Tuesday, March 24, 2009

UAF brings CSAs to the table

Farmers can be an independent lot, but the day after many of them had gathered in Fairbanks for the 5th annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference hosted by UAF Cooperative Extension Service, over twenty-five people took the time to meet again. At a SNRAS-sponsored roundtable held March 19, the farmers who operate community supported agriculture businesses (CSAs) came together to meet each other and faculty and staff from CES and SNRAS, discuss the challenges of sustainable agriculture in Alaska, and to brainstorm options for meeting those challenges.

Dean Carol Lewis told the group she wanted to see how UAF could help them and she wants to receive ideas about the farmers’ needs. Because Alaska imports almost all of its food, it’s important for the state’s agriculture school (specifically the Department of High Latitude Agriculture) to support CSAs in their mission of serving the public with locally grown produce, Lewis explained. The department’s agriculture research is available to the growers, and the university can also help the group through an internship program, a resource list of publications about Alaska small-scale farming, facilitating meetings and surveys, and providing public education on food security, food costs, and possible business options.

She cited the Alaska Peony Growers Association as a good example of the university’s assistance to growers. SNRAS brought the peony growers together, the School of Management helped them with a business plan and the group eventually formed its own association, built a website, and now hosts conferences.

“Horticulture people have been sadly disconnected,” Dean Lewis said, “but we’re trying to change that now.”

There are two basic types of CSAs: subscription CSAs and shareholder CSAs. From the publication “Community Supported Agriculture,” (PDF) by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service:
Subscription CSA (farmer-driven). In this approach, the farmer organizes the CSA and makes most of the management decisions. Farm work is not required of subscribers. A permutation is the farmer cooperative, where two or more farmers organize to produce a variety of products for the CSA basket. Subscription CSAs now constitute more than 75 percent of all CSAs.

Shareholder CSA (consumer-driven). This type of CSA typically features an existing “core group” that organizes subscribers and hires the farmer. The core group may be a not-for-profit organization and land may be purchased, leased, or rented. Most key decisions are made by core group personnel.
The permutations on these two basic types are as varied as the individual farms that use them. The agriculturalists represented at the SNRAS forum came from across the state, although mostly from the Fairbanks area (Basically Basil, Calypso Farm, Eden Lake Bison Ranch, Feedback Farm, Rosie Creek Farm, Spinach Creek Farm). Farmers from Palmer (Spring Creek Farm) and Skagway (Jewell Gardens) also came. Several attendees were gardeners interested in the possibility of forming their own small CSAs.

The roundtable discussion highlighted the challenges CSA operators face, including:
• Labor: Several farms have resorted to advertising in the Lower 48 for seasonal labor or for interns. The turnover is high and finding people with horticulture skills is difficult.

• Costs: Growers would like the public to know what the real costs of supermarket food are compared to the costs of locally farmed food.

• Infrastructure: Alaska doesn’t have much historical farmland; farmers must start from scratch, clearing the land, building the soil, and creating fields and buildings.

• Supporting businesses: The group sees a great need for compost companies, fertilizer manufacturers, food processors, food storage businesses, cooperative kitchens, root cellars, freezing or dehydrating facilities. The difficulty of transportation was also addressed.

• Supporting organizations: There is no organization in Alaska specific to the CSA niche, although others with a related focus exist, including FFA, Alaska Farm Bureau, Farmers’ Market Association, Alaska Grown, etc.
In the Lower 48, there are many cooperative internship or training programs for people interested in working on small, sustainable farms, either urban or rural. A few examples are:
• Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) programs:
Growing Power Commercial Urban Agriculture Training

SAITA program: Sustainable Agriculture Internship Training Alliance
The growers discussed forming a CSA organization, coming up with a clear definition of CSA, and reaching out to the public via blogs, e-lists, and directories. The group will meet again in mid-April. Anyone interested in attending should contact Mike Emers of Rosie Creek Farm (Tanana Valley) or Anne-Corinne Kell of Spring Creek Farm (Matanuska-Susitna Valley).

“Small farmers are an important component of agriculture,” Emers said. Dean Lewis said the school recognizes the diverse nature of agriculture in Alaska and seeks to serve all those aspects.

(Addendum) Related reading: "Community shared agriculture offers shareholders a tasty payout," Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, March 26, 2009, by Mary Beth Smetzer

1 comment:

Heidi said...

To have been able to attend the Sustainable Agriculture Conference and get to hear from many of you was an eye opener and a very special time for me. I wish I had been able to attend the first CSA Roundtable meeting.

Thank you all for coming together to address the needs of our communities.