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Popularity of community supported agriculture bolsters retail growth for local farms
by: Arwen Ungar PRODUCE OPTIONS — Samara Hashem displays one of 15 varieties of tomatoes  
Bella Organic plans to grow and offer through its Community Supported agriculture service this season.

Increasingly, ideas like sustainability and eating local have taken root in the Pacific Northwest. Growth has been slow and steady, but consumers' maturing desire to buy local produce at a low cost has enabled new farms to crop up with community supported agriculture programs throughout the state.

Community supported agriculture - or CSA - is a program designed to benefit consumers by bringing farm-fresh food to the kitchen table at a low cost, while equally benefiting the farmer by by providing seed money for production.

The way it works: Subscribers buy a share in a farm's seasonal production, which translates to a specific amount of vegetables, and sometimes fruits, each week.

The subscribers then pick up the food from various spots around Portland and Columbia County. Typically, CSAs last for about 20 to 30 weeks, usually starting in June.

Weather changes, pest problems and low productivity are often problems that plague small farmers, but the CSA business model accounts for blips in the production schedule. This year, farmers faced a cold, wet winter and most CSA programs are starting two weeks or more later. If one week is a little light on produce, the next week will make up for it. It's these built-in safeguards make the program beneficial for small farmers who operate in partnership with their CSA subscribers.

Samara Hashem, farm event manager at Bella Organic, a second-year CSA, said the model has helped offset nature's unpredictableness.

'If we don't have anything one week, hopefully the next week you'll get two boxes,' Hashem said.

Because CSAs are usually supplemental to other subscriber food purchases, a difference in the amount of produce received each week is not catastrophic.

Sauvie Island Organics farm owner Shari Raider said her farm harvests more than 40 different vegetables, and an increasing awareness for organics has driven a rise in the number of farms and CSA programs in the Pacific Northwest.

'I would say there's a growing awareness of CSAs,' Raider said. 'Now there's a lot more options.'

More than 12,549 farms in the nation offered some sort of community supported agriculture program, according to United States Department of Agriculture data. Among those with programs, farms grew by about 50 percent in the years between 2007 and 2009.

This year, Raider's farm offered 300 family and 200 individual shares - the most shares the farm has ever offered -and Raider is nearly sold out for the season.

She said her subscribers tell her they want to know more about the food they eat.

'Our members know exactly where their food comes from,' Raider said. 'And people get to connect with a piece of land.'

Older, more established farms are also aiming to fill a recurring spot in the CSA market. The Pumpkin Patch, a 47-year-old farm, is offering a CSA for the second time this year.

The patch harvests more than 500 acres of vegetables, operates a corn maize, pumpkin patch, gift shop and produce market. The farm also sells its produce to many of the big supermarkets in the area.

Bob Egger, the Pumpkin Patch's owner, said CSAs help consumers because 'they cut out at least two middlemen.' Produce provided in the absence of a delivery system and the grocery store is also fresher and cheaper. Even if it's the same produce Egger sells at the farm, he said.

Prices vary from farm to farm depending upon the share size and how many weeks a program will run. Programs running from 20 to 30 weeks cost $20 to $35 a week for a full share, a box that feeds a family of four. Prices for a half share range from about $15 to $25 a week.

An average family of four spends anywhere from $114 to $257 a week on all food costs, according to 2008 data from the USDA. The costliest CSA subscription represents a little less than a third to less than a sixth of a family's total budget.

But consumers usually don't have to pay for 20 weeks of food upfront at the grocery store. Most CSA programs make consumers pay for the whole season, or at least half, before they deliver the first box.

Upfront consumer costs don't seem to be stopping the influx of subscribers, however.

For instance, Egger said the farm sold about 70 percent of their produce wholesale and 30 percent retail in 1996.

Today, Egger said wholesale and retail each represent about half of his company's earnings, and he expects to increase that retail number as his CSA gains in popularity.