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Community Supported Agriculture Shares Wealth, Risk

On a damp fall morning, Margaret Putnam and Cynthia Hizer hurry to gather greens from the garden before the rain comes.

They own Hazelbrand Farms, an organic farm in Newton County. They, like organic farmers across the country, are moving to a new system of doing business called Community Supported Agriculture.

"People have had CSAs for years, but they're really growing now," Putnam said.

Community Supported Agriculture allows farmers to share the business risk with their community. Individuals contract with the farmer to grow vegetables for them, which the customers pay for in advance. They become "shareholders" in the business.

Each week during the growing and harvesting season, shareholders get their share of fresh vegetables from the farmer.

"Farmers benefit because they receive an immediate source of capital and are able to share the risk with a community of supporters," said Luanne Lohr, an economist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"The consumers benefit because they know where their food comes from," she said.

CSAs are as much about building community as about farming, Putnam said. "They help small farmers like us find people in the community who believe in what we're doing and are willing to support us," she said.

The produce offered, and the opportunities for on-farm activities, may differ from farm to farm. But all CSAs depend on a committed group of shareholders, Lohr said.

The shareholders at Hazelbrand Farms are called "the buyers' club."

"The buyers' club is made up of about 30 people from around the area who want fresh, high-quality, organic produce," Putnam said.

CSAs allow farmers to devote most of their time to producing food, rather than marketing their products.

"CSA shareholders in the Southeast are a fairly high-income group," Lohr said. "The CSA structure works best in large urban areas. However, they can be structured for other purposes."

Atlanta is a prime market for CSAs because of its demographics.

Hugh Lovel, who operates the Union Agricultural Institute in Blairsville, Ga., has had a CSA for 10 years. It gives him the cash flow for his farm. He charges a membership fee and a deposit, which members get back in produce.

"We get money in the spring and pay it back in produce throughout the summer," Lovel said. "One of the chief obstacles for farmers is the original cash outlay."

The original cash outlay is also an obstacle for some potential customers. CSAs usually charge $500 to $1,000 for memberships.

"It sounds like a lot, but it's $22 per week for the season," Putnam said. "Most people spend more than that for produce at the grocery store if they have a family."

Recent research by Lohr and research partner Deborah Kane showed that CSAs' biggest problem is keeping shareholders.

"Turnover rates from 30 percent to 50 percent aren't uncommon for CSAs in the United States," Lohr said. "When turnover is high, demands on farmers' time can be overwhelming."

UGA researchers joined seven Southeastern CSAs to find out what influenced that turnover.

They found that while many shareholders thought they wanted to try new varieties of vegetables, the exotic vegetables didn't appeal to their families, and many went unused.

Shareholders expected the produce to be their main supply for the season, but ended up supplementing the new foods with their old favorites from the grocery store.

"I have more turnover than I'd like on the CSA," Lovel said. "One in eight really turns out to be a customer that orders regularly. The others fizzle out."

Lovel said his best customers are those who like to cook and eat most meals at home.

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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