Community Supported Agriculture groups seek members for 2016

BIG RAPIDS — Spring is just around the corner. With the change of seasons, many area residents may begin to think about getting something green growing. For area Community Supported Agriculture groups, the work is already beginning.

Members of a CSA contribute a designated amount of money to a farm before the beginning of the growing season and receive shares of the harvest every week for several months. CSAs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but “The idea that people want to know their farm, to know their farmer and want to know how their food is grown is becoming entrenched,” said John Ward, of Ward Vegetables, a local CSA.

“The CSA is real beautiful business model for the farmer because the member makes their investment all at once and then they are paid up for the season,” he said. “The farmers can get seeds and some of the things they need to get started for the year.’”

For the consumer, a “member” of the farm, the advantage is not spending money on groceries every week while receiving a bounty of fresh and delicious local produce, Ward said.

“It’s a cool model because it helps both parties out,” he said.

Ward Vegetables specializes in greens, including a number already growing in a hoop house, a movable greenhouse allowing farmers an early start on cold weather crops. The CSA encourages members to interact with each other and the farm. It’s a really fun shopping experience, Ward said.

“Some people like to wander around the farm, take a look at what is growing, ask some questions or talk recipes,” he said. “It’s about food and taking ownership of what you’re putting in your body.”

CSAs often offer incentive programs to help ensure the farmers have the money they need as early as possible, said Chris Swier, of the Swier Family Farm, which also offers a CSA program.

“The sooner people sign up the easier it is for me to make the decisions and get started,” he said. “The idea with CSAs is to get your marketing squared away early in the year and just get busy with the work of growing. It’s less stress and more productive if you can get people signed up sooner.”

Some groups offer early sign-up discounts. Instead of changing prices, the Swier CSA is offering an edible incentive to anyone who signs up before March 20.

“We decided instead to incentivize people by offering them a mushroom sampler,” he said. “We’ve already had a couple people ask if we could offer anything else because they don’t like mushrooms, and we’ve worked to set up something different, like eggs.”

Hearty Harvest is another area CSA. They are set apart from other organizations by the variety of fresh fruit included in their boxes, which range from a 2-person to a Big Family share large enough for four to eight, according to Natalie Pennington, Hearty Harvest store manager.

“We have heard from a lot of our members that our CSA is one of the only ones around with a constant selection of fruit,” she said. “We are primarily a vegetable farm, so we work other farms to get our fruit. We work with the local Amish orchard for the majority of the fruits, but we also work with a number of other area orchards.”

Hearty Harvest also recently added a deluxe option including honey, eggs and extra fruit, and the farm is looking to offer a selection of meats.

“In the future, we are looking at adding pork, lamb and beef options, but we haven’t added them yet,” Pennington said.

In partnership with Diversity Farms, LeeAnn’s Flowers and Vegetables is another option for area residents who wish to join a CSA. Like Hearty Harvest, this CSA has a partnership with Amish farmers to provide fruits as well as vegetables.

“We pre-box member’s shares each week of fruits and vegetables, when they come to pick them up they are welcome to trade out any vegetables they don’t want. They get a predetermined box originally but they don’t have to take everything,” said LeeAnn LeGree. “We don’t do a lot of unusual vegetables. We tried that in the beginning, but a lot of people in the area like to stay in their comfort zone in what they want to prepare and eat.”

Most of the CSAs offer recipes and tips for cooking some of their less well-known offerings, Ward said.

“I try to get people to try things once or twice,” he said. “Things like beets, for example. As a kid, you get an idea of what a beet is supposed to taste like, but if you roast in on a grill you get a totally different flavor. You could also try stir-frying them along with the beet greens.”

Anyone interested in joining a CSA can search for Ward Vegetables, Swier Family Farm, LeeAnn’s Flowers and Vegetables or Hearty Harvest on Facebook or the Internet for more information.