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CSAs Bring Farm-fresh Food to Your Door

Have you had one too many tasteless tomatoes? Had it with heads of lettuce that are limp the day after you buy them? There is a way to bring fresh produce to your door.

It's called Community Supported Agriculture.

Essentially, shareholders (consumers) pay for food before it's planted to help offset farmers' production costs. Then the farmers provide the shareholders fresh, and most often organically grown, produce all season.

Community Supported Agriculture began to take hold in the United States in the 1980s. Now there are more than 1,000 CSA farms across the county.

"The CSA concept has a greater likelihood for success in an urban area because of the population," said Mark Risse, an agricultural engineer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "But it's not a necessity."

In Georgia, CSAs are close to major cities.

"A CSA in northern Florida grows for the local school district in a semirural area," Risse said. "Anywhere will work as long as there is a population base with a demand for locally grown produce."

Atlanta now has two seasonal organic farmers' markets and a booming direct restaurant supply business.

"Many of the chefs in quality restaurants demand high-quality, fresh produce," Risse said. "And these farmers contract to supply it."

To tap into the growing demand for fresh food alternatives, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Network put together a list of CSA farms nationwide. The list has names and contact information for 450 CSA farms in almost every state.

"Given the growing interest in eating nutritious fresh food, we wanted to provide an easy source of information about CSA," said Jill Auburn, director of USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, which funds SAN.

Georgia CSAs on the list are Gaia Gardens in Decatur and the Union Agricultural Institute in Blairsville.

"CSA provides a great way for the producers and consumers of our food to gain all sorts of benefits, from fair wages to fresh food to on-farm learning experiences, because they live near each other," Auburn said.

The CSA concept tends to unite people to support a farm. The farm truly becomes a community enterprise. The grower and members share both the risks and the benefits of food production.

Getting and keeping shareholders is one of the toughest hurdles a CSA faces.

"There is a lot of work in developing the CSA and then in maintaining the market once it's created," Risse said. "Once this is done, usually demand will exceed the CSA's ability to supply, as is happening in Atlanta. Organizations like Georgia Organics can help in setting up a CSA or co-op."

So can the Georgia Extension Service. "The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, housed on the UGA Griffin campus, has producer grants that could help establish CSAs," Risse said. Get more information at www.griffin.peachnet.edu/sare/00mktann.html.

Typically, CSA farmers use organic or sustainable farming methods and strive to provide fresh, high-quality foods. Most CSA farms offer diverse vegetables, fruits and herbs in season. Some provide a full array of farm products, including eggs, meat, milk, baked goods, honey and even firewood. Many CSA farmers enjoy the chance to teach others about the challenges of growing good food.

To see the complete CSA list, visit the web site at www.sare.org/san/csa/index.htm. There you can search for CSAs by state.

Get a list of CSA farms in any state, too, by writing to CSA/CSREES, 1400 Independence Ave., SW, Stop 2207, Washington, DC 20250-2207. Organizations can request a free copy of the printed CSA directory at the same address.

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

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