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CSAs share the bounty

Most local farmers are plotting which seeds to sow for spring and summer crops. But they're hoping to plant the seed of community-supported agriculture long before the first harvest.

Winter is when farmers incur much of their costs for the coming year. There are seeds, fertilizers and other supplies to buy. Improvements need to be made on farm properties and wages paid months before any monetary return.

"You really go into debt this time of year," says Steve Fry, co-owner with wife Suzi of Fry Family Farm in Talent. "This is when the farmer really starts stressing."

To alleviate some of the stress and financial burden, small farmers such as the Frys ascribe to the CSA concept. Customers pay for a year's worth of farm products up front and receive weekly allotments of vegetables, fruits and other foodstuffs usually between June and November. Local CSAs already are taking subscriptions and promise discounts if customers commit by April 1.

Most CSAs require participants to claim their items at a central location. Some, including the Frys', offer doorstep delivery.

"You can find a CSA right in your neighborhood," says Wendy Siporen, executive director of THRIVE, a nonprofit advocacy and development group for Rogue Valley food producers.

The arrangement allows CSA "shareholders" to assume some of the farmer's risks but also reap the rewards. If the harvest is successful, shareholders may receive larger portions. They also get farm news, recipes and other ