Friday, March 9, 2012

Community Supported Agriculture in Brandon, MB

Picking up a share at the park!
Community Supported Agriculture has been around a long time.  From what we've been able to find, it started in Europe in the 1950's, when some people in a Swiss city got tired of high prices for poor quality vegetables.  Those with a rural background knew there was better food out there, so they went to visit some local farmers and made a deal for the farmer to deliver directly to them ever so often.  The concept has slowly spread across the globe, and taken on many different forms.  The basic concept is that members, or shareholders, buy a share of the farmer's harvest and then receive a box of food at designated times.

The CSA concept has seen huge growth in the last ten years or so, as consumers become more interested in  fresh and local food, lowering their carbon foot prints, supporting local economies and knowing who's growing their food and how it's being grown.  There are many variants: some CSA's require the members to work on the farm, there are (often illegal) raw milk CSA's, there are grain, egg and meat CSA's, in warmer climates there are year-round shares, there are winter CSA's of vegetables from the farmer's root cellar.  Any way people want to eat, there is probably a CSA for it, if there are enough people interested!

We certainly can't take responsibility for bringing CSA to Brandon.  That was done by the ever progressive Evelyn and Menno Isaac, long time Farmers Market vendors and some of the first to use organic growing methods in Brandon.  They started a CSA about fifteen years ago with customers interested in a regular supply of their great produce!  We got to know them through Farmers Markets and about eight years ago, they asked us to do one week of CSA so they could have a wee summer vacation - something almost impossible for those of us of selling at Farmers Markets!  We helped out a bit in the next few years, and when the two were ready to largely retire, they asked us to take over the CSA.  What a gift they gave us!  We love growing for our CSA members!  Everyone involved is interested, enthusiastic and committed to healthy food!

The way it works is that people buy a share in the Spring.  They pay at a time when the farmer needs cash flow - Spring is when we're buying our seeds and compost, using extra electricity to keep our green house going, repairing and maintaining equipment, filling the big tank of gasoline for the equipment, hiring a few people to help with planting and weeding.  That's part of the 'support' in Community Supported Agriculture - our community helps to support us in what would otherwise be our 'leanest' times and we support the community by providing a few jobs.  We start pretty much all of our own seeds; indeed seedlings of tomatoes, peppers and herbs are started in the house right now!  By July, when crops are getting going, our shareholders begin to receive their weekly boxes of fresh food.  They'll receive a weekly box through September, until we've 'spent' the money they paid for their shares.  We meet once a week at a designated spot, or home delivery is available for an extra fee.  We offer three different 'sizes' of shares so there's something appropriate for single people, couples, large families or vegetarians.  The pick up is fun: we're there to answer any questions, share recipes and identifying anything that might be new to our families!  We also have a Farmers Market table there with extra selections so that members can 'trade' anything in their baskets that they might not use!

CSA day is both a joy and a frantic scramble!  Our CSA is based on fresh food and we take that seriously!  We might dig potatoes the night before to give them a chance to dry off but everything else is harvested, cleaned and packaged on the meeting day.  We take a walk through our fields the day before to see what is ready and ripe and we make a plan for the next day.  We also work with a couple of other like-minded, chemical-free, local gardeners, to ensure a wide variety of food and we've got to be in touch with them, to see what they'll have ready.  The interesting part is always how much can be harvested and then how we split it among our families!  A lot of decisions, and math calculations, are made on the fly: we harvested eighteen pounds of lettuce and have twenty five families so everybody gets....

When we started organizing Farmers Markets, the Isaacs were one of the first growers to join us.  They introduced us to Samaritan House, our local food bank.  The Isaacs invited Samaritan House to come at the end of Farmers Markets to collect any left over produce that might otherwise go to waste.  Samaritan House would distribute it to their clients the next day, such a brilliant idea as fresh food is often missing at Food Banks!  As we got to know the staff of Samaritan House and as we learned more about the need in our community, we had the idea to promote sponsored CSA shares for Samaritan House.  People can sponsor a share or part of a share for a family, and it is a tax deductible donation; we donate a part of each share, so it's a lower price than a regular share.  We've been so proud of this effort, and so inspired by our CSA members who stepped right up and donated what they could!  Samaritan House supporters have also sponsored families and it really makes a difference in the lives and health of struggling families!

It may be March, but CSA registrations for 2012 have just gone out to our members!  We've been gratified that a number of families immediately emailed that they'd be joining again; some even came to visit us at Seedy Sunday with their cheques in hand.  The support is so invigorating and inspiring!  We can hardly wait for the snow to melt so we can get on the land to grow for 'our' families!  If you're reading this and you're not in Brandon, check out the Manitoba CSA website, Buy Local Think Global website for Canadian and US farms, or in the US check Local Harvest.  Will you be eating fresh and local food this summer?


  1. Great explanation of CSA's and how they operate. Love that you've managed to provide shares for a local food bank as I hear often that the food they tend to give out is of rather poor quality simply due to the need for packaged items.

    1. Thanks, Marguerite! CSAs operate differently everywhere: we don't make our shareholders work, which some do! They're always welcome though! As to the Food Banks - fresh food and protein is what Samaritan House is missing. When so many people donate they think canned goods, dry pasta! Have you heard of the 'Grow a Row' project where veggie gardeners grow extra produce for their local Food Bank! Great project!