Walk among the rows and rows of hydroponic butter leaf lettuce growing in William Shelton’s greenhouse, and you’ll notice a distinctive dark green patch that seems out of place. While the butter leaf is destined to be neatly packed in a clamshell case and shipped to a Food Lion or Ingles somewhere, the variety of dark, mixed greens are headed somewhere totally different, a place Shelton’s veggies have typically not gone before — a local family’s dinner plate.
Shelton, who has spent 25 farming years selling his lettuce and a handful of other crops to big-name retailers, is making his initial foray into Community Supported Agriculture. For the first time in his career, Shelton won’t just know what town his produce is destined for — he’ll know the name of the person eating it.
Customers who pay Shelton $500 at the beginning of the growing season — right around now, or earlier in many cases — will receive a box of fresh vegetables each week for six months. They’ll start off with early spring greens; then transition to strawberries, zucchini, and tomatoes; then eggplant and okra; and finally, as the season winds down, root vegetables like acorn squash and pumpkins.
Shelton appears to have his plan down pat, but in reality, he says he has no idea what to expect — whether customers will like the vegetables he’s chosen; whether many people at all will sign up for his CSA test run.
“I feel like I’m looking into the abyss in a way,” Shelton says. “I’m stepping into uncharted territory.”
It may be an abyss, but he’s not alone in taking the plunge. CSA’s have experienced a surge in popularity with the growing local food movement. In 2008, the nonprofit Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program’s Local Food Guide listed 28 CSA’s within 100 miles of Asheville. This season, there are 42.
“It’s relatively new in this region, and it’s something I’ve really seen take off in the last few years,” says Rose McLarney, communications director for ASAP. “A lot of farms are realizing that people are interested in that direct connection.”
The connection with local consumers is a whole new experience for farmers like Shelton.
“My focus has been on wholesale markets,” Shelton says. “I’ve been resistant to CSA because I’ve been a little intimidated by the prospect of direct marketing.”
But the wholesale markets haven’t been kind in recent years.
“The market pressures have gotten worse instead of better,” says Shelton. “We’ve been overproducing a small variety of traditional crops like tomatoes, and it’s just cutthroat supply and demand. For the last couple of years, the markets have just been horrible in the summer.”
Typically, Shelton says, with every spring comes renewed hope that somehow, the next season will be better. Sometimes it is. Lately, it hasn’t been.
At the same time market prices are plummeting, however, the interest in local food is rising. The priorities of consumers are shifting, says McLarney. It’s less about getting any kind of food anytime you want it, even if it means it has to come from thousands of miles away; and more about knowing where food comes from.
“I think people are really interested in different qualities than looking for the exotic,” McLarney says. “I think knowing that the flavor comes from things that haven’t traveled as far is of more interest to people than being able to eat tropical year round.”
Cathy Arps, a Jackson County grower, has seen that trend emerge firsthand. She and her husband Ron have run a CSA for 11 years.
“That freshness is one of the things that has sold people on the idea of local food,” says Cathy. “It’s just so good, and most people think it’s fun to learn how to eat what’s really growing, and to know something about their food.”
The Arps’ were overjoyed to hear a fellow farmer was starting up a CSA. Theirs has been so popular that the coveted 21 spots fill quickly year after year and they’re forced to turn many people away. More CSAs haven’t popped up to meet the growing demand.
“When William called me and said he was starting a CSA, I practically jumped up and down,” Ron says. “We’ve been talking to people for years about getting more CSAs going, because we’ve always had to turn so many people down.”
Julie Mansfield, owner of Mountain Harvest Organics in Madison County, was also happy to hear of Shelton’s plan. She and her husband started a CSA in Haywood County nine years ago when they saw locals were having to drive to Asheville for consistent access to local produce. Today, they’re still one of the few CSA programs west of Asheville, and they deliver to customers each week at the Waynesville tailgate market. Earning one of the Mansfield’s 50 slots is difficult, because customers return year after year.
“We have a really high retention rate, and so we haven’t been able to add new members for a long time,” Mansfield says. “We have a waiting list every year, so I’m very excited that other people are doing it.”
Haywood County grower Danny Barrett is another farmer jumping on the CSA bandwagon this year. Like Shelton, Barrett had sold his crops wholesale for nearly his entire career. One day several years ago, his daughter convinced him to put up a produce stand.
