Money was tight for the owners of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont a few springs ago. Owners Mark Guzzi and Marcia Ferry were worried they couldn’t afford the supplies they needed for a successful growing season. So they turned to their longtime customers and offered them a deal — money for discounted vegetables.
Thus, they joined Maine’s rapidly growing CSA community.
CSA, or community-supported agriculture, is an informal program in which customers support farms by buying shares of food. The relationship is beneficial for both sides. The farm receives money early in the season along with a committed customer, and the customer receives a steady flow of local food throughout the summer at a discounted price.
“CSA has become more and more popular,” Guzzi said. “For people who are into local food and want to support local farms, the concept is a very attractive one.”
Today, more than 160 farms are a part of the CSA community in Maine, and together they sell more than 6,500 shares to consumers.
Since 1997, Peacemeal Farm has been setting up shop at the Orono Farmers’ Market, selling a variety of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association-certified organic produce, including peas, beans, greens, herbs, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, melons, onions and garlic. This summer, produce from their 10-acre vegetable garden will be sold at six farmers markets a week.
“I drove by the Orono Farmers’ Market for probably 10 years and never stopped, but once I stopped, I got hooked,” said Anna Perna, of Milford, who has made a point to eat local foods for the past six years.
Perna typically purchases four shares from Peacemeal Farm each year.
“His stuff is beautiful,” Perna said. “It’s just beautiful … I think the first thing I ever bought from his were beet greens. My father, when I was little, he used to pick beet greens when the beets were really tiny. Mark [Guzzi] pulls them when they’ll little baby beets, too, when the greens are more tender.”
Perna tries to buy all of her groceries — meat, cheese, milk, eggs — at farmers markets. Now retired, she also enjoys the social aspect of the markets — talking to people in line, forming relationships with farmers.
“I like to have a face to put with my food,” she said. “I like the idea of a share because I think it helps them. It gives them money up front.”
To find farmers markets in your area, visit getrealmaine.com.
Shares by credit
CSA is a commitment between the farm and customer, and each has a unique way of going about it.
Peacemeal Farm offers a credit-based share, similar to a gift card. For every $100 share, the customer can purchase $110 worth of produce at their farmers’ market booth.
“A lot of people really appreciate the idea of being able to help us start up in the spring,” Guzzi said. “They also like not having to remember to bring cash or a check to the market.”
Sometimes people are fine with just one of his farm shares a season, and sometimes they burn through five shares a season.
Two years ago, a couple purchased 20 shares from the small Dixmont farm.
“I got to borrow $2,000 from these people,” Guzzi said. “If you want to put it in business terms, the interest was in the form of vegetables.”
Guzzi keeps track of shares in a book, deducting value each time the customer makes a purchase. If their share runs out midseason, they can simply purchase another one. They can also carry shares over to the next growing season, according to Peacemeal’s CSA guidelines.
“The biggest part of doing this credit system is doing the bookkeeping,” Guzzi said. “The first year I did it, we had this wicked storm, and I always leave the back of my box truck open a little bit. I was doing the dishes in the kitchen and I saw all these white papers blowing around, right into my neighbor’s yard. And low and behold, they were all my records for CSA. I ran around and I got them all and brought them into the greenhouse and put them on the bench to dry out. I managed to rescue them, but since then, I’ve gotten a lot better at managing my records.”
Shares by the bundle
The most common type of farm share is one in which a customer repays in the spring for weekly bundles of in-season vegetables throughout the season. Each week, a package of vegetables is either delivered to the customer or the customer picks it up at the farm or another predetermined location.
Mark and Linda McBrine of Vine and Branch Farm in Bangor have been selling traditional vegetable farm shares since CSA first blossomed in central Maine a little less than a decade ago. Their weekly deliveries of fresh produce last for a 15-week period, from June-October. But some farms have shorter or longer periods for their shares.
And for the past four years, they have also offered meat shares, a variety of products from their grass-fed cows and lambs and pasture pigs and chickens.
“We don’t like to have all our eggs in one basket,” Mark McBrine said.
For the customers who purchase both vegetable and meat shares, the McBrines correlate the in-season vegetables with the meat they provide. When carrots and potatoes are in the package, they might add some beef and a stew recipe.
For a half share of vegetables (or meat), customers pay $180 and get vegetables with at least a $200 value. A full share costs $330; a family share, $420. But again, different farms have different rates.
The first season someone participates in a CSA is kind of an experiment to determine how many shares are appropriate for them.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s so much cheaper all the time, but the quality you’re getting — you’re getting way more for your money,” said Shayla Larsen of Bangor, who has purchased a full vegetable share from Vine and Branch Farm for the past three years.
When Larsen moved to Maine from Minnesota with her husband and five children, she had just finished reading “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” by Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver and Steven L. Hopp. The book led her to the MOFGA CSA farm directory, where she found Vine and Branch Farm.
“I like getting things I’m not used to eating,” Larsen said. “Then Linda and Mark give us recipes and tell us how to prepare them … I always take my kids to go get the food [at the farm]. Now my kids know where our food comes from, even though we can’t have a huge garden. It has been really good for my family.”
Knowing your food
“I think local food tastes better,” said Janet Spencer of Glenburn, who also purchases farm shares from Vine and Branch Farm. “It has no additives and it’s not sprayed or gassed or anything to be preserved so it’ll last two weeks on a truck.
“You can get eggs that are fresh that day, and they’re different — the shells break easier, they’re fresher tasting, the yokes are more yellow, they’re just different. They’re delicious.”
Not only do farm shareholders typically get a discount, they also usually get dibs on product before other customers.
“During the season, if we have a limited amount of celery because of conditions, then we would make sure the people who buy shares get first priority,” Mark McBrine said. “We figure, if they are willing to take part in our farm and do this, they should be the first to get product.”
Since the McBrine’s first year offering shares, their pool of CSA customers has expanded to be four times as large.
“I think that the people care, and I think it helps the small farms, and it’s not something that’s going away,” Guzzi said. “We see our customer base for local food just continue to grow, and as that’s growing, the growers who are trying to produce the local food are growing in numbers and getting better at it. We are able to grow more and higher quality stuff every year.”
To find a farm participating in CSA near you, visit mofga.net.
Senior farm shares
Seniors who meet certain financial criteria can apply to receive up to $50 worth of local vegetables throughout the summer.
The Maine Senior FarmShare Program began in 2001 as a part of the national Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, also established that year. Last year, nearly 19,000 Maine seniors received free local produce through the program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of the $20.6 million given to state senior farm share programs, Maine received $1 million, the second highest amount of funding given to any state.
“Maine is very unique in the way that we do this,” said Julie Waller, Senior FarmShare Program manager. “Contracts are signed in the spring so we are able to prepay the farmers for the produce they pledge to provide. We use a CSA type model to administer the program. I’m just very proud the way Maine administers the grant. A lot of other states give out coupons that aren’t always used. We are able to utilize the maximum amount of the grant each year.”
Seniors are encouraged to sign up for the program with participating farms before mid-July. To find participating farms, visit getrealmaine.com.