In 1986, Brookfield Farm on Hulst Road in Amherst became only the third CSA farm in the country. CSA stands for community supported agriculture. The way it works is that members of the CSA pay for a share of a farm’s produce up front in the spring, then receive crops as they come in from June to November.
Winter shares of storage crops such as potatoes are also available. The farmer gets working capital; the share owners get super-fresh local produce, and the local community benefits because agricultural land is kept in useful — and scenic — production.
Today the CSA concept flourishes in both its original and new forms.
Brookfield farms has over 500 shareholders for whom it grows 50 crops on 30 acres of land. Its success has helped inspire several other local CSA farms. But while these and other farms produce an enormous variety of vegetables, pretty much the rest of our other food still comes from far afield: meat, fish and baking supplies are a few examples.
Increasingly, though, enterprising food producers have been turning to the CSA model to distribute their products. Now it’s possible to get fish, meat and grains on the share system, thus providing the protein element essential to the human diet. Locavores — people committed to eating local and regional foods — can find lots of food grown right here in the Valley or within the hundred-mile radius that most locavores define as the range of regional fare.
Since we live many miles from the ocean, fish seems one of the more unlikely candidates for the share system. Since 2011 Cape Cod Fish Share has been ferrying fresh fish from Chatham to its 400 members located in towns throughout the state, including Amherst and Northampton.
Here’s how it works: Members sign up for 5-week shares so the amount of fish is predetermined, and the fishermen have a guaranteed market. The fish bypasses the usual auction process, and can be sped westwards faster and fresher.
Share members get two kinds of fish each week. Since many fish are seasonal, says Ed Struzziero, one of the founders and a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate, “We choose a species mix that takes advantage of what’s available. We had northern shrimp for a few weeks in spring, Nantucket Bay scallops in late fall, striped bass and bluefish in the summer, and so on. We balance mild fish with more exotic species, all caught using sustainable fishing practices.”
While old favorites such as cod, haddock and swordfish often appear in members’ shares, Struzziero notes that, “For many members, the share has introduced new treats: monkfish, skate, hake and redfish among others.”
The quality is startling, too.
“People are blown away at how tender swordfish and tuna steaks are when fresh,” Struzziero said.
He describes the share system as a “win-win situation.” The large orders the CSA places for less common species remove the economic risk for the boats to fish and land anything other than the “greatest hits” that are found elsewhere, he said.
“When we place our order, the purchase has happened. Our customers have trusted us to provide their fish, and the boats in turn have trusted us to take possession.”
As for ways to cook the fish, the weekly newsletter announcing what’s in the next share includes several recipes.
In Amherst, the Cape Cod Fish Share van delivers to share-holders at Wheatberry Bakery & Cafe at 321 Main St. Saturdays from to 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The van often arrives with extra scallops and sometimes fish for sale to non-members.
“Best to come early,” Struzziero advises nonmembers hoping to buy. They also have brochures or can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While picking up fish, members often stroll into Wheatberry, where they will see a display of gallon jars filled with grains and beans and dried corn.
Wheatberry owners Ben and Adrie Lester graduated from culinary school, and are enthusiastic members of a CSA farm and committed to eating local foods. As bakers they wondered if they could buy locally grown grains. Most local farmers told them they could not; grains don’t grow in our soil and climate, they told the Lesters.
Undeterred, the couple rented land and sowed wheat and other grains — and they thrived. They also discovered that some local growers were experimenting with the grains that aren’t supposed to grow round here, including rice.
“Now there’s 18,000 pounds of locally produced grains,” Ben Lester said. “It’s not a lot in one sense, but considering that there were no grains here at all 5 years ago, it’s terrific.”
Working with local growers, Wheatberry now offers a grain CSA, which provides its members with about 115 pounds of 10 to 12 organically grown grains, including wheat, barley, emmer, spelt, a couple of sorts of corn, black beans and more. (A half share is also available.)
“To most people nowadays grain means flour, and so we have a self-service mill where members can grind their share into flour if they like,” Lester said. “But we also emphasize cooking grains whole and serving them as you would rice, or topping them with a pasta sauce.”
Since grains are harvested once a year, there is only one share delivery, so share owners don’t have to pick up every week: “An easier commitment than the weekly pickups at many other CSAs,” Lester said.
Fifty of Wheatberry’s 167 grain CSA members live in the Boston area, while others come from Maine and New York.
“We didn’t advertise,” he said. “They found our website on the Internet when they were looking for a source of organic whole grains.”
For information, visit www.wheatberry.org.
Meat, too, is being produced by the CSA system. For several years Jeremy Barker-Plotkin has been growing a myriad of popular vegetables, including heirloom varieties of tomatoes and potatoes, at Simple Gifts Farm on North Pleasant Street in Amherst. Now the farm has started raising pigs, so as well as offering vegetable shares it also has pork shares. A typical share provides five pounds of pork every month for four months or a single delivery of 20 pounds. The pork comes in various forms: sausage, hot dogs, bacon, chops and ribs.
“A 20-pound box of pork stores more easily in the freezer part of a fridge than most people think,” Barker-Plotkin said.
Barker-Plotkin’s pigs are reared on organic grain and the natural foods they find as they snuffle the pasture.
“We are supposed to eat vegetables and exercise,” he points out, “So it makes sense to eat meat from animals that have also eaten vegetables and exercised.”
The supply of pork is continuous, so one can buy a pork share at any time.
For information, visit www.simplegiftsfarmcsa.com.
Like several other CSAs Simple Gifts raises chickens for purchase by members. In addition, our area now has at least 10 farms specializing in meat shares. Among the newest is Valley Fresh Meat, which offers chicken, beef, pork, turkey and goat meat raised by Hadley neighbors Sunnybrook Farm and Copperhead Farm.
Dee Scanlon of Copperhead Farm began raising chickens five years ago to provide her three children with better eggs and meat. Today she also raises goats and turkeys, while the Boisverts at Sunnybrook raise pigs, beef and chickens.
Both farms give their animals plenty of outdoor pasture so they can ramble and hunt for nature’s treats, and all the grain or hay used for supplemental feeding is free of hormones and antibiotics. Teaming together to form a CSA that could offer a variety of different kinds of meat seemed a good idea.
“Shares are available throughout the year; there’s no sign-up period. And we’ve designed the shares to take account of different needs and families,” Scanlon said. “You could get a share that gives you enough meat for the year, or you could do one that gives you enough for a month.”
The pickup point is the North Hadley Sugar Shack on River Drive in Hadley, which also stocks the meat for purchase by customers who do not belong to the CSA.
Shares typically include a variety of meats the farms produce — and that includes goat, which has not traditionally been part of the mainstream American diet. Scanlon says the goat meat is popular with customers who are immigrants, and others are beginning to try it.
“Really, you can cook it like you’d cook beef: use it ground in sauces or barbecue or slow-roast the bigger pieces. The ribs are delicious,” she said.
Committed to producing healthful food, she notes, “Farm fresh is not as outrageously expensive as a lot of people think and the food is local and really good for you.”
For more information about this meat CSA, visit www.valleyfreshmeat.com. For information on the many CSAs now operating in our area, visit the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) website buylocalfood.org. Go to the heading Buy Local and from there Find Local and then to CSA Farm Listing, which provides a complete listing.