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CSAs: Choosing the food less traveled 

While popular culture isn't exactly offering up healthy-life-choice alternatives, the past decade or so has seen increased public discussion surrounding our impending dietary doom. Films like Robert Kenner's "Food, Inc." and literature by Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver warn us that, it may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but the end of human health and epicurean freedom as we know them has been in the works for decades, a callous side effect of big business. And all the while, we seem to have been sleeping, or living that American dream where convenience trumps all.

Kenner's "Food, Inc." reveals in shocking detail what the profit-driven corporations behind our current food industry have accomplished while we were not paying attention, and what we sacrificed in the mad pursuit of convenience and seeming abundance. The film describes, among other things, how corn has been subsidized by the government, has inundated our dietary system, is fed to livestock that haven't evolved to digest it, thus causing ailments which are treated with antibiotics, which has led to the mutation of new strains of the E. coli, causing tens of thousands of people to fall ill annually. Those running the system are aware of this, and yet greed drives them onward. An inspiring call for the system to return to public hands concludes the documentary, but upon arriving home, that sense of urgency may have dwindled to a complacent return to the all-powerful convenience of the status quo, even in the face of the newest food-based E. coli outbreak, which sparked the recall of 1 million pounds of beef in August.

Suspended in precarious limbo are our health, economy, community, and some farmers who would love to turn it all around. We have the capacity to change the course we're on, they argue, and for many, that solution is to get involved with local community-supported agriculture.

CSAs embody the partnership between farmers and consumers, often without a middleman like a grocer or distributor. CSA members purchase shares, make payments to the farm in advance, and throughout the season, receive a share of the weekly harvest. In some cases, members are required to work a few hours per week on the farm; in other cases the work-share element takes the place of all or a part of the payment. Farmers are thus able to receive payment upfront and purchase materials without going into debt, and consumers benefit from the convenience of knowing their fresh, local, and often organic produce is paid for, with no built in cost for packaging, marketing, or long-distance travel involved.

Upwards of 30 farms within an hour of Rochester offer various kinds of CSA shares, most commonly in the May-November season, but a number offer winter shares as well. Joining is a simple matter of researching the right fit for you (refer to the sidebars), contacting the farmer, and making a payment. Full CSA shares, which include seven to 10 different items of produce a week - enough to feed a four-person family or two vegetarian adults - and vary greatly in price, but most commonly run between $300-$680 for a season of about 22-26 weeks, meaning that you spend about $12-$31 per week on produce. Some farmers offer a sliding scale, and some offer partial shares to single people. But many single shareholders have expressed that it's not difficult to find a couple of friends to share the share.

The arguments for supporting locally grown and organically produced foods are plentiful, but chief among them is a fresher, more sustainable, healthier product that is good for you and the environment. Belonging to a CSA achieves all of this, plus the discipline of trying something different: you will likely be exposed to vegetables you don't usually consume, or haven't even heard of. There will be challenges in your switch to focusing locally, but there are CSAs that fit every lifestyle and every need, and the best way to tweak a system to perfection is to participate in it.

Erin Bullock of Mud Creek Farm on McMahon Road in Victor is "afraid that food is seen as a cheap commodity compared to other things," she says. Good farming land immediately surrounding the city is taken up with suburbs and development projects, pushing farmers further and further out, the isolation less convenient for everyone. "We need government-level policy to protect good farmland for food," says Bullock, who rents the land she farms on, because she can't pay more than developers who want to claim the suburban territory. The demand for shares is quickly outgrowing what the business can handle - there is a waiting list to join the co-op for next season - and Bullock is looking to hire full-time farmer interns.

Mud Creek supplies full shares to about 150 members, as well as the vegan Ethiopian bistro Natural Oasis on Monroe Avenue. Green-thumbed Bullock has always been passionate about plants, and prior to apprenticing with farmers and then striking out on her own three years ago, she worked as a landscape architect, "growing flowers for rich people," she says, before she decided that putting organic vegetables on peoples' tables was a better use of her talents. She sees herself as a health-care provider, and wants people to consider "the cost of treating long-term disease" when they choose their foods. She also wants residents on development committees to think about "the quality-of-life issue; the value given to a community by keeping a farm here."

