Share in the harvest

CSAs offer investors weekly produce shipment

By Peter Passi

Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH -- Rob Stenseng of Duluth doesn't want his children to grow up thinking food is something that comes shrink-wrapped from the supermarket. He wants them to appreciate that people working the land are the true providers.

That's just one of the reasons why he and his wife, Deborah, invest in Food Farm, the Wrenshall, Minn., business that introduced the concept of community-supported agriculture to the Duluth area.


Operations like the Food Farm are often called CSAs. They offer consumers a chance to buy shares in a farm, and in return, these investors receive a cut of the weekly harvest.

When John and Jane Fisher-Merritt launched their organic CSA a decade ago, few Northland residents had ever heard of such a thing.

Food Farm's startup puts it among the first CSAs in the state, according to Brian DeVore, communication coordinator for the Land Stewardship Project. He said the movement first gained a Minnesota foothold after about 450 people attended a conference on the CSA concept at Hamline University in fall 1992.

The CSA model, however, dates back much further. Credit for creating the first CSA belongs to a group of Japanese women who were concerned about the growing use of pesticides and the declining quality of the produce they found at the market. In 1965, they formed a direct cooperative relationship with local farmers.

Their idea first spread to Europe, then reached North America in the mid-1980s.

In recent years, CSAs have proliferated.

The Robyn Van En Center in Chambersburg, Pa., maintains a national registry of CSAs. Its list has grown from 266 operations in 1999 to more than 1,000 today, said its director, Martha Cornwell. And the registry grows by five or six new operations per week, she said.

CSAs have mushroomed in northern Minnesota, but Food Farm is the granddaddy of the lot and remains the largest. Offering 110 shares, the 7-acre farm provides vegetables to about 200 families during the summer. Many families split a share. Stenseng said he has found a half-share more than adequate to meet the needs of a family of four.


A summer share at Food Farm costs $440 and entitles the holder to a weekly package of vegetables from June through October. Stenseng figures the organic vegetables cost slightly more than they would at a grocery store, but he says they're worth a little extra.

"The quality of the produce is better," he said. "And we like knowing who's growing our food and what they're doing."

This year marks Loren Nelson's fifth as a Food Farm shareholder and his second as a field volunteer.

"It's my way of giving something back," said the Mahtowa, Minn., resident. "I think people like the Fisher-Merritts are doing about the most important work on the planet. They're growing food in a sustainable way on the local level."

CSAs in northern Minnesota come in all shapes and sizes.

On the small side, Paula Williams is in the second year of operating a flower CSA near Barnum, Minn. She sold all 10 of the shares she offered this year. For each $150 share her customers buy, they receive a bouquet of flowers cut fresh weekly.

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