By Frank Gargano
Clipboard in hand, Sean Pilger crouches over a row of seedlings with one of his fellow workers and intensely examines their growth.
He glances down at his clipboard, an University of Agriculture at Cornell insignia adorning the back, and writes down notes tracking how each of the respective crops were doing.
Part of Pilger’s day-to-day routine as a co-owner and manager of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, H.O.G. Farm in Brookhaven, is walking the fields during the day to oversee how various crops are planted and maintained. As a CSA farmer, Pilger offers the local community a way to buy a variety of fresh produce and support a local business.
“The farm was started in 1996 and it was kind of more a community garden than a CSA farm,” Pilger, said. “From 1996 to when I came back around 2005, the farm focused primarily on CSAs. At our peak we had around 270 shares, but then we started to diversify our markets into restaurants and chefs as well as our own farm stand.”
A vital business tactic, CSA is used by many farmers on Long Island to help sustain a steady flow of cash during the growing season, when farmers don’t have money coming in. The earliest established CSA dates back to the mid-eighties, according to the USDA. Consumers can buy shares of the total crops grown during the season and receive different kinds of produce via deliveries and pickups. The amount of produce in each share are chosen by the individual farms.
“It gives the farmer security and predictability for how many vegetables to grow and once they’re grown, in knowing that there is someone to buy them,” Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht, co-owner of the CSA farm Garden of Eve, said. “Essentially, your vegetables are presold.”
Besides offering farmers a sense of security, CSAs also help them build stronger connections with local communities.
“For those farms that offer CSAs, it gives them an opportunity to both bring in capital early in the season, and have a relationship with the consumers of their product,” Robert Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said. “It gives the farmers the chance to show their customers their abilities and educate them on the different techniques that they use.”
The manager and CSA coordinator for Sang Lee Farms in Peconic, Lucy Senesac, further confirmed this.
“We started offering CSAs in 2007,” Senesac said. “And a big benefit of them is the initial influx of revenue to the farm when we’re not making money from selling the produce. A great benefit that also comes with the CSAs is the connection we build with the consumers.”
Farmer’s markets and CSAs are key players when it comes to shifting local food systems back towards organic, according to a 2008 study from the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. When farmers sell their produce to local communities, either as CSAs or through third party retailers, they offer customers other options for vegetables and organic food.
“I enjoy growing things, selling healthy food, and getting in touch with the community,” Ian Calder-Piedmonte, co-owner of Balsam Farms in Amagansett, said.
While CSAs are big with individual consumers, restaurants are also choosing to participate in farm-to-table style movements.
“We use a lot of local farms, especially in the summer season,” Paul Weinstein, director of hospitality at Wölffer Estate in Sagaponack, said. “The flavor we get from locally sourced produce is unparalleled. That investment we make in the community by supporting local farms is a key factor in the success of a restaurant.”
Farms like Sep’s Farm in East Marion offer add-ons to their shares as a way to further incentivize people into signing up for CSA memberships. Add-ons are additional packages of produce and other foodstuffs that can be included into the base share from other farms. Sep’s, for instance, recently partnered with Acabonac Farms to develop a new CSA program for beef.
“We customized our CSAs to get people to try new things and meet their needs by giving them the ability to pick and choose what specifically they want,” Brenna Leveille, CSA coordinator and media manager for Sep’s Farm, said. “We give our customers the option to add produce from Bhavana Blueberries in Southold at no added cost as well to the CSA if they want.”
CSAs aren’t that new. Green Thumb Organic Farm in Water Mill started selling CSAs in the ‘90s after they were certified organic.
“When Green Thumb started in the early sixties, it wasn’t organic,” Johanna Halsey, a Green Thumb Organic Farm owner, said. “So in the seventies, we began to transition to organic and we became certified in the eighties as an organic farm. We were kids of the sixties and it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Once the farm started operating as a certified organic businesses, they began to look for other opportunities to branch out.
“In the nineties, my brother went to a talk on CSAs and it sounded like a great idea with the community and the farmers coming together,” Halsey said. “It gives the community a better understanding of the people who grow the food and how they do it.”
For residents that don’t participate in CSA programs, the prospect of fresh produce delivered on a weekly basis sounds enticing. Syosset resident Josephine Clarke said that if she knew about it sooner, she would subscribe to a CSA.
“I would buy from a local farm even if it was pricier, because the produce would be very fresh and why not support your local farms?” Clarke said.
For local farmers, vegetables are just a small part of what CSAs are about.
“It really is a way that people can help support farms and make sure that they are there for the public to enjoy,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said.