April 2, 2009

Community Supported Agriculture is blooming in Kentucky. With its mix of farms and metropolitan areas, Kentucky has a near-perfect environment for the local foods system of production and distribution, said Mark Keating, a lecturer in sustainable agriculture in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

Community Supported Agriculture is a subscription-based program where consumers buy "shares" in a farm's output. This entitles them to season-long regular deliveries of freshly harvested produce or other farm products, such as meat or dairy products. The CSA concept arrived in this country in 1984 from Switzerland, where close relationships between consumers and farmers had thrived since the 1960s. By 1986, the first harvest shares in the United States were delivered to consumers in New England.

In Kentucky, the idea took off about five years ago. The first CSAs were built around organic production systems, which typically were done on a small scale in those early years. Though there were consumers in the state willing to pay a good price for organic goods, they were spread out geographically, making distribution a challenge. CSAs, often with a central distribution point where consumers pick up their weekly allotments, offered a solution to the problem.

As the trend grew, it became apparent that the best markets tended to be in the larger urban areas.

"CSAs are not going to work in every community," said Tim Woods, UK agricultural economics professor. "You tend to see these CSA networks clustered around Lexington, Louisville, northern Kentucky, Bowling Green, places where you're going to have typically higher-income folks who are frequent patrons of the natural foods stores."

Every year sees a new crop of CSAs springing up. Currently, approximately 35 CSAs operate in Kentucky.

"Surprisingly, even as more and more of these folks move into the CSA model, they haven't hit the ceiling yet," Woods said. "That's what's really surprised me. I was thinking, what's the cap? Does this kind of a business model get to a point and plateau?"

The answer is yet to be seen, as interest in local foods continues to blossom. Keating and Woods believe the current growth is attributable to a number of things, not the least of which is the relationship that grows between the farmer and the customer.

"It's such a personal thing, and yet it's such a communal thing," Keating said. "The degree to which customers will support their farmer and the length they will go to support the farmer is really exceptional."

The CSA model is one that constantly changes and evolves to meet consumer needs. More and more small producers are getting into the system, focusing on niche markets. Erik Walles' Berries on Bryan Station in Lexington is a prime example. Walles' weekly baskets are filled with standard produce such as lettuce and greens, but he's added berries to the batch. And without the need for long-distance transport, his berries differ from grocery store berries, because he can select varieties for taste, not transportability.

On the other end of the scale is a larger CSA model operating out of Louisville. Formed by four farmers, Grasshoppers Distribution, whose motto is "Making the leap to local foods," gathers fresh products from 90 farmers in 27 counties for distribution to restaurants and groceries. Grasshoppers expanded into the CSA market last summer, supplying 80 customers with a wide variety of items from 10 area farms. Grasshoppers General Manager Jim Earley said, due to the interest they've seen in the program, their current target is 365 members, with 30 participating farms.

"It seemed apparent to the company's creators that in order to build this local food economy that so many people want to see happen in Kentucky, and in Louisville specifically, there had to be some kind of marketing entity," said Jim Earley, Grasshoppers' general manager. "So, Grasshoppers basically finds creative ways to get small farmers' products to market."

The difference between Grasshoppers' CSA model and that of a single farm CSA is the variety they can offer to their consumers.

"We offer a pretty large menu of different kinds of shares. We have the basic CSA produce share, which is what most people start with. And then we also have about 13 other different kinds of shares. We offer goat cheese, cow cheese, milk, lamb, chicken, beef, pork, fish. We also do a few other things that aren't done too often. We offer a payment plan to customers to make it a little more affordable, so we let people break it up into three payments over six months."

A big component of what Grasshoppers focuses on is teaching people that there's a trade-off between the cost of the food they're used to and quality.

"There's a reason you're getting it so cheap (in the groceries)," Earley said. "(Food from a CSA) is great, wonderful, healthy food grown for taste and nutritional properties, not grown for a 2,000-mile truck ride for two weeks to sit on the shelf and still look pretty."

The idea of a sustainable food system is on the minds of many people these days and, for some, the CSA model is a perfect fit.

"It's not just environmental. You're keeping your money in your community and in your state," Earley said. "The whole global food economy didn't work out the way people thought it would. We're hearing from a lot of people that that's one of the reasons they're so interested in this; they're interested in supporting their own economies."

It's yet to be seen how the current economy will affect the future of CSAs, but Woods and Keating feel positive about the future of a locally-based food system.

"There's been nothing but growth in the market for as long as I've been involved," Keating said. "Some of that growth has been inflated by the fluff of highly processed and heavily marketed products. I expect that's going to come to an end real quick. But I think the core consumer sees the value in it and definitely will make the adjustments that they have to make."

If the CSA base keeps expanding, potentially even into businesses offering health and wellness program options to their employees, Woods believes the effect on Kentucky's agricultural economy would be "explosive," creating massive opportunities for area producers who are looking to have a steady market and get a decent price for their products.

"I think the potential is enormous," he said. "So I'm looking very closely to see what happens with CSA subscription activity this next year."