The work-share element is not required at Mud Creek, but those who choose to help harvest spend 4.5 hours on the farm per week instead of paying cash for their produce. CSA members pick up their shares at the farm, and also receive unlimited pick-your-own herbs, green beans, cherry tomatoes, and more. Bullock says that the opportunity to be out in the field is "really satisfying for many people," adding that people stay out in the garden even when it's raining. Almost everyone brings kids, she says, and they get to learn about where food comes from. "The computer generation is very separated from the mud," she says. Bullock's dream situation involves enthusiastically appreciated farming communities in closer proximity to urban areas, with shared equipment and an increased social element, like regular potlucks.

Rochester artist Mary Lewandowski partakes of the work-share element at Mud Creek Farm, and says it's a great way to afford organic food (this season's full share cost $575). The benefits of eating what's in season in your region include peak freshness and flavor, and a higher nutritional value, and Lewandowski sees local eating as a natural "combatant against local illness." She splits her share with two people, and even gives some away. "The vegetables are absolutely amazing," says the self-described "food-centric person," citing "chard as big as your torso" as evidence of the bounty. "And it's great to get out of the city for a while; it's beautiful on the farm."

"We took over a failing CSA with 100 members 15 years ago and now have over 900 members," says CSA manager and high-school science teacher Katie Porter. Porter Farms, founded in 1958 by Porter's grandfather, is located about 45 minutes from Rochester in Elba. The farm used to ship wholesale to Chicago and Florida. "We made this decision to start a CSA at our farm to diversify our operation," she says. "The wholesale business is tough, and we liked the idea of keeping our vegetables right here in Western New York."

Porter Farms offers certified organic vegetables, and also just planted raspberries and other berries, as well as an orchard with peaches, pears, and apples, which Porter plans to incorporate into the CSA as they become available. The farm offers only the full share, "which typically is a good size for a family of four," says Porter, and members can pick up their shares at the farm, or at one of the 14 drop-off points in Rochester, which include most suburbs and a few downtown locations. Work share is not required.

"Our CSA could support between 2000 and 3000 members," Porter says. "We supply onions and cabbage to Whole Foods in Boston and Manhattan. We also sell some of our produce to Hawthorne Valley Farm, Tuscarora Organic Growers, Lexington Cooperative Market, and two Feel Rite stores."

Many CSAs require members to sign up before the beginning of a harvest season, but Porter Farms accepts members throughout the summer and prorates the price. It also offers a "guest bag program," where potential members can receive a free one-week share before deciding to sign up for the full season. Members receive a weekly newsletter, which provides farm news, reports what can be found in the share that week, and includes a recipe for something included in the share.

At 22 years old, GVOCSA (Genesee Valley Organic Community Supported Agriculture) is the oldest CSA in this area, says Elizabeth Henderson, retired co-founder of Peacework Farm, a 30-year veteran of organic farming. Henderson began the Peacework in Newark in 1998 with Greg Palmer, and was joined by Ammie Chickering in 2000. "We started the GVOCSA back in 1988-89 because we could see that organic vegetables from far away would eventually undersell locally grown crops, and we wanted to connect with local, loyal customers who value fresh food from a local farm."

Peacework Farm supplies certified organic (by Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York) vegetables and herbs to its roughly 300 member households, and also to Abundance Cooperative Market, where the CSA pick up is located. The farm grows 70 different crops and close to 250 varieties, including all the usual popular vegetables as well as some "less-well-known, like mizuna, tat soi, and rutabagas," Henderson says, and both full and partial shares are offered. "Many of the families that belong to GVOCSA have been with us over a decade, some as long as 21 years. There is a wonderful feeling of community."

