Six CSAs are listed in MAFRI’s 2010 Local Produce Guide
So far, 2010 could hardly look less promising for those trying to grow crops, but a few Manitoba flood producers slogging through mud and mosquitoes know they aren’t carrying the risk alone.
They’re among a small but growing number of vegetable farmers running Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms across the province.
Six are listed this year among the U-picks, farmers’ markets and pre-picked market stands included in the 2010 Local Produce Guide released by Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI).
CSA farmers establish a partnership between themselves and consumers or shareholders, who agree to pay a set price to buy a share in the anticipated harvest. The arrangement provides the farmer with cash flow to cover costs of production, and in so doing shares risk.
Community Supported Agriculture is said to be one of the fastest-growing forms of agriculture in North America, and an entry point into agriculture for those wanting to start small.
Kim Shukla and Richard Whitehead operate Stonelane Orchard near Steinbach, a 17-acre farm producing more than 15 types of vegetables plus numerous types of fruits and a wide range of trees and shrubs. This spring they’re beginning a third year operating a CSA with 20 shareholders.
The concept attracted them for various reasons, including the idea of sharing risk with their customers, says Shukla.
Evidently, the idea is catching on with customers too. Last year they had five persons sign up. This year they had to cap it at 20.
“But we could easily have had 40,” says Shukla. They’ve additionally had over 300,000 hits on their website.
She attributes the interest to the public’s desire to connect with what’s on their plates at a deeper level than how it tastes or what it cost.
“It may sound a little strange to some folks, but they want a relationship with their food,” she said.
“We explain to our customers what we do and how we do it and they appreciate that. They like to know who’s been handling their food for them and whether they can trust that person or not.”
Community Supported Agriculture is well established throughout the U. S. and in parts of Canada such as B. C., Ontario and Quebec. In Quebec, for example, CSA operators have created a co-op which has over 100 CSA operators serving 8,500 households.
St. Adolphe organic vegetable grower Dan Wiens is heartened by the modest growth he is seeing in Manitoba.
They’ve seen this sort of come and go over the years, says Wiens who’s beginning his 18th year running a CSA on Wiens Shared Farm near St. Adolphe.
“There was a surge of interest in the 1990s when we got started and there were a number of them,” he says. However, over time most dropped off, discouraged by the heavy workload and low pay.
Yet sticking with it for now nearly two decades, and integrating it with the rest of their farm business, which produces for wholesale and farmers’ markets, the Wiens say they’ve found the CSA to be the farm’s most profitable stream. “We always find when we do our calculations that you get more dollars per unit’s worth from the CSA, than if you’re just growing the food and trying to hawk it somewhere,” he said.
They’ve also never had a problem attracting shareholders. Two hundred signed on that first year back in 1992, says Wiens. They’ve since operated with 40 shareholders per growing season.
A smaller population and limited growing season are two reasons why CSAs haven’t caught on so quickly in Manitoba. But the other reason has been relatively few farmers willing to try it, says Wiens. The demand is there. The supply isn’t.
“There’s lots of customers out there,” he said. “I don’t know that too many of the CSAs have difficulty finding customers.”
Norah Tolmie and Jes Aagaard near Brandon would agree with that. Four years ago the couple moved from B. C. to Manitoba to take over a CSA that had operated in Westman by another family for 15 years. The CSA has had core support from between 18 and 20 shareholders all these years, says Tolmie.
And they are still signing up first-timers this spring.
“We’ve had a ton of new inquiries this year,” she said. They think they might have as many as 40 this year.
Tolmie said with interest as high as it is in locally grown food, the timing has never been better to be starting a CSA.
But even as interest expands, Shukla says she still sees a need to educate people about the real intent of a CSA – sharing risk.
What discouraged previous CSA operators was an uninformed public who didn’t understand why they should have to pay ahead of time, nor appreciate food’s seasonality or weather-related setbacks, she said. That’s still out there to a certain extent, she said. “I think we’re seeing a better blend of people who understand these things a little better now.”
Wiens, meanwhile, is hopeful more will become interested in starting a CSA.
“I see more and more young people interested in doing it,” he said. “They’re thinking about life differently. I’m hopeful that more will get into it and that will drive the growth of it.”
Operating CSAs in Manitoba include the Landless Farmers Collective CSA farm in Winnipeg at the Pan Am Pool site, Boundary Creek Farm CSA farms near Winnipeg Beach, Almost Urban CSA farm near St. Norbert, Blue Lagoon Organics CSA in St. Francois Xavier and Stonelane Orchard, Wiens Shared Farm and Aagaard Farms.