While the majority of the public wades into the debate of whether Grocery Store X has “better produce” than Grocery Store Y, CSA participants sit back and wait for what is widely considered the best stuff to be delivered to a nearby location or even directly to their homes.
In CSA—community supported agriculture—business models may vary, but the premise is usually the same. Customers pay up front for “shares” in a farm’s yield, and receive periodic—often weekly—shipments of goods from the farm.
There are some risks—if it’s a bad year for rutabaga, for example, then customers will get little or no rutabaga and more of something else, radishes maybe. Farmers and customers often say that the freshness and flavor of local produce justifies the lower degree of customer control.
The Baltimore Guide has spoken to a few CSA farmers, large and small, and we found that they have some things in common.
We spoke to three farmers: Alex Smith of Purple Sol Farm, a newer, smaller-scale operation based in Phoenix, Md., and to Joan Norman of One Straw Farm, a larger, long-standing operation in White Hall, as well as to Brett Sippel of RoofTop Hot, a CSA/market hybrid with a shop in Highlandtown.
All noted that bringing fresh produce to city residents was a major motivation in their businesses.
Smith, 25, is in his second year of running Purple Sol Farm. He has just moved his operation from Pennsylvania to Phoenix, Md., at the edge of metro Baltimore. He grew up in the city’s Homeland neighborhood, but gravitated toward Pennsylvania starting with his undergraduate years at Dickinson College.
Smith remained in Pennsylvania—where farming is arguably more entrenched—for a few years, working for a larger farm and learning the business before establishing Purple Sol Farm with his eye on Baltimore.
“Baltimore is the area I want to serve with good food,” Smith said. “I’ve got a lot of hometown pride.”
He sees CSA as a community service.
“As an environmental studies major, you pretty much just study what’s wrong with the world, socially and ecologically,” he said. “I pretty much saw food at the center of all the problems.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way, he added.
“I see food as a community builder,” Smith clarified. “It made sense for me to do a CSA where I’m interacting with the community.”
Norman, too, cited customer service and interaction as major reasons for adding a CSA component to One Straw Farm in 1999. Established in 1983, the farm originally sold its produce wholesale to retailers such as Whole Foods and at farmers markets. It still does, but the CSA component has become the biggest part of the business.
Norman said that her family’s motivator for establishing a CSA was “this feeling that we were shipping our food around the country and none of our neighbors could get it.”
“People kept saying, ‘Where can I buy your produce?’” Norman recounted. “I’d say ‘Whole Foods.’”
However, she noted, One Straw Farm’s tomatoes comprised just a variable fraction of the store’s total stock of local tomatoes, and it was not possible for a customer to specifically purchase produce originating from One Straw Farm.
“It became apparent that we would need a method to make it happen,” she said, and that is when the farm started a CSA component.
Brett Sippel and Sabrina Mincey, proprietors of Highlandtown’s RoofTop Hot, actually started with a garden on their city rooftop (hence the name). They initially shared their yield with friends, and later started a CSA and sold their goods at local farmers markets.
“The whole idea is that we’ve been trying to keep it as local and as healthy as possible,” said Sippel in a previous interview. “If you can source what you have from the beginning, it’s easier to do that.”
As previously stated, the scope and size of CSA operations vary. Purple Sol Farm, One Straw Farm and RoofTop Hot give a good cross section of the variances between different CSAs.
Purple Sole Farm is a CSA in the strict sense of the term. Though comparatively small, the operation’s 40 customers (at present) are located in the city as well as along the I-83 corridor from Baltimore north. Smith currently rents farming land in Phoenix, but he hopes to buy in the future.
“I’ll be doing this until I’m rich and famous at least,” Smith said. “I’m pretty confident that farming is the life for me. And I want to be in direct contact with my customers, so CSA is the way for me.”
Not only is he close to his customers; he’s close to the land.
“I joke about turning money into vegetables and back into money, but that’s my bank account in the ground,” he said. “That’s my 401k up on the hill.”
One Straw Farm has between 1,700 and 1,800 CSA customers, and presence at five farmers markets on top of that. The farm still sells its remaining produce wholesale.
“We’re happy to feed you!” Norman said.
In 1997, One Straw launched the CSA side of the business with just seven customers.
“No one knew what [CSA] was,” said Norman. “It was Baltimore; let’s be honest,” she added, joking about the city’s “small-town mentality.”
“But we love to be there,” she said.
RoofTop Hot is different in that the business operates on a “flexible CSA model.” “Market members” get points, which they can use on any product carried in RoofTop Hot’s store location at Conkling and Bank streets in Highlandtown. Once the selection has been made, members can either opt for home delivery or in-store pickup.
There is a long list of CSA farms serving Baltimore City. They can be found by asking friends or inquiring on your neighborhood Facebook page or Nextdoor group.
by Erik Zygmont