Bangor resident Pat Bears piles fish, eggs and bread into a straw-colored woven basket as she wanders the Orono Winter Farmers’ Market on a recent Saturday morning. She’ll add the goods to the stores of locally sourced foods including milk, butter and meat that were already delivered to her door earlier in the week.
Bears is one among thousands of Mainers who participate each year in community-supported agriculture, or CSA, programs throughout the state. She also shops local markets, purchasing nearly everything her family of four regularly eats.
“When I was a child, this is what happened — milk came to our door — the only difference was it came in a tin box, and I leave a cooler,” Bears said.
According to the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, Maine is home to more than 180 CSA farms. Close to 7,000 residents buy shares every year, creating a unique farm-to-table community of farmers and food enthusiasts young and old.
“Knowing your farmer by his or her first name, and them knowing yours, is an incredible privilege,” Bears said.
Each farm works its CSA program differently. Most programs, however, ask shareholders to front money in the spring, then provide a weekly supply of farm fresh products throughout the growing season. Some farms have shareholders pick up a prepacked box or bag of produce at either a farm or a specified location each week. Others give shareholders credit to their farm stands or markets so they can choose which products they want to receive.
“The bottom line is that people make commitments to farms and in return farmers make commitments to produce … the most flavorful, highest quality food possible,” the MOFGA website states.
Good for the farm
Clayton Carter, owner of Fail Better Farm in Etna, has offered a CSA program since 2008. It’s a partnership he says helps him kick off the growing season in a way no bank can.
“If I go borrow from a bank, I see money in their eyes … a customer has carrots and tomatoes,” Carter said.
Of course, there’s always a risk of an unexpected problem or weather that wipes out a crop, but it’s a liability shareholders should be willing to take.
“It’s important for people to realize that besides helping to give the farmer an income boost in the sprint to purchase what they need, they are also agreeing to accept some of that risk,” Colson said.
He was quick to add though that most farmers will do what they can to make sure shareholders receive at least some produce, even if it’s from another farm.
“I think in general, people are looking for a deeper connection to where their food comes from,” Dave Colson, director of agricultural services and MOFGA and owner of New Leaf Farm said. “When they do that, they experience some of the intricacies and real life challenges of farming.”
Making it accessible
Food AND Medicine, a Brewer-based nonprofit that promotes worker rights and access to local food, partners with Happytown Farm in Orland for a “union-supported agriculture program.”
Through this, shareholders can pay for shares ranging from $165 to $450, pay weekly using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits designated for low-income individuals and families, or work on the farm throughout the summer in exchange for produce.
This is the third year the organization has worked with farmers and markets to allow people to use their SNAP and Electronic Benefit Transfer funds to purchase food at markets and through farm shares. It’s an effort that provides low-income residents access to healthy food and helps foster a better community, explained Jack McKay, director of Food AND Medicine.
“More and more people are seeing the benefit of fresh produce and often organic produce … now people get healthy food [and] the community wins because we’re directing money to the local farmers,” McKay said.
A growing trend
Farmers and community groups, such as Food AND Medicine and MOFGA, have seen the number of people signing up for CSA programs grow substantially during the past decade. Food AND Medicine hosted a CSA fair in Bangor in March where at least 250 people expressed interest in purchasing shares.
It’s an increase, Colson said, that may have partly to do with the rural nature of Maine, but also with the way food distribution has changed.
“There’s been a consolidation in retail, and the tendency to move toward bigger stores that’s caused the loss of smaller markets throughout smaller communities,” he said. “That makes it difficult to make food purchases beyond convenience stores in rural parts of Maine, especially where there is weather or a lack of transportation.”
Instead, many CSAs fill that need by offering home delivery and a chance to meet not just the farmers, but fellow community members.
“In some cases, there really has been a community feeling created around the CSA through the pickup days and meeting with other people in the community, there’s a bit of synergy that happens,” Colson said.
For Bears, that connection is key and a part of why purchasing local food is such a major piece of her life.
“We’re celebrating food again,” she said. “I know the farmer who grows our food, it’s a unique and personal experience.”
To find a CSA program near you, check out the map, visit a local market or visit mofga.net for a full list of farms participating throughout Maine.