Ag Talk column: CSA farms help bridge the relationship between farm and table
Community Supported Agriculture.
One of the first CSA farms in the state was started east of La Salle, south of Kersey, by Jerry and Jacquie Monroe in 1993. Now, Jacquie told a recent meeting of the Greeley Chamber of Commerce Agriculture Committee, there are in excess of 100, perhaps as many as 130, such farms in the state. And it’s not likely any of them will go away soon, certainly not because of a lack of demand.
A CSA farm connects farmers to consumers and visa versa, giving urban CSA members the chance to come to a farm and work as part of their membership – if they so desire – and getting a variety of produce, as well as beef, pork, lamb and eggs in the case of the Monroe operation.
But, Monroe was also quick to point out, it’s not an easy job to run such a farm, and people who join thinking it’s a way to get started as a farmer will be sorely disappointed.
“We have had working members who come work on the farm four hours a week thinking they can learn how to farm,” Monroe said. “In our growing season, we work seven days a week, 12 hours a day. That’s not for everyone.”
But, she added, it offers her and her family an opportunity to do a lot of agriculture education.
Monroe Organic Farms was organic before organic became a buzzword. Jacquie said her family has been farming in the area since 1870, her husband’s family since 1920. Since the Monroe family always had available farm labor in the form of family members, the use of chemical fertilizer, weed and insect control was never considered when those chemicals became available for use in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Now, in addition to four family members, Monroe Organic Farms has one full-time and one part-time employee during the winter, but in the summer it has eight full-time employees in addition to working members. Membership has increased to around 600, Monroe said, but not all are working members. The average annual income of members, she said, ranges from $70,000-$250,000. There are membership fees, different produce fees, ranging from $150-$445 per summer. Work at the CSA begins in June and continues through October; members get produce weekly.
The farm is highly productive. Last year, Jacquie said, members, in addition to their own produce, donated 46,000 pounds of produce. Those donations, she said, usually come when members go on vacation and cannot get to the farm to collect their shares.
Some of those donations went to the Same Cafe in Denver where there are no prices for meals; people pay what they can afford and if they have no money, they help out in the cafe.
Prior to starting the CSA, the Monroes had a farm stand and a u-pick-it operation, as farmers markets had not yet started. By 1993, when they went CSA, Monroe Organic had about 20 acres in production. That has grown to 175 acres, with 60-70 acres in produce. In 1993, they started promoting farmers markets throughout the region and continue that practice. While they sold to wholesale outlets at the beginning, they dropped that because those outlets paid so little for the produce and wouldn’t increase prices to cover production costs.
“A farmer really shouldn’t sell for less than it costs to produce,” she said.
Under the CSA concept, Monroe sells directly to the customer for the entire season and as such, it provides direct income to the farm.
But as a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic operation, weed and insect control is a major problem. Early in the season, working members help with planting, then with hoeing to keep the weeds down. Insect control is done by mixing a small amount of dish soap in water, then spraying plants with that solution. That washes the oil off insects, which then dry and die. But that has to be done early, just as the insects appear. Fertilizer comes in the form of compost and manure.
A couple of years ago, minute grasshoppers moved into the area from the south. Before the Monroes even knew they were on the farm, they had lost 80 percent of their tomato crop.
“They were so little we didn’t notice them until it was too late,” she said.
But labor is the No. 1 issue for CSA operations, she said. On occasions they will get interns who are interested in starting a CSA operation, but other than that, the Monroes have found very few people, young or old, who want to spend the time needed to stay on top of a CSA operation doing the hand labor that is required.
“We strive for consistency,” Monroe said, “But we tell our members we can’t guarantee anything. They pay us to be their gardeners and if a hail storm comes along … .”
Bill Jackson has covered agriculture in northern Colorado for more than 30 years. If you have ideas for this column, call him at (970) 392-4442.
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