When Debbie Buppert, owner of Buppert's Doran's Chance Farm, in Eldersburg, was asked five years ago why the farm didn't have a community supported agriculture program, Buppert's response was she didn't see the point. If her customers were already buying their produce from the farm then it wouldn't make any sense to offer the program, she said. It took years of badgering from her customers and the persistence of her daughter before she said she finally understood why it was important.
"I finally get it because my regulars kept telling me 'we want to support you,'" Buppert said.
That is what a community supported agriculture program is: A commitment from the community to share in the risk and the reward of the farm and the farm, in turn, shares a portion of their product with each member.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the concept began in Europe and Japan in the 1960s and eventually migrated to the United States roughly two decades later. Though the actual number of CSAs in America is difficult to calculate, Local Harvest — an online database and directory — has the most comprehensive list of them in the country and contains more than 4,000, mostly along the East Coast in New England and the mid-Atlantic states. Each member, or shareholder as they are known in a CSA, contributes a certain amount of money at the beginning of the season. The amount is dependent on the size, content and frequency at which they receive the share.
Buppert's season runs from Memorial Day through Thanksgiving for a total of 25 weeks. They sell full-shares for $650 and three-quarter shares for $510. The farm is just one of many that runs a community supported agriculture system in Carroll County. In the last decade, the popularity of the program has spread throughout the South Carroll and Westminster areas.
Evermore Farm, in Westminster, owned by Ginger Myers, has run a CSA since 2008. Their season lasts for 15 weeks from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Her members can buy shares of fruits and vegetables, meat, eggs and poultry. Produce shares cost $495 for a full-share, which includes at least eight items and $330 for a half-share, which contains at least five items. Meat shares are portioned by weight — from eight to 22 pounds — and range in price from $304 to $770.
"Both partners are making a commitment," Myers said. "It's part of supporting our community both for producer and consumer."
Another such farm, Chestnut Creek Farm, located in Westminster, has organized a CSA program since 2010. Jeff White, who owns the farm with his wife Jan, said they became aware of the program while participating in the Carroll County Farmer's Market. They have a 16-week season that starts in May and ends Sept. 15. Their produce shares cost $480 for a full-share and $240 for a half-share, and a member can choose to receive their share for the first eight weeks, last eight weeks or every other week. White said the program benefits the farm by intensifying word-of-mouth advertising and makes it easier for the consumer to get exactly what they want.
"It adds one more outlet for our product," White said. "The farmers market is nice but I think there are other people that prefer to have their vegetables portioned and packaged for them, which is what we do."
Chestnut Creek Farm allows each shareholder to choose what they would like in their share, depending on what is in season locally.
Buppert has given this option to her shareholders as well, with what she has named the swap box. At the beginning of the season, she fills the box with an assortment of fruits and vegetables, and each member can mix and match as they see fit. The reason she does this, Buppert said, is because of the preferences of her members and any allergy concerns.
What all these farms have in common is their promise to the community that their produce is grown by them, and if for some reason — such as drought — they are unable to provide the promised produce, they only partner with other local farms to supplement their crops.
"We are genuine. If I say it's local then it's local," Buppert said.
Perhaps the most pronounced benefit of the program is the improved financial stability of the farm. Without a CSA, farms are entirely dependent on the whims of both the consumer and mother nature, Buppert said. If the farm has a bad season, then they, as owners, are plagued by worry and doubt, she said. A CSA takes some of this uncertainty out of the business.
"The advantage is the farm has the money up front which helps us budget for the slow part of the year," Buppert said. "It has simplified our lives."
And of course, the consumer who joins a CSA benefits from the program too. Doris Gallagher, mother of seven and a resident of Eldersburg for more than 40 years, has participated in the program at Buppert's Doran's Chance Farm since the farm began running a CSA last year. Gallagher said she and her husband initially decided to join the program because they wanted to support Buppert's and other local farmers but said she noticed the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables they receive each week has broadened her family's horizon of palatable produce.
"It's forced us to try new and healthier and different food that we wouldn't have eaten otherwise," Gallagher said. "Even the kids have remarked how certain vegetables taste better."
To say the feedback from consumers has been positive is an understatement, White said.
"People are very grateful they can come and buy locally and they know who is producing it," he said.
As with all business deals, the ebb and flow of the seasons creates instability in crop production. Yet many CSA farms have partnerships with other local growers to offset any nasty weather patterns. Although the price of a CSA can be costly, the consumer can be comforted by the fact that the produce is the freshest they'll ever find. At the heart of the community supported agriculture idea is a covenant between consumer and producer to be fair, open and honest with each other. Ultimately, what is gained is not financial stability or full refrigerators, but friendship. Though the venture has its risks, White, Buppert, Myers and Gallagher all agreed it's worth the reward.