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Eating Local, Part 4: CSA

An ongoing examination of what it means to “eat local.“  Alysssa profiled local food blogger Scott Koeneman in Part 1 and Part 2 and discussed farmers’ markets in Part 3.

For a Champaign-Urbana resident who is interested in eating local but who is looking to save a little cash, becoming a shareholder of the Prairieland CSA (PCSA) may be a good option.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a system in which consumers receive food directly from the farmers who produce it. The PCSA works with Moore Family Farm in Watseka, IL—a farm that the PCSA hand-selected to be its sole provider.

“Most CSAs in the U.S. are started by farmers; the Prairieland CSA was started by a bunch of members from the Common Ground Food Co-op,” said PCSA coordinator Anna Barnes. “They looked at the size of the town and said, ‘There is no reason why we can’t have a CSA here,’ and then the CSA went looking for a farmer. Usually it is the other way around.”

Starting in 2003, the Moore Family Farm became the fourth farm to supply the PCSA, said farmer Diann Moore.

“The CSA started with one farmer, and then switched to two farmers when the first one stopped farming,” she said. “Then there was competition because one of the farmers was doing a better job… so the CSA had trouble figuring out how to divide the profits. Also, half of the customers were unhappy because they weren’t getting high quality produce.”

The PCSA eventually took a one-year hiatus, but “there was still a core group that wanted a CSA,” Moore said, “so they went searching for a farm family.”

When they began working with the Moores, the PCSA staff members were aware that Jim and Diann’s son, Wes, wanted to farm, Barnes said.

“None of the people I grew up with in Champaign were able to return to their family farms…We thought that if we could put Wes back on the Moore’s farm, it would be an amazing thing…That doesn’t happen every day,” Barnes said. “The fact that we could do that, and that the Moores didn’t have to buy extra equipment and Wes didn’t have to start out in debt, was great.”

The PCSA Board members do the bookkeeping, write checks and newsletters, and handle other business-related tasks for the PCSA, Moore said. 

PSCA shareholders pay $400 per season, which is then divided between the PSCA and the farmers; the PSCA Board receives $15 profit per share, while the Moores make $385.

Since the approximately 155 shareholders in the PCSA pay in advance for a portion of the Moores’ total crop, they often receive produce at prices that are slightly less expensive than farmers’ market prices, the PCSA website explains.

Becoming a PCSA shareholder involves a certain level of risk, Barnes said; if a farmer faces difficult growing conditions or irregular crop growth, for example, it will be evident in each shareholder’s reduced yield. On the other hand, if certain crops are abundant during a growing season, shareholders will see an increase in the amount of produce they receive per week. A typical share during the month of August can be viewed on the PCSA’s website here:

“As close as we are to farmland, we don’t always have great growing seasons,” Barnes said. “We had [a shareholder] quit already because she didn’t understand that this season has been rough…She was concerned that she wasn’t going to get her full value.”

Barnes said that it is impossible to continuously irrigate 30 acres of produce, and that if the area gets a heavy rain, some plants are going to wash out.

“Most people are good about understanding that,” Barnes said. “[The PCSA staff] tries to keep the shareholders informed about what is going on through the newsletters we send out.”

Shareholders can also read “Notes from the Farm” at their PCSA pickup locations to learn what is happening at the farm on any given week, Moore said.

CSA supporters have a certain level of autonomy in how their food is produced with regard to the environment, the PCSA website states; unlike the farmers for many CSAs, however, the Moores do not make their shareholders physically labor on the farm.

“The Moores are very happy to do the work they do…and they couldn’t pay people to work as hard or as fast as they do,” Barnes said. “The few times I have gone up to the farm and attempted to help, I knew that I was just slowing them down.”

Though the Moore Family Farm is not certified organic by USDA standards, the Moores practice sustainable farming methods; the Moores use a large cropping system that relies on crop rotations and other natural methods to break weed and pest cycles, the PCSA website explains. The site also states that these types of systems help protect water supplies from pesticides and silt.

When it comes to their livestock, the Moores will use an antibiotic to save an animal as a last resort, but they won’t send that animal to the slaughterhouse, Barnes said; she noted that “even the Moores, themselves” do not take antibiotics.

“Their whole philosophy is that if you give the animals what nature intended them to have – enough space to live and the foods they are supposed to eat – if you take care of them, they will take care of you…economically and nutritionally,” Barnes said.

CSA supporters have a say in how farm workers are treated as well. 

“[Shareholders] can mandate that farmworkers earn fair wages and have good working conditions,” the PCSA website says, explaining that paying nonliving wages to farmers ultimately hurts the surrounding community. “For example, workers who cannot afford preventative health care often are treated in emergency rooms which cannot turn patients away for inability to pay. This results in higher health care costs for everyone.”

By providing for the PCSA, the Moores have a stable income that is not dependent on their success at local farmers’ markets.

“There are a handful of farmers at the farmers’ market who derive all of their income from farming, but for a lot of them, farming is a secondary occupation,” Barnes said. “It is very different for somebody when everything is on the line. There is no backup…The farm is everything.”

Moore noted that though there has been an increased emphasis on “eating local” in the national media, her family’s farm has not seen an increase in revenue during the last five years. One main reason for this, Moore said, is that people who used to spend their money freely on local agriculture now have fixed incomes. She also attributed her family’s lack of revenue increase to the growth of the Urbana farmers’ market, Market at the Square.

“When we first started selling at the Urbana farmers’ market, the front row was the [entire] market,” she said. “Income-wise, it was better before, because there were fewer vendors. Now the market advertises 160-180 vendors, so those same customer dollars are being shared by more of us.”

But the Champaign-Urbana community’s support for local growers has remained strong since 1988, a factor that has driven traffic to the PCSA.  

The PCSA’s website explains that producing food locally results in a greater percentage of dollars remaining in the local economy; according to an October 2010 report by the Seneca Industrial & Economic Development Corp., on average, a single dollar spent in the local economy will turn over five to seven times.

Next week: Where else to “buy local” in Champaign-Urbana – Common Ground Food Co-op, Strawberry Fields and local restaurant Bacaro

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