Community supported agriculture (CSA) is an up-and-coming innovative solution for consumers looking for the best way to eat wonderfully healthy, locally grown produce at an economical price while dramatically reducing the carbon emissions associated with our food system (which is 15% of our total annual CO2 emissions in the US, or 9 billion tons per year). “If you want to support regenerative agriculture, and all its benefits, buy produce from a local farmer,” recommends Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer who is a soil health pioneer and was featured in the acclaimed documentary, Kiss the Ground.
There are more than 7,600 CSAs in the United States. Most, if not all, have caps on the maximum number of members. Once the CSA has reached its max, they create a waiting list. The average retention rate for CSAs is approximately 45%, with a few retaining as many as 70–80%. But that’s a very small few. These strong partnerships, between farmers (producers) and consumers, were established so that both can share in the benefits and the risks of the farm’s harvest. CSA’s are located primarily in the Northeast, Mid Atlantic, and the Pacific Northwest. Consumers pay a flat fee upfront to become a member, and then receive a weekly share during harvest. This is referred to as cropsharing.
Producers develop a strong connection with their members by providing regular farm updates, usually through email, which might include recipes and a newsletter. Many CSAs have a social media presence as well, and also host farm events and offer farm tours. This positive and educational interaction results is a very well-informed consumer which strengthens the consumers’ ties to the farm and local community which is one of the goals of CSA producers.
What are the food miles of the produce in your local grocery store?
When shopping at any of the big super market chains, including Whole Foods, you’ll spot the little colorful signs alerting shoppers to which state or country a specific fruit or vegetable is from. The large grocery chains in my location mostly sell produce from “California,” which is quite far for simple vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers. Too often, we’ll also see Mexico, Peru, Ecuador. Whole Foods has a special “local” section with a small selection of produce and eggs from Virginia or Maryland.
Eliminating the unnecessary amount of carbon emissions associated with food transportation is imperative. According to The Conscious Challenge, food transportation amounts to approximately 4% of the our food system carbon emissions. To stay below 1.5ºC, which must be our goal to prevent catastrophic warming, we’re required to cut 3 billion tons of CO2 from our consumption choices as outlined in An Action Plan for Solving the Climate Crisis Now.
By definition, “locally grown” means within 400 miles per The Food Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. But farmer’s markets, retailers and food organizations, often draft their own definition of locally grown, which may end up being vegetables from as far away as 1000 miles. Additionally, recent studies have shown that the vital nutrient density of fruits and vegetables goes down as the distance traveled goes up.
One Acre Farm
One Acre Farm is an amazing CSA, powered by the sun, located in the DC metro area on the Maryland side. It services all three communities: Montgomery County, Maryland; Washington DC; and Northern Virginians who may work in DC or can easily travel by metro to the One Acre Farm DC pick-up locations. This 34-acre farm (wow, quite a stunning growth spurt, from 1 acre to 34 acres in 15 years), is located in Dickerson, Maryland just a few miles from the Potomac River. It was founded in 2007 and is owned by Mike Protas and his wife Kristin. Farmer Mike, as he is called, has always been a CSA producer and pursued this particular path in the world of agriculture because he feels “it’s very important to have a connection with your community to grow your food with.”
Charlotte Henderson is the One Acre Farm Manager. I was delighted to have an informative conversation with both Mike and Charlotte and hear their passion and excitement for the CSA experience as they were pricing the 2022 annual member fee and calculating how many open spots they have based on heir 2021 retention rate. One Acre Farm has a max of 200 members.
“If we want farms to exist, we have to change our mentality as consumers.”Mike Protas, Founder and Owner of One Acre Farm
Mike explained how misconceptions about CSAs are really the only thing holding back growth. Traditional small, local farmers who follow conventional ag practices, (that of using pesticides so that their produce looks beautiful at the farmers market), rarely survive. “They may have a few good years, but eventually the pesticides will degrade their soil, and they can’t make it in the long run,” Mike said.
Mike and Charlotte are enthusiastic about their Certified Naturally Grown practices that are very similar to organically grown and regenerative farm soil health practices:
- They do not use pesticides.
- They do use cover crops to boost soil health and increase water infiltration rate which helps keep the soil moist in high heat.
- Compost is applied to the soil which also boosts soil health and crop nutrient density. (One Acre Farm gets their compost from Compost Crew that rents land from One Acre Farm for their composting.)
- Mike even adds biochar to the potato field “because potatoes love biochar,” (so does the soil).
It’s very important to Mike that he pay those who work for One Acre Farm a living wage. Mike went on to explain that the upfront commitment is the most important part. Once the 200 members’ are confirmed, One Acre Farm’s annual harvest is paid for, (Mike will happily set up a payment plan if that works best for family budgets; and Individuals who want to become members, can join with a friend and the two can either split each week’s bag or alternate weeks). With the planting and harvesting costs covered from the start, Mike has already sold all the produce that he’ll now spend the year growing. Both the producer and the consumer share in the harvest’s risk.
Once the summer harvest begins, the team walks the fields each week to see which vegetables are “ready.” Mike and Charlotte explained that the farm sends an email to all members at the beginning of the week, letting them know what it “looks like a possibility of” the veggies that might be in their weekly “share.” The morning of their pick-up day, the farm sends out an email stating, “This is what is actually in your share” this week, along with a few recipes.
In my humble opinion, this is the very best part. Vegetables picked fresh from a local farm and placed into a bag with your name written on it, delivered to the local pick-up spot, every single week during the 22-week stretch. Very fresh, which means very delicious. Maximumly healthy. Nominal handling. Very low carbon emissions. And no single-use plastic produce bags. The next best thing might be growing vegetables and fruits on your own property, but many people don’t have the time or patience. So, for the majority, this is as good as it gets.
Charlotte sounded thrilled that their pre-packaged “share bags” worked out so well. This method was a Covid modification. Originally, families picked their selections from bins. But now, the One Acre Farm team fills the bags each week for their members. Charlotte also stressed the value CSA members receive, explaining how there are some weeks in the summer when there is so much produce, families would have ended up paying a fortune at a local store for the same quantity of fresh-picked, certified naturally grown fruits and vegetables.
One Acre Farm Pick-Up Locations:
- 7 Locks Brewery, Rockville, MD
- True Respite Brewery, Rockville, MD
- Wootton Oaks, Rockville, MD
- Saints Row Brewery, Gaithersburg, MD
- One Acre Farm, Dickerson, MD
- Anytime Fitness, Poolesville, MD
- Capitol Hill, Washington DC
- The Palisades Hub, Washington DC
One Acre Farm also has a corporate client. Each week several of the team members bring a couple hundred mini share bags to the corporate office and pass them out to the employees. Additionally, Manna Food Center is a recipient of One Acre Farm’s weekly share.
I asked Mike and Charlotte if climate change had impacted One Acre Farm, the way it’s impacted farmers in many farming communities out West and in the Northern Plains. Mike sounded really grounded in his perspective. “What we need to do as farmers and humans is help mitigate some of these climate challenges.” He continued with a determined outlook, “What we have done on our farm to help deal with the fluctuations of climate and temperatures and extreme moisture and extreme drought and extreme cold is work on the soil.”
Soil health! Smart. Very, very smart, actually. Soil health just may be the most effective climate mitigation of them all.
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