One size does not fit all when it comes to community-supported agriculture in Alberta, according to a recent Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development study.
“We talked to 25 different people, and we got 25 different answers on how you do a (community-supported agriculture program),” said project consultant Brenda Frick of Resilient Solutions Consulting.
Community-supported agriculture, or CSA, is a relatively new concept in Alberta, and one that flies in the face of traditional agriculture production, where consumers only enter the picture post-harvest. But CSA customers pay up front and then get a weekly share in the harvest, whatever that might be.
Shared risk is one of the main reasons farmers go this route, said Frick.
“If you’re in a farmers’ market and you get hailed out, you have nothing to take to market,” said Frick. “This way, you’re sharing your risk with your CSA members.”
There are roughly 40 CSA operations in Alberta, and most are single-family farms that grow, clean and package seasonal vegetables for pickup at a delivery hub.
“Making it convenient for your customers is really important,” said Frick. “They’ll stay for the convenience, and they’ll leave if it’s not.”
A CSA share typically costs about $600 for a summer’s worth of assorted fresh vegetables — and a connection to the person who grows them.
“The relationship with the grower is important,” said Frick. And vice versa, says third-generation farmer Dick Pearson.
“When you’re a smaller producer, you really have to look at the personal connection that you make with your customers,” said Pearson, who operates Seeds to Greens (www.seedstogreens.ca) on his mixed farming operation just outside the city limits southeast of Calgary.
Twenty years ago, Pearson and wife Sue began direct marketing from their farm, and in 2011, they tried a CSA program as a pilot pro-ject. And though they started small, running the program hasn’t been an easy undertaking for the couple.
“(Community-supported agriculture) is probably one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my farming career,” he said.
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CSAs typically offer anywhere between 40 to 60 different types of vegetables, herbs and other produce — and mean managing a variety of diseases, pests and input needs. It’s a daunting task for experienced growers but nevertheless, half of the province’s CSA operators don’t have a farming background, which Frick calls an “exciting” trend.
“You don’t have to be a farmer born and raised to be a CSA person,” she said.
That’s the case for Sarah and Edward Preston, a young couple who is starting their CSA program this year. Although neither were raised on a farm, farming is Sarah’s “childhood dream,” said her husband.
“I never thought this is what I’d be doing, but I’m very happy to be starting this,” said Preston, who will be growing a range of vegetables on a small plot at Sarah’s grandparents’ cattle farm, located east of Sherwood Park.
Preston said he is “pretty optimistic” about the business, adding he expects there will be strong customer demand for their produce.
“I feel like it’s an untapped market where we are.”
And the Alberta Agriculture study suggests that Preston’s optimism isn’t unwarranted.
“There may be as many as three times as many potential customers of a CSA as there are real customers,” said Frick.
“There should be plenty of potential out there.”