With the sweet smell of his pipe smoke swirling around him, Tom Roberts opens the door on an unheated greenhouse on a sunny winter morning in Pittsfield.
“We’ll have to open this up by 11 [a.m.],” he says. “It’ll get too warm.”
Inside, with the light diffused by opaque walls, the moisture has settled and the smell is organic — wet hay, fresh earth and something a bit more elusive: Could it be spring?
Roberts bends low and checks the spinach, the carrots, the tiny lettuces. He says the produce will be ready for April winter markets. Once he begins harvesting the spinach, in its place he’ll plant cucumbers that will ripen later in the season.
There are six greenhouses at Roberts’ Snakeroot Farm, an organic farm in Pittsfield, and they are full of tiny seedlings — leeks, onions, scallions, herbs.
Roberts markets his produce and perennials three ways: from the farm, at five area farmers markets, and through Community Supported Agriculture partnerships.
Maine farmers are finding CSAs to be a win-win situation: Early in the spring, consumers purchase shares in a farm’s harvest-to-be, providing much-needed cash when the farmer’s pocketbook is leanest. In exchange, consumers get fresh produce, meats, milk and many other products throughout the season.
“This is the tightest time of the year for our cash flow,” Roberts said. “Instead of going to the bank for a loan to get us through until harvest, we go to our customers.”
Last year, Roberts had 60 CSA customers, and 32 already have signed up this spring.
More than 120 farms in Maine offer 5,500 CSA shares, according to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and each is as unique as the community supporting it.
Roberts operates his CSA on a debit system. Consumers purchase $100 shares by the first of April and receive $130 credit. They then either come to his farm or one of the farmers markets that he attends to pick out their vegetables.
“This debit type of CSA is more flexible,” he said. “It integrates better with the farmers markets.”
Other farms provide pre-picked boxes of vegetables that either can be picked up at the farm or delivered by the farmer. Every CSA is different. Some offer only vegetables. Others offer dairy products, cheese, meat and poultry packages, jams and other prepared foods.
“CSAs are fabulous,” Judy Blaisdell, the agriculture promotion coordinator of the Maine Department of Agriculture, said Monday. “They allow purchasers to become a part of the farm experience. Farmers can run their farms more efficiently and consumers can have a partnership with their local farm.”
Blaisdell said a new concept that is sweeping larger, metropolitan area is CSM, or Community Supported Markets. “People buy into the market as an entity and have a debit card that they can then use at any vendor in the individual market,” she said.
The CSA concept has become so popular with consumers and producers that there are spinoffs:
• CSF — Community Supported Fisheries, a cooperative of several coast fisheries under the name of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, that provide shrimp and groundfish at six locations from Unity to Damariscotta.
• CSS — Community Supported Seeds, offered by a Vermont company that provides 10 percent more seeds if shares are purchased before the first of the year.
• CSB — Community Supported Bakery, a venture of Tinder Hearth Wood Fired Bread bakery in Brooksville, which produces up to 600 loaves of bread a week and delivers at three locations.
“The farmer-member relationship is about mutual support, and forges a new way for consumers to be involved in farms and farming,” says Polly Shyka of Village Farm in Freedom. Shyka and Prentice Grassi of Village Farm, along with Tom Griffin of Hope’s Edge Farm in Hope will offer a workshop on CSAs at the Camden Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 31.
Shyka said a growing number of people are seeking locally and sustainably grown vegetables, fruits, meats and dairy. “Consumers who support local farms may be seeking flavor, freshness or higher nutritional content, but they can also tout thrift as well as social and environmental activism as justifications for their commitment,” she said. “Eating locally means eating seasonally, and for many members of CSAs it means tasting a real difference because produce is usually harvested within 24 hours of picking it up.”
CSAs can be found at the Maine Department of Agriculture’s Web site, www.getrealmaine.com. The site also has a full listing of more than 85 farmers markets in Maine.