The Issue: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations/farms are literally “growing” in Iowa. The state has doubled its count from 50 CSAs in 2006, to 100 that are listed in 2017. These farms are obviously able to stay in business because of a growing market for their produce and other offerings, and more entities are starting to support and offer help to these small-scale farmers, by doing reports and offering learning opportunities to help them figure out how to be successful.
The Impact: When CSAs are successful, the local community benefits. Fresh produce and other foods mean healthier eating options, which is important in today’s world, where we are fighting an obesity epidemic. It’s also important to health in general, as many CSAs utilize growing practices that keep the food safe from many potentially harmful chemicals.
Greg Glass, a 1986 Nevada High School graduate, now living in Salisbury, Md., said he and his wife, Shelly, have reaped the value of participating in several CSAs during the past seven to eight years.
“I think we first learned of CSAs from friends at church, who were members (of a CSA) … It wasn’t a concept I was familiar with until that time,” he said.
A CSA, according to information provided by a local CSA owner, asks members to pay the cost of a “share” upfront. The money provided helps fund the farmers to purchase seed, plants, equipment, etc., before the start of the season. In return, the payment provides members with a weekly or bi-weekly share of the produce. The farmer does his or her best to supply members with a variety of fresh, locally grown, seasonal produce. However, members take a risk of crop failure, meaning there is no guarantee of the exact amount, size or type of produce they will receive.
Glass said he and his wife love cooking with and enjoying fresh produce that is in season, and they’ve learned about a few things they’d never heard of before.
“Mostly, we get things we recognize and know how to cook, but we have gotten things that we weren’t familiar with, like celeriac, which we boiled and mashed with some potatoes, and just last week, some sorrel, which is a tart green that tastes sort of like a green apple. We haven’t figured out what to do with it other than slicing it up and putting it into salads,” he said.
For the most part, they get things that are in season through their CSA membership. They’ve enjoyed greens and radishes in the spring, strawberries, peaches, corn, tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers in the summer; and potatoes, winter squash, carrots, turnips and more greens and radishes in the fall.
“Most of the CSAs I’m familiar with are summer/fall only,” Glass said. But they felt lucky to find one that had winter/spring shares too, and they’ve used it this past winter to enjoy “particularly good produce.”
One of Story County’s CSAs, Lee’s Greens, located between Nevada and Colo along Lincoln Highway, is, said owners Rose Shick and Lee Matteson, one of the only CSAs in the area to offer a winter share program, because of their heated greenhouses.
While a lot of CSAs have signups for memberships at the start of the growing season, Lee’s Greens offers the opportunity for people to sign up at any time of the year for any of its growing seasons. “We pro-rate any weeks (in that season that are) missed,” Shick said.
Matteson and Shick are two Iowa State University horticulture alums, who have over 20 years of greenhouse and specialty crop experience between them. Their farm operates on three acres, one acre holding their large heated greenhouses.
“Our main focus is growing produce in raised soil beds in heated greenhouses, and fruits and vegetables on the remaining two acres,” Shick said.
In the greenhouses, Lee’s Greens grows tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, summer squash, lettuce, kale, spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, salad turnips, radishes, microgreens, herbs, eggplant and peppers. From its fruit fields, they harvest rhubarb, strawberries, black raspberries, red raspberries and blackberries. From their vegetable gardens, they have cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, beets, green beans, sweet corn, carrots, onions, garlic, watermelon, cantaloupe, potatoes, sweet potatoes and several kinds of squash.
In a press release he sent out earlier this year, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey encouraged Iowans to consider joining a local Community Supported Agriculture program.
“CSAs are a great opportunity to partner with a farmer and share in the harvest of fresh, nutritious, locally grown fruits and vegetables,” Northey said.
The release from Iowa’s ag secretary said Iowa has seen significant growth in the number of CSAs that are available across the state, from 50 in 2006 to more than 80 in 2016.
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Local Foods Program released a 2017 listing of CSAs at the beginning of March. Their directory included 100 farms across the state that operate as CSAs. That directory can be found online at: www.extension.iastate.edu/localfoods/iowa-csa-directory.
In Story County, the directory listed the following farm operations:
• Berry Patch Farm, Nevada
• Elizabella Flower Farm, Nevada and Ames
• Farm to Folk, Story City
• Heritage Hill Farm, Kelley
• ISU Student Organic Farm, Ames
• Lacewing Acres, Ames
• Lee’s Greens, Nevada
• Trinity Farms, Nevada
Trinity Farms is owned by the Steve Cassabaum family and is located south of Nevada. Cassabaum said they raise pastured pork, lamb, beef and occasionally goats. They have been busy since starting the farm five years ago, converting cropland to pasture with the hopes of raising their own protein sources, including nuts from the trees, and their animals.
“We also wanted to raise the animals in the most sustainable and natural way possible without the use of antibiotics, chemicals or GMO food sources,” Cassabaum said.
Trinity Farms has been offering a CSA membership program for three years, with members receiving delivery of 10 to 20 pounds of meat each month for six months during the fall and winter.
For most CSAs, summer, which is about to hit, is the biggest time for their farms in terms of profit. In a study that was released by Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), where they looked at the financial success of CSAs, they reported that the summer CSA had the largest volume of sales, and was the largest market for six of the 12 farms they studied.
“The percent of their total sales in summer CSA ranged from 43 percent to 88 percent, which a six-farm average of 68 percent,” reported Liz Kolbe, PFI’s horticulture coordinator.
The PFI study can be a tool for new or experienced vegetable farmers in considering farm profitability. The report is available at practicalfarmers.org/whole-farm-financial-project-year-2.
Glass said no matter what the cost, he believes in the value of buying through a CSA program.
“There are several things we like about CSA produce. We get to talk to the farmer each week when we pick up the goods, so we feel like we know where our produce is coming from and how it was grown,” he said.
They also like supporting local businesses, and are OK in taking on a little risk in doing that. “If it’s a terrible growing season, the farmer still gets paid, and we just get less produce. If it’s a great growing season, we get to benefit along with the farmer,” he said.
Shick and Matteson would agree with Glass’s assessment. “You can know the farmers that grow your produce and you can visit the farm where it’s growing,” Shick said. “We feed our families with the same produce we put into the share boxes. We love to eat and try new recipes with what we grow.”