Henderson shed some light on the community-connecting importance of joining a CSA. Members agree to "share the risk" with their farmers, taking less if the season is bad and more if the season is good. That provides the farmers with a steady income, helping to preserve local farming and farm land. "When you make the commitment to provide a certain number of crops a week for a certain number of weeks, you are making a big promise, and sometimes it is nerve wracking. But the rewards of growing food you are proud of for people you get to know is tremendously satisfying," Henderson says. "When you know your customers, you really want to do the best job you can. The best guarantee of food safety is the fact that family-scale farmers are also eating the food they sell. They are not likely to take shortcuts that will make their family and neighbors sick."

Every member of GVOCSA is required to commit either two or three four-hour harvest sessions per season at the farm (depending on the size of their share) and two two-and-a-half hour distribution sessions at the Abundance Coop, or become an even more hands-on member of the core group that administers the project.

You might wonder how farmers manage to find the time to grow and coordinate CSAs, farm stands, and provide food to the various venues they need to in order to get by. One local former farmer and sustainability enthusiast may have found a viable solution. Chris Hartman is founder and manager of the mega-CSA Good Food Collective, which partners with 10 regional farms, including Mud Creek in Victor, ranging from about 16 miles to about 55 miles outside of Rochester, and GFC delivers shares from those participating farms to various locations in Rochester. Hartman says that the idea for GFC was born out of his work with the South Wedge Farmers Market and the small sustainable farmers that have been part of that venture. He aims to figure out how those farms can connect more people with access to local, organic foods.

"It's a bit daunting for a lot of farmers to imagine growing 40 different crops and supplying to families," Hartman says. But "multi-farm" CSAs allow farmers to pick three to six different crops that work well with a farm, its soils, its personality, and its infrastructure and focus growing those crops in volume, and then work collaboratively with other farmers to put together everything that goes into a CSA, he says. "This allows the share-buyers more consistent diversity in food, and more confidence in the consistency in what's going to be grown and how much members will get," he says.

Good Food Collective distributes not only at the South Wedge market, which is open to anyone who would like to join, but also to CSAs offered through employee-wellness initiatives at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Rochester Institute of Technology. This "allows us to scale up and connect with people who wouldn't be part of a traditional CSA," Hartman says, and convenience is added by creating a pick-up site at the workplace, out of his big green distribution truck. GFC also offers CSA through Breathe Yoga in Pittsford, but without the truck. Hartman is working on a downtown location for next season.

Hartman co-founded the South Wedge market, which takes place Thursday nights through October behind Boulder Coffee on Alexander Street, with his wife, Vicki, after the couple moved to Rochester a few years ago. "It's important to recognize that [farmer's markets] are a limited component of a food system; ultimately, it's a pretty inefficient way to bring food into the community," Hartman says. The "challenge with farmer's markets is they never know how much they're going to sell; it's always hit or miss. And the worst thing is to have harvested all of this food and then not to have sold it at the market, and to haul it back to the farm, likely to rot and not be used or just be composted."

"The beautiful thing about the CSA is that all of the food is sold ahead of time," Hartman says. "People often talk about the CSA as bringing the consumer and the farmer onto the same side of the fence. [...] Many of our farmers sell twice as much through the CSA than they do at any given market."

Good Food Collective was in the process of writing articles of incorporation for non-for-profit status, planning for the business to run neighborhood-based farmer's markets, and intending to build up the system of sustainability. But somewhere in that process, Hartman says, "we realized what we don't need, in my opinion, is more not-for-profits trying to support and facilitate an economy around local food. We need new businesses and new business models being this economy around local food."

So Hartman shifted the enterprise to become Head Water Foods, Inc., a "social entrepreneurial endeavor to try and build an economy around local sustainable agriculture here in Rochester," Hartman says. Good Food Collective is a project of Head Water Foods and its 10 partnering farms. The next step, he says, is "developing the necessary infrastructure that has to go along with food system: storing, distribution, and processing that would allow for a year-round supply chain of local sustainable food."

GFC currently offers full summer shares only, and is putting together a winter CSA project that would have four distributions, once a month from December through March, and would include storage crops like root vegetables, some fresh products that can be grown and harvested in greenhouses throughout the year, and also frozen and preserved products grown during the summer in this region. This year, GFC will be piloting frozen product from Winter Sun Farms in the Hudson Valley, to see if this market digs it. If so, next year it would invest in its own winter-processing facilities to continue to offer the same share with locally based products.

