Community supported agriculture shares are moving out of the crisper and into the pantry.
That's the hope, anyway, of a growing number of farmers and small processors who are marketing local goods under the CSA model.
In traditional a CSA, a farmer sells shares of their fruit and vegetable crop ahead of the growing season to generate cash flow for the year. The farmer then provides boxes of seasonal produce on a regular basis to shareholders during the harvest.
The farmer and the customers share equally in the harvest, come bumper crop or blight. The practice started in the U.S. in Massachusetts back in 1986 and now rivals farmers markets as the best way to access local food. Local Harvest maintains a CSA registry, and to date there are close to 7,600 CSAs, up from 3,500 in 2008.
Community supported canners have copied the model, and they're helping to fill the gap in the winter months when CSA shares of fresh vegetables peter out. Their offerings might include dried beans, grains, baking mixes, frozen meats and farmhouse cheese in addition to salsa, jams, syrups, pickles and other fermented vegetables.
Cheryl Wixon's Kitchen operates out of Coastal Farm and Foods, an incubator for commercial small-scale food processing in Belfast, Maine. For $300, a share in Wixon's CSA will get you 54 jars of pasta and pizza sauces, cranberry ketchups and fruit jams and butters delivered between November and April.
But you have to live to Maine to get in on this. Why? Partly because Wixon — an agricultural engineer, former caterer and cooking teacher – says she's committed to building her own local food infrastructure.
One big difference between CSAs of fresh produce and pantry shares like Wixon's is the food safety regulations, and the expense of complying with them. Most states require commercial food processing to be done in a licensed kitchen, which can be costly to rent.
"Processing 17,000 pounds of local tomatoes and another 20,000 pounds of apples and cranberries is back-breaking work. I am only doing it because no one else is," Wixon tells The Salt.
But Wixon says her operation is contributing to the local economy in many different ways. Six farms in mid-coast Maine have increased production to provide raw materials for her products. She employs six people and her shares have grown from 50 in 2011 to 200 for the season beginning in November.
The idea is catching on in other states, too.
The Bayfield Regional Food Producers Cooperative is a group of 18 farmers and small batch food processors located near Washburn, Wis., (the nearest major city is Duluth, Minn., a 90-minute drive). The co-op formed to give rural customers a convenient way to get all of their local products in one place. Last year it created a pantry share called "Grains and Goodies" and is now serving 17-20 shares. "There is no single grocery store that carries all of our products in one place. So the CSA is a logical distribution vehicle as much as a social mission to promote local foods," says Jennifer Sauter Sargent of Spirit Creek Farm, a producer of fermented foods.
Winifred McGee, a senior educator with the Penn State Cooperative Extension, runs programs on local food business development. She says that pantry shares sometimes do create more distance between the farmer and the consumer, which some might see as a problem because closing the gap was one of primary goals of early CSAs.
"There is a trade-off," McGee says. "You are one step removed from the farmer because he is not handing you the whole vegetable each week. But on the other hand, there is a benefit to having a wider variety of products made from local food on a year-round basis from a traceable source."