It's called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and it allows direct interaction between consumers and the people who grow their food, while providing farmers with an infusion of cash before the growing season starts — and their customers with fresh, locally grown vegetables, fruits, meat and dairy food.
Usually early in the year, a consumer buys a full share (typically enough of whatever the farmer produces for a family of four) or a half-share (enough for one or two) from one or more CSA farms. Delivery of food to the consumers occurs weekly or bi-weekly, beginning in June, and lasts about 20 weeks, or until the end of October.
"Every CSA is unique," says the online Ontario CSA Directory. "The crops grown, the size of the shares, arrangements for receiving the shares, length of season and share costs vary from farm to farm."
Some farmers pack the share boxes or bags themselves, although consumers will have a pretty good idea in advance what types of goods they might get in any given week. Some give their customers a choice, allowing them to pack their own bags up to the value of the share purchased.
Some consumers pick up their food right at the farm. Some farmers take their goods to a central distribution point for pickup and some will deliver to the consumer's door for an additional fee.
The price of a seasonal share varies widely but generally runs about $200 to $400. An egg share is usually extra. Some CSA farms are certified organic — but not all.
There is no umbrella organization of CSA farms and Agriculture Canada has no statistics on them but an Internet search shows CSAs in every province. The Ontario CSA Directory lists 200-plus farms, while Coop la Maison verte says the Québec CSA network "has just over 100 participating farms, with over 8,500 participating households."
Evergreen Brick Works, a community environmental centre in Toronto's Don Valley, is the distribution point for four area CSAs — one meat, one dairy and two produce. The program started last year, says Marina Queirolo, food program manager at the Brick Works, with just about 20 customers making their pickups every Tuesday evening. The new season started just two weeks ago so this year's figures are not established.
"The idea for us is to educate the public about other ways to support local agriculture," she says. With that in mind, Queirolo chose CSAs with different operating models. One farmer displays his produce market-style and his pre-paid customers choose what they want from what he has available. The second produce farmer pre-packs his selections.
The meat producer offers her customers frozen beef or pork selections on a bi-weekly basis and with the dairy CSA, you never know what you're going to get.
"She makes the selection for you," Queirolo says. "Sometimes you receive cream or buttermilk, sometimes soft cheese, sometimes hard cheese — whatever she has been producing that week. "It's fun because it's a way of trying products that you wouldn't choose. . . . Normally people tend to stick to what they know."
For cooks, this is both the adventure and challenge of shopping from a CSA farm. While customers can be assured the goods they're getting are not picked before they're ready and have not been languishing on trucks or in warehouses for weeks, the farmer's selections may not always be what the customers are used to buying.
It makes you seek out new recipes to use the products, Queirolo says.
Likewise, the variety of products and even the size of the shares may increase as the season matures and more crops are harvested. That may require customers to think about canning or freezing for future use.
The Brick Works hosts a huge Saturday farmers' market but CSAs are a good alternative, Queirolo says. "You just drive in, you pick your box. It's really easy, it's convenient and you have an amazing array of produce for the summer."
The facility has added another dimension this year by inviting participating CSA farmers to bring extra goods to sell to their own customers or anyone else who drops by. In addition, other vendors of more artisan-type foods are being invited to showcase their goods the same night in what Queirolo calls a "pop-up market." These vendors will vary from week to week.
Some consumers, including Queirolo, subscribe to more than one CSA so they can get allotments of vegetables, meat and dairy all at once. She would eventually like to provide a full range of food groups to make CSA shopping a "one-stop" alternative to supermarkets.
She points out that CSA customers who pre-pay for their shares also assume a share of the risks the farmers assume in terms of bad weather and other factors that affect crops. But at its best, "You're getting to know what really is happening at the farm, to understand how the growing season is."
Susan Greer can be reached at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.