The ABCs of the New CSAs

Looking for a sound investment in these troubled times? Try community-supported agriculture: These days the concept extends way beyond weekly vegetable deliveries.

Since 1986, when two small farms in Western Massachusetts began selling shares in what came to be known as community-supported agriculture, farms across the U.S. have encouraged consumers to invest at the beginning of the season for a guaranteed weekly return in vegetable dividends. According to LocalHarvest, CSAs now connect consumers directly with more than 2,000 local farmers.

But community-supported food doesn’t just mean lettuce, arugula, and potatoes anymore. There are cooks selling shares in restaurants before the first pot of water ever boils. Dairy farmers sell ownership in cows to get around prohibitions on the sale of raw milk. Others have created so-called “cowpools” to divvy up an entire animal and dole out cuts of meat. And fishermen have begun selling shares in seafood stock.

With a faltering economy, some say local foods are an investment opportunity with a tangible return—a share in both the risks and the bounty of farming, fishing, or running a restaurant.

A restaurant counting on its regulars

Sharon Deitz opened The Bee’s Knees, a small restaurant in Morrisville, Vermont, five years ago; soon she was carrying 60 and 70 dinners down the stairs from her apartment’s tiny kitchen to the restaurant below. When she started to burn out and didn’t have the capital to renovate, she began showing the restaurant to prospective buyers. But a group of regulars stepped in and told her, “Hey, we’ll help you out.”

Now she’s renovating the place using the nearly $70,000 she’s raised by selling community-supported restaurant certificates: Customers make investments in her business and get discounts in return. A $1,000 investment buys 12 certificates, each redeemable for $90 worth of food and beverages over the course of three months; $500 gets you $45 in meals per quarter. Deitz also sold $400 punch cards for draft beers and coffees; and investors who made unsecured $5,000 loans get repaid in five years, with a 4 percent return and a 10 percent discount on food (a financing plan she modeled after the Bobcat Café in Bristol, VT).

Ten miles from The Bee’s Knees, another restaurant, Claire’s in Hardwick, has partially financed its startup operation by selling community shares.

“It’s kind of this litmus test,” Deitz says. “If people said, ‘We’ll support you,’ but nobody was willing to risk their money here, I doubt if this place would be sustainable. But because so many people have trusted me with their money, even with current economy, I think that we’re going to be okay.”

Raw milk without the red tape: Cow-sharing in Colorado

The Weston A. Price Foundation estimates that about 5 percent of Americans drink raw milk. Despite consumer demand, many states have adopted versions of the federal Food and Drug Administration’s Grade “A” Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO), which essentially bans sending raw milk for human consumption anywhere but the dairy processing plant for pasteurization.

Still, farmers and activists have used cow-share or cow-leasing agreements to skirt state-level prohibitions against raw milk distribution. “It’s a real consumer right to choose,” says David Lynch, of Buena Vista, Colorado’s Cottonwood Creek Dairy, which has five milking Jersey cows in a 70-share program that delivers a gallon of raw milk a week to subscribers.

In 2005, after a multiyear fight to legitimize a raw milk share program, Lynch watched the state legislature pass a law allowing residents to buy milk if they have a stake (“undivided interest”) in a dairy herd. Shareholders at his farm, for example, buy a share in the milking herd for a $50 reimbursable fee, and pay $35 a month for a gallon of fresh milk a week. “It’s a privatized system,” he says. “You can only get raw milk from the farmer.”

While the FDA says there’s a risk of bacterial infections associated with drinking raw milk, 32 dairy farmers in Colorado offer raw milk shares, regulated by an association of producers who set their own standards. “In my mind, this is exactly what we were hoping to see,” Lynch says. “When something is true and accurate and right, it will win out.”

Cowpooling, or how to share steaks and burgers

One of the few, if not the only, farmer-run meat-only CSAs in the country is helmed by Aidan Davin and Kate Stillman, who raise livestock—pigs, chickens, cows, and sheep—at Stillman’s at The Turkey Farm in Hartwick, Massachusetts. They bring frozen meats to farmers markets and also sell meat shares to about 150 members at drop-off sites outside of Boston.

“We just raise enough animals that make sure that everybody gets the same thing—usually half ground and stew and half chops and steaks of pork and beef and whole chickens,” Davin says. “They just get what we give them.” For customers with religious reasons for eschewing pork, they offer a couple of shares without it.

Other farmers raising specialty meats, like pasture-fed beef, say it’s difficult to deliver equitable shares of fresh meat at regular intervals. In colder climates, where animals tend to be slaughtered in the fall (often at slaughterhouses hundreds of miles away), the shares may be delivered only once a year—and if one shareholder receives a filet mignon while another gets tongue, there’s a problem. But divvying up all the cuts of beef into equal portions “would be like trying to divide up a leek,” says Tamar Adler, who cooks at Chez Panisse Café and runs the Bay Area Meat CSA.

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