The business is also starting to look at "wholesale relationships with institutions, restaurants, and stores, figuring out how we can start to build the infrastructure necessary to create an affordable, consistent, reliable supply of good, local food year round to all of those entities," Hartman says. He wants to get local colleges interested in sourcing foods locally. He would like for Head Water Foods to ultimately have a vertical model: own fertile soil, have farmers be a cooperative part of the company, run the Good Food Collective CSA, whole food processing and distribution, and maybe even a restaurant, Hartman says.

On competing with the convenient lure of the supermarket, Hartman points out the "indirect health benefits of supporting a food system that does not contribute significantly to air pollution, soil pollution, water pollution, soil erosion...and the unbelievable amount of garbage associated with packaging and distribution. Many people grumble and scratch their head and are embarrassed and disappointed at the system we've created as a country," says Hartman. "There are things you can do about that, there are alternatives that exist, and it's my opinion that it's our responsibility to seek out and support those alternatives and help them grow."

Regional CSAs

Andy's Specialty Garlic and Produce

2012 Parker Rd, Newark

Andy Papineau, 315-331-2737 |

Black Creek Farm

620 Morgan Rd, Scottsville

CP Knerr, 889-0986

Chicken Thistle Farm

2039 Barnes Rd, Walworth

Andy & Kelli Prior, 315-333-0009 |

The Dieter Farm

3423 Plank Rd/Rt. 15A, Livonia

Phil Dieter, 582-2437 |

Donovan Orchards, LLC

302 Beresford Rd, Rochester

Scott Donovan, 944-8824 |

East Hill Farm

1445 Upper Hill Rd, Middlesex

Rochester Folk Art Guild, 554-3539 |

Fellenz Family Farm

1919 Lester Rd, Phelps

Andy & Jan Fellenz, 315-548-6228 |

Fiacres Garden Microfarm

364 Merchants Rd

Chris Phillips, 288-1073

Firefly Farm

5910 Smith Rd, Canandaigua

Sharon Nagle & John Caraluzzo, 394-1039, 704-6297, 704-0894 |

Fraser's Garlic Farm

1379 Johnson Rd, Churchville

Ed Fraser, 350-8295 |

G and S Orchards and CSA

825 Atlantic Avenue (Route 286), Walworth

Gary Craft, 315-524-3823 |

GoldMar Farm

3423 Plank Rd, Livonia

Lisa Golden, 415-6248 |

Good Food Collective

Chris Hartman |

GRUB: Greater Rochester Urban Bounty (the Vineyard)

126 Sander Street, Rochester

Administered by the North East Block Club Alliance, 544-0140

Kindred Ground Farm

2393 Pole Bridge Rd, Avon

Tammy Anderson, 703-3800

Kyle Farms All Natural Lamb

3872 Hogmire Rd, Avon

Anne Dewar, 568-7817 |

Maxwell Creek Farm

7004 North Rd, Sodus

Kim & Marty Molisani, 315-483-4745 |

Mud Creek Farm

1154 McMahon Rd, Victor

Erin Bullock, 455-1260 |

Peacework Organic Farm

2231 Welcher Rd, Newark

Elizabeth Henderson & Ammie Chickering, 315-398-4007 |

Porter Farms

4914 Edgerton Rd, Elba

Mike Porter, 757-6823 |

Phillips Organic Farm

9191 Roanoke Rd, Stafford

Donna Phillips, 343-6980 |

Rose in Bloom Farm

1919 Honeoye Falls Rd., Honeoye Falls

Sharon Rosenblum, 624-9204 |

Shimmering Light Community Garden

6141 Hicks Rd, Naples

Deb Denome, 394-7610 |

Smoke Ridge Organics

3804 County Road 40, Bloomfield

Lindsay Kuhn, 229-7424 |

Windy Meadows Farm CSA

900 Kuttruff Rd, West Walworth

Brenda & Tom Welker, 315-986-0968 |

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