Valley Bounty: CSA season gets jump on growing season next week

Pat Larson of Orange helped to develop the HIP share program at Quabbin Harvest starting with its statewide launch in 2017. Here she helps a HIP customer pack the week’s vegetable share into a reusable bag.

Pat Larson of Orange helped to develop the HIP share program at Quabbin Harvest starting with its statewide launch in 2017. Here she helps a HIP customer pack the week’s vegetable share into a reusable bag. Quabbin Harvest

All of the HIP shares at Quabbin Harvest are weighed and packed by a cohort of volunteers, including Anne Cutler-Russo, from left, Deb Habib, Ramona Hamblin, Kimberly Scot and Margot Parrot.

All of the HIP shares at Quabbin Harvest are weighed and packed by a cohort of volunteers, including Anne Cutler-Russo, from left, Deb Habib, Ramona Hamblin, Kimberly Scot and Margot Parrot. Quabbin Harvest

MaryEllen Kennedy of New Salem is one of the share-packing volunteers whose involvement with the Quabbin Harvest co-op goes back many years.

MaryEllen Kennedy of New Salem is one of the share-packing volunteers whose involvement with the Quabbin Harvest co-op goes back many years. Quabbin Harvest

By LISA GOODRICH

For the Gazette

Published: 02-16-2024 4:07 PM

Though more weeks of winter lie ahead, National Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) week — Feb. 19-25 — marks the symbolic start of the CSA cycle, when member sign-ups start rolling in and participating farmers begin planning for the coming growing season.

The options for CSAs in our area are as diverse as the farms in the region, collectively offering vegetables, fruit, meat, mushrooms, medicinal herbs, and even wool. As part of its mission of working to strengthen farms by engaging the community to grow and sustain the local food economy, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture ( CISA), based in South Deerfield, hosts an online guide that lists CSAs in our area at bit.ly/find-a-CSA.

Nate Frigard, owner of Crimson & Clover Farm in Florence, explains CSAs as “a different kind of relationship that an eater has with a farm. This innovative relationship provides security for the farm, and in return, the farm provides abundant food for their community.”

Some farms extend their CSAs into winter, as Crimson & Clover did this year, while others operate year-round, such as Orange-based Quabbin Harvest Food Co-op’s CSA. In general, participants register and pay for their shares in advance. Winter is commonly registration time for summer or main season CSAs.

Crimson & Clover offers 20 weeks of organic vegetables from June to October. When customers come to pick up shares at the farm, there is an option to mix and match vegetables based on supply. Pick-your-own for some crops is also included.

Regular share pickups on the farm are Tuesdays through Saturdays, and shareholders come when it is most convenient for them. Crimson & Clover is just a mile from Florence Center, and some members walk or bike to the farm. After the main season ends, winter CSA registration opens.

There are many ways customers pay for their CSA shares. Some farms, like Crimson & Clover, accept the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food benefits to low-income families. In Massachusetts, the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) puts money back on a client’s EBT card when using SNAP to buy local fruits and vegetables from HIP farm vendors.

Crimson & Clover offers discounted CSA shares for patrons who use their benefits to enroll. Through the registration process, the farm helps clients align monthly benefits to pay for some or all of a CSA share. Many SNAP/HIP clients sign up for the season, and they can cancel at any time.

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No matter how people pay for their share, everyone’s experience of the farm’s CSA is the same. Crimson & Clover delivers to Boston weekly, so families in the area can connect loved ones with local food, even if far away.

Usually, CSAs are offered directly from farms, but some retail stores and farm stands offer them too, including Quabbin Harvest. Last year through HIP, Quabbin Harvest distributed 2,029 vegetable shares and 1,219 fruit shares to neighbors through their co-op grocery store.

Communications Coordinator Cathy Stanton, explains that the Quabbin Harvest CSA “follows the farm share model, where you get a share of the farm. Ours differs in that it’s year-round, and we source from many different farmers. We’re in the North Quabbin area: we don’t have as many farms as the Valley, and our farms are smaller.”

One key part of their sourcing is a partnership with a food distributor.

“We use Marty’s Local, a local distributor, to allow us to source beyond our immediate area,” Stanton says. “They are our extension into the Valley, allowing us to source from farms as local as possible while offering fresh, healthy food to members.”

Quabbin Harvest Co-op was founded with a flexible CSA share concept in 2009, offering a year-round weekly CSA. To manage the volume of food, the co-op offers a full share, half-share, or fruit share. Anyone can enroll in the CSA and pay for it. At $18 for everyone, their vegetable half-share is the same price as when they began.

Members pick up their biweekly shares at the store, which is “a big, huge box of vegetables,” Stanton says. The co-op offers rolling enrollment for the CSA program for everyone, and members can stop at any time. Currently the program feeds over 80 households who receive SNAP & HIP benefits.

The Marty’s Local partnership allows Quabbin Harvest to supply 4,000 CSA shares per year.

“We need a lot of food, yet we’re little,” Stanton says. “Very locally, we source from Seeds of Solidarity Farm in Orange, the Farm School in Athol, Red Apple Farm in Phillipston, and Coolidge Hill Farm in New Salem. But bigger farms won’t deliver directly to us. To get more fresh food for our members, Marty’s Local helps us source from farms further away, including Winter Moon Farm, Kitchen Garden Farm, Bardwell Farm, and Pine Hill Orchards.”

Many farms in our three counties also offer food access programs that are independent of SNAP and HIP. The relationship between farms and community is symbiotic, and partners emerge from unexpected places. For customers for whom paying for a season in advance is a financial stretch, customers can purchase their CSA shares with a zero-interest CSA loan through UMassFive College Federal Credit Union. This helps farmers now while purchasing seeds and consumables or repairing equipment, while giving clients a way to distribute the cost in monthly payments.

Overall, both farmers and grocers express joy in feeding their community while leveraging SNAP and HIP through their CSA programs.

“I got into farming for love of the work and how farming builds community,” says Crimson & Clover’s Frigard. “ It’s always been a guiding principle of this farm to make food accessible to everyone; SNAP and HIP are natural extensions of those values. I love taking down barriers for people to access local, healthy food.”

Says Stanton: “We’ve built a base of relationships with the people receiving HIP shares, where we’ve gotten to really know people and they know the store. Developing relationships around food with people in our community brings satisfaction and joy to co-op staff.”

Lisa Goodrich is communications coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA). To sign up for the Crimson & Clover and Quabbin Harvest CSA programs, see their websites. To find a CSA near you, check our online guide at buylocalfood.org.