Farm in Alton.
Most operate their CSA programs during the growing season between June and September or October, though Beans & Greens offers a winter program, assuring subscribers preference over the restaurant trade if supplies are short. Programs vary in price and structure.. Beans & Greens specifies a minimum account of $250 with a 10 percent bonus to those who subscribe by May 3. Some farms price shares for individuals, couples and families while some offer half and full shares for the season, with prices for the season ranging between approximately $300 and $550.
Likewise, different farms prescribe different arrangements for collecting the produce. Some package their customers' orders for collection on specific days. Others have pick-up locations, usually at a farmstand or farmer's markets. And still at others subscribers select their produce at the farm and the farmer debits their account.
Ward Bird of Picnic Rock Farm in Meredith said that the contribution of the some 60 subscribers is "very important to the operation of farm It helps to get the ball rolling early in the season." He said that he seeks to engage the subscribers in the life of the farm. "We strongly believe that teaching is a big part of this," he said, explaining that subscribers are told when to expect produce to ripen and to understand the effects of weather and even invited to share in chores like weeding and picking. "it's not a working thing," he remarked, "but a learning experience."
Michelle Descoteaux of Still Seeking Farm said that after three years the CSA accounts for about a quarter of total sales, but she and her husband Keith hope to expand it to represent all sales. "We like to pick fresh and give people what they want when they want it," she said, "not have produce wilting on a farmstand or in an outdoor market all day."
Barbara Comtois, who with her husband Guy, owns Sticks and Stones Farm, a hydroponic operation in Barnstead, said that subscriptions represent a large share of sales. She explained that by growing hydroponically they can produce on five acres what would require between 10 and 20 acres of soil with relatively little labor, while materials and equipment represent a correspondingly greater share of costs. Subscriptions, she said, defray a significant share those operating costs.
On the other hand Katie Surowiec of Surowiec Farm said that she has limited the CSA program to about 100 members, "It's all about what you can handle," she explained, "and I can manage about 100." She said the program has been very popular, with nine of 10 members renewing their subscriptions, and "very important in the spring when we really need the cash flow." However, she said that "we're not putting all our eggs in one basket" and the farmstand and two farmer's markets generate the majority of sales.
Lichtenberg observed that CSA represents a flexible business model that reduces the inherent risks of farming to small growers while providing consumers the opportunity to enjoy foods produced by their neighbors and served at the peak of their seasons. "We can learn to eat seasonally," he remarked, "like our grandparents did."