When Amy Bryant-Collins signed up for her first Community Supported Agriculture share, the paper bags that came every Saturday packed with Swiss chard, zucchini and peppers seemed like more food than her family could possibly eat in a week.
But with the growing season approaching, she is ready to use the lessons in planning and creativity she learned with last year’s CSA to make the most of the weekly bounty that’s coming.
Every Sunday, she and her partner will pick through the profusion of vegetables, washing off bugs and planning menus.
They will use up the delicate greens first for salads and sandwich rollups with meat and cheese.
Sturdier kale go into stews and smoothies later in the week.
Friends are invited over to feast on peppers grilled and stuffed. Spare zucchini gets swapped for a neighbor’s eggs, and unfamiliar produce, like the sweet, turnip-like kohlrabi, are experimented on.
“I love it. It’s one of my new favorites. It’s great in Indian food,” said Bryant-Collins.
CSA programs are a way of getting a steady supply of fresh local veggies without shopping, and they have a growing niche of fans. They are also a farming practice that has grown steadily since U.S. farms adapted it from a European model in the late 1980s.
Here’s how a CSA works:
For about $400 or more up front in the spring, about two dozen local farms offer shares of their crops before the harvest. This way the farms get paid for the work that lies ahead and can get produce direct to customers. In return, subscribers pick up bags of the assorted harvest – from greens and beans to tomatoes and squash – once a week, usually June through October.
Local CSAs are for sale now, and farmers report they’re selling fast.
“It’s a good business model for farmers. You’re not growing excess that’s going to waste,” said Emily Porter, who does marketing for her brother’s 500-acre Porter Farm in Elba. This season they expect to supply 1,000 shares for $390 each to people at 30 assorted drop-off places in Rochester and Buffalo, from downtown office buildings to the front porch of a house in West Seneca where Bryant-Collins drove from East Aurora for her weekly pickup.
While CSAs aren’t for everyone, shareholders tell Porter they like the surprise element and the challenge of finding ways to make something out of whatever was picked fresh for the week’s delivery.
“You don’t get a choice,” Porter said. “All the bags are the same.”
Her family’s farm was one of the first to sell CSA shares, according to family records going back at least 21 years. Since then, local CSAs have developed with creative local permutations.
Refugees from Bhutan grow curly beans and Asian greens, along with classics like tomatoes, in raised beds near the Tri-Main building on Main Street in Buffalo.
East Aurora’s Arden Farms has CSA gift cards for people who want occasional, not weekly, shares. There are $100 scholarships to help families on tight budgets.
That was what Bryant-Collins paid for a CSA share that was otherwise out of reach.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize that it’s out there,” she said.
The single mother of two teen sons, who is studying for a bachelor’s degree in human services, had ruled out getting a CSA because paying up front was too much for her budget. When she saw the grant notice from Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, she applied and decided to apply it to Porter Farms, which takes payments in installments.
Last year, 56 families applied at nofany.org and qualified, with 24 from Buffalo and 32 from Rochester.
“We’re actually looking into expanding,” said Sondra Gjersoe, program coordinator in Farmington for NOFA-NY’s Neighborhood Farm Share Program, which has a May 9 deadline.
“We’re helping the farmers to connect with consumers that wouldn’t necessarily be purchasing CSAs without some assistance,” said Gjersoe. “It’s one of my favorite programs.”
The first CSA in the United States started on a farm in 1987 and was modeled on a cooperative in Switzerland, according to a history that farmer Elizabeth Henderson wrote for the NOFA newsletter.
In 2000, there were 729 listed nationwide at the California-based farm search site LocalHarvest.org. Now records show closer to 6,627.
The Journeys End resettlement program in Buffalo set up its CSA three years ago to help resettled refugees who needed work. They can sell from their own plots and work larger raised CSA beds. After selling 10 shares for $300 last year, they put up 15 this year.
Nari Rai is one of 11 Nepalese refugees from Bhutan who farmed the raised beds on Brewster Street, near the Tri-Main center.
When she came to the city almost five years ago, she didn’t have any farming experience.
When she is not at her job cleaning at a private hospital, she and her dad take the bus or walk 45 minutes to plant and weed at the “Green Shoots for New Americans” greenhouse and plots.
“This year, I’m going to plant spinach,” she said, explaining she cooks it in oil with onions to eat with rice.
Some farms aim to please with small shares and specialties. Porter Farms gives free gift bags to anyone who wants to try one out.
Dirt Rich Farm, in East Aurora, has a salad green focus, along with unusual offerings like tart, yellow “lemon” cucumbers.
Thorpe’s Farm, an older East Aurora operation, sells CSAs and lets people pick their own fruit and vegetables and shop for meat and produce at their Strykersville Road farm stand.
Elba’s Sinemus Farms delivers for pick up to northern Tonawanda and Wheatfield spots and puts its honey in the mix. Wilson Street Urban Farm sells out of its $400 CSAs of vegetables grown near the Broadway Market. Their shares are designed for single people and small families.
Wildwood CSA in Lockport sells out, too, and keeps a running wait list.
“We could stand to have a lot more,” said Amanda Henning, agriculture and food systems educator for Cornell University Cooperative Extension in Niagara County. “People are really interested. They want to know where their food is coming from. They want to know the farms. They’re interested in purchasing local. You pay up front so you don’t have to worry about going to the farmers market every week.
“It’s a great way to try new things.”