“So we threw in some heirloom tomatoes and decided to put up signs on the road and sell them for a quarter a piece,” Barrett remembers. “And it just kinda boomed.”
The response was so great that Barrett switched from growing peppers and tomatoes for wholesale markets to mainly selling from his produce stand. Now, he hopes to have the same success with a CSA.
Barrett, like many CSA farmers, is attracted to the idea of getting paid for his crop at the start of the growing season.
“I gotta look at it from the benefits at my end, which is it gives me some early startup money,” Barrett says. “Instead of going to the bank and having to borrow enough money because it’s so expensive to put a crop in, you have that money to start with, and you won’t have to pay it back at the end of the year.”
Traditionally, farmers have had the burden of getting the money together to start their crop, then hoping they can make that money back as the season progresses.
“Usually if you’re growing a produce, you make all the investments, take it to the market, and hope somebody buys it, and if they don’t, you’ll lose money,” says McLarney.
The CSA model gives farmers a leg up at the start of the growing season.
“The upfront money that people pay, it’s like seed money, because it pays for our seeds and our fertilizers,” Mansfield says. “You don’t get that money up front from the market. If we have a crop failure, we still have income coming in no matter what.”
That’s another reason CSAs are attractive to farmers — they provide assurance that, “customers will stick with them throughout the season,” McLarney says.
The model creates a deeply personal connection between customers of a CSA and the farmer. If the farm has a tough season, the customer feels it directly in the form of smaller boxes of produce each week — and if the season is plentiful, customers reap the rewards.
“They invest in a farm and share in the risk of that farm, but they also get to share in the bounty of the crop,” Shelton says.
The personal connection a CSA forms between a farmer and customer is deepened by the fact that the experience is often a learning curve for both. For instance, to entice customers, farmers tend to plant a much more diverse array of crops than they have in the past.
“It allows farmers to grow a variety of crops, because people like to see different things in their box,” says McLarney. “Whereas farmers in recent years may have been encouraged to specialize in one thing and sell it wholesale.”
That’s the experience Shelton is going through. Last year, he grew strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and squash. This year, “I’m doing a whole lot of different things for CSA, some for the first time,” Shelton says. “It’s kind of reintroduced me to gardening.”
As he walks through his greenhouses and fields, Shelton points out the wide array of things he’s planted this year: mixed greens, okra, cantaloupe, soybeans, broccoli, cabbage, mustard greens, turnips, zucchini, sweet corn, eggplant, blueberries and chard.
“This is the first time I’ve grown shallots in my life,” Shelton laughs, gesturing to a row of small green shoots.
For Cathy Arps, “the category of food that has been a learning experience is greens,” she says. The Arps’ will sift through a seed catalog, picking out as many edible greens as they can find in order to give their customers some variety in early spring.
“We grow all kinds of greens that people can’t even pronounce the names of,” Cathy chuckles.
The wide variety of produce offered through a CSA encourages customers like Larissa Miller, a longtime member of the Arps’ program, to be inventive in the kitchen.
“Lots of times we’d get things I wouldn’t typically grow in the garden,” Miller says. “It forces me out of my normal paradigm of cooking to try some things a little different.”
After a while, customers get good at figuring out what to do with the weekly bounty of produce.
“A lot of members said the first year, it was challenging to eat all the food,” Mansfield says. “You accumulate a repertoire of recipes, so you might have 50 ways to cook kale.”
The Mansfields have created an online collection of member-submitted recipes, which can be accessed at www.mountainharvestorganic.com/recipes.html.
Shelton is working hard to make his CSA succeed. He’s had a crash course in direct marketing to the consumer, creating a new Web site, distributing brochures, setting up a booth at Greening up the Mountains and joining the local Chamber of Commerce. He hopes to snag between 100 and 200 customers this season.
Though Shelton says the learning curve is steep, he’s undoubtedly committed — not just to his CSA, but to the larger idea of eating locally.
“I’ve decided that if the idea is to connect local food to local people, and I have the capacity to grow a good volume of food, it’s a good route to take,” he says. “Ideally, I think I’m going to try to build this community around my farm.”
Interested in purchasing a CSA share from one of the farmers in this article?
• The Arps are already full for the season.
Shares in both CSAs are limited, so register as soon as possible. Shares can be split, so if the weekly produce box seems a bit daunting, feel free to invite friends, neighbors, or family to take part.