Matthew Scease of Hallowell is the kind of guy who likes to support local farmers. But when his wife suggested that they spend $75 to receive a half box of Maine heritage apples twice a month, he thought that things had gone too far.
“It seemed a little crazy at first. It seemed a little too precious, and a little too foodie,” he said. “I was like, do we really need this?”
However, a few weeks into the autumn-only program from Palermo-based Out on a Limb CSA, as he has munched on apples such as the “golden, crunchy and pear-like” St. Edmund russet, he admitted he was hooked.
“When we got the first couple of bags, I just loved it. I loved the funky old varieties,” Scease said. “It’s been a lot of fun. We went through the last one very quickly. We made an apple pie — I think it was the best apple pie we ever made.”
Scease and his wife are among the estimated 6,000 Maine families this year that take part in a community supported agriculture program. According to Cheryl Wixson of Stonington, the organic marketing consultant for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the model came to Maine from Japan about 30 years ago. Typically, a farmer or food producer offers to sell a number of farm “shares” to the public before the harvest season begins. Ideally, there are advantages to both the farmer and the customer — the farmer gets cash early in the season and gets to know his or her customers personally, while customers get diverse fresh produce or other food on a regular basis, usually with a small discount.
Since the 1980s, the model has really taken off, she said. According to MOFGA, there are now about 200 farms in Maine that offer a community supported agriculture, or CSA, program.
“The CSA model is so important when you’re trying to rebuild a local food system,” Wixson said last week. “That community buy-in at the beginning is critical to providing working capital.”
And CSAs are now much more than fresh vegetables, she said. In Maine, it’s now possible to purchase beer shares, fish shares, bread shares, meat shares, egg shares, cheese shares, the heritage apple shares, whole-diet food shares and even Wixson’s own wintertime share of shelf-stable foods made from Maine-grown produce.
“One of my farmers calls it a ‘CSCG’ — a community supported canned goods,” she said of the offerings from Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen. “I think these unique CSAs are taking the original model and expanding on it.”
Some Maine agriculture experts said that the diversification of CSAs is happening as more and more small farmers are seeking their piece of what in some ways has become a tight direct-sales market. Popular farmers markets, including those in Belfast and Orono, are “just about impossible to get into,” according to Rick Kersbergen of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Getting creative with CSAs is one way that farmers can continue to directly sell their wares.
Melissa White Pillsbury of MOFGA said that she believes that the local foods market, though not saturated, is maturing.
“It’s not wide-open anymore,” she said. “Farmers have to put more time and thought into marketing.”
That means that some farmers have gotten creative about all aspects of selling their food. Oyster River Winegrowers in Warren offer a winter CSA in Rockland delivered by horsedrawn wagon, she said.
Polly Shyka, co-owner of Village Farm in Freedom, said that her family started to offer CSA shares in 2008, the second year they were in business.
“I would say it’s really great for farmers who are just beginning,” she said. “If you get so much money in March and April, you can pay those bills: seed, compost, bags, you can pay your interns.”
Although over the years they have offered egg and flower shares in addition to the usual vegetable shares, this season they cut back CSA offerings and are down to just offering summer and fall produce shares.
“I love the CSA, but it has to be a viable part of the business,” she said. “At the scale we’re at now — we needed to make the money we need by simplifying.”
Rose Rapp, who co-owns Farmetta Farm in Morrill with her husband, Wes Soper, said that some of her meat CSA customers like to come to the farm to see the sheep and pigs — and meet the farmers.
“Those people who are putting in an order form and writing a check for a deposit are making a commitment to your livelihood,” she said. “And they trust you, that you’ll be raising their animals in a healthy, happy manner.”