Farm-fresh eggs are a Rattle’s Garden staple.

 

A CONVENIENT WAY TO SUPPORT LOCAL

Community Supported Agriculture programs are an easy—and excellent—way to connect with Arkansas growers

By: Michael Roberts   Photography: Rett Peek/Brian Chilson/Jess Miller-Roberts/Beth Hall

Farming is seasonal. Expenses are not. For the small farmer, these two facts can make the winter months a struggle when land is not producing but the light bill still needs to be paid. For some, the answer is the creation of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. CSAs are subscription-based programs in which members pay up front for a share of a farm’s future crops, which are then boxed up during the growing season and delivered for pickup from the farm or from set distribution points. These pre-sold subscriptions are often a godsend to the farmer, allowing them to expand their cash flow during the lean months. 

The benefits of CSA programs don’t just fall in favor of farmers, of course. For consumers, joining a local CSA is a convenient way to experience all the wonderful things grown in Arkansas without having to worry about shopping. The farmer takes care of the hard work of harvesting and selecting the best and freshest produce available, resulting in a wonderful grab bag of diverse vegetables ready to cook, can or freeze. For people who don’t have time to make a weekly trip to the farmers market, a weekly CSA box can be a low-hassle way of supporting local growers—not to mention an excellent way to experience new fruits and vegetables all in one tidy package.

Kelly Carney sells his wares at SOMA’s Bernice Garden Farmers Market (left). Seasonal vegetables are part of every CSA basket (right). 

CSA programs operate under two models—a farmer-owned model in which one specific farmer collects all the money and provides all the crops shared in each box and a shareholder model, where an organizing body collects money from subscribers and uses it to source crops from multiple farms. Each of these models has benefits and drawbacks, but both are important parts of increasing the connections between the people who grow the food we eat and consumers.  

“You have to be a sort of delayed gratification junkie,” says Kelly Carney of North Pulaski Farms in Cabot. Carney has been running his farmer-owned CSA program for three years, beginning with a group of 30 subscribers that has steadily grown to what he hopes will be 75 shares in 2015. Carney sees this delayed gratification between the purchase of a CSA share and the first boxes as a way of providing insight into what the farming life is all about, and he points to a line of stacked logs to make his point. 

“We are inoculating 600 logs right now with shitake spores,” he says, detailing the way in which logs are bored, packed with spore-containing sawdust and sealed with beeswax. “I won’t get any mushrooms from these logs until next year, but it’s something I can point to for my members to show them what their money goes to do.” 

Carney hopes that by reinvesting the money his subscribers spend into new crops like mushrooms, each of his CSA members will remain as excited about the things happening at North Pulaski as he is. And because every dollar from his program goes directly to him, it is very easy to find out just where that money is being spent, whether it’s new “skin” coverings for his high tunnels or new equipment that allows better no-till planting in his open field. 

“It made me try new things,” says North Pulaski Farms CSA member Sarah McCabe, who cites eggplant fries as one of the inventive things she tried that even her kids enjoyed. 

For McCabe, the allure of fresh food was so much that she is now cultivating her own home garden, inspired by the fresh bounty she received in her weekly boxes from Carney’s farm. 

For Tara Stainton of Rattle’s Garden in Vilonia, the term “CSA” wasn’t specific enough for what she hopes to convey with her own farmer-owned program. For Stainton, the emphasis of her program is on her farm, and she wants each of her subscribers to feel like partners in the Rattle’s Garden enterprise. She doesn’t refer to her subscribers as such, preferring to use the term “tribe.” For Stainton, her tribe consists of people who need the food she grows as much as she needs the money they spend—and together, the quality of life for her entire tribe gets better with cooperation. 

“Coming to the farm makes it feel more real to them.”

—Tara Stainton, Rattle’s Garden

To illustrate this, she points to her retention numbers: For members who picked up their farmshare boxes directly from the farm, retention was almost 100 percent, while retention for her city pickup members was only around 50 percent. “Coming to the farm makes it feel more real to them,” says Stainton, and walking among her flock of Araucanas and Barred Rock chickens, it’s not hard to see the truth in what she says. 

The chickens at Rattle’s add another level to the CSA model that people have responded to with gusto: eggs. In the past, Rattle’s sold eggs at farmers markets like the one in Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood as well as wholesale clients like Mylo Coffee Co., but with the start of her farmshare program this year, Stainton has decided to do something different: Offer an “eggshare” supplement to her regular CSA so that her subscribers who want fresh eggs can pick them up with their vegetables. 

“We’ve always had eggs available for purchase at the farm,” Stainton says. “But sometimes people would forget they needed them, or wouldn’t have cash on them. By paying up front, they never have to worry about that—it just becomes part of their regular pickup.” Being a farmer-owned CSA allows Rattle’s to make those sorts of changes and decisions quickly in response to customer demand, a flexibility that pays attention to just what subscribers want. 

On the other side of the CSA model is Foodshed Farms, a co-op CSA model that works with nonprofit Heifer USA to bring food from areas of the Arkansas Delta urban areas to broaden the customer base for farmers in underserved parts of the state. Unlike the farmer-owned CSA programs, Foodshed Farms does not focus on individual subscribers, but rather a model for businesses that allows coworkers in an office setting to form their own CSA groups. Heifer has used the Foodshed Farms model as part of their own company wellness program as a test project to refine the operation.

Rattles Garden’s Tara Stainton (right) splits time between chickens and fresh produce like cherry tomatoes (left).

To study the changes that the Foodshed CSA had on the lifestyles of Heifer employees, the nonprofit coordinated with Angela Toomer, a student at the Clinton School of Public Service. Toomer conducted a year-long research project to track things like daily servings of fruits and vegetables, number of meals cooked at home per week, and changes in BMI and cholesterol levels. This project is one of the first of its kind. 

While Toomer’s research did not show any statistical change in the BMI levels of CSA participants, the number of daily fruit and vegetable servings increased dramatically, as did the number of meals cooked at home by CSA participants. In addition, participants stated that having fresh, local produce inspired them to try new recipes and cook with family and friends—an added benefit that really emphasizes the “community” aspect of Community Supported Agriculture. 

For people dealing with busy schedules, CSAs are a perfect way to introduce local produce into a diet without having to travel and shop at the local farmers market. For people who make the farmers market a weekly ritual, the CSA is still beneficial for those days when weather does not permit convenient shopping—or just as a way to supplement the items bought at local markets. Farmer-owned programs allow consumers to directly support the farmers of their choosing, while the co-op model brings a diverse selection of crops into one spot for easy distribution. No matter the needs of the consumer, there is a CSA program out there that is sure to be a good fit.