It may be encumbered with a name that only a midlevel bureaucrat could love, but community-supported agriculture (CSA) continues to be one of the fastest-growing trends in the local foods movement.

Here's how CSAs work: In the spring, consumers buy a share in a farm's output. Their investment is repaid through the summer and into the fall in the form of a frequently delivered package of just-picked produce, its contents dependent upon what is available for harvest. There could be tomatoes in August, for example, depending upon the weather and farming conditions. Or not.

"It allows consumers to share in the bounty, and share in the adventure, of farming," said Aaron Blyth of Marine on St. Croix's Big River Farms, a nonprofit that operates a CSA and trains newcomers through an incubator farm program. "It also allows farmers to get to know their customers better, and vice versa."

Plans vary among farms, but expect to pay between $300 and $700 for a growing season that typically lasts between 18 and 22 weeks, with weekly or biweekly deliveries.

Some crop shares concentrate solely on vegetables, while others include fruits, berries, honey, eggs, flowers, cheese, soap and other farmstead products. Deliveries can be made to central drop points (churches, restaurants, natural food co-ops) or directly to the homes or businesses of shareholders. Some farms have on-site pickups. Many CSA farms invite their shareholders to the farm for events or work days, while others maintain an off-limits rule.

Learning the ropes

It's complicated, but one way to learn more about the ins and outs of CSAs takes place Saturday. As it has done for the past 11 years, Seward Co-op in Minneapolis is bringing together an ever-growing number of CSA practitioners ­­— this year's tally is 30 — under one roof (a tent in the store's parking lot), allowing consumers to meet-and-greet with farmers directly. (See box for details.)

That growing number of CSA Fair participants is a reflection of the practice's exponential growth. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Minnesota Grown program has been tracking CSA programs for more than a decade.

In 2003, it listed five CSA farms. In 2008, the number had risen to 26. This year it's 93. That means that, conservatively, several thousand Minnesota households are participating in crop-share programs.

Minnesota Grown's Paul Hugunin cites several reasons for the impressive numbers, including a heightened desire among consumers to learn more about where their food comes from and how it is grown.

But Hugunin also points to a higher awareness and appreciation of the CSA model itself, and the growing number of farms meeting that interest by adding CSA shares to their marketing plans.

Worth the price

Value also factors into the equation. Just ask Jackie Kujak of Sylvan Hills Organic Farm in Menomonie, Wis. She calculates that her CSA shareholders pay $23.50 for each delivery from the two acres she and her husband, Larry, keep under cultivation.

"Where else could you get a grocery bag, filled to the top with organic vegetables, at that price?" she said. "And believe me, if you've paid for it, you're going to figure out a way to use all of it."

It's the support-your-local-farmer aspect that draws some consumers to the CSA model, and that's a motivation that works for Eric Larsen of Stone's Throw Urban Farm, which cultivates gardens across more than a dozen locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"Small farms like us struggle with cash flow, with having enough money in the late winter and spring to make some of the bigger purchases that a farm needs, things like seeds, and compost, and greenhouse supplies," he said. "Rather than going into debt, it's really helpful to have that money coming in to us in February, March and April, when customers buy their CSA shares."

Whatever the impetus, Blyth cautions that the CSA model isn't for everyone.

"There needs to be a real commitment to want to try new vegetables, and to be open to what you're going to find in your box," he said. "You definitely get what you pay for, but not always what you hope to have. You have to be flexible enough to use what you get and not rely upon picking out what you want. That's tricky. People who do it well absolutely love it, but some also say that they would rather support local farms by shopping at the farmers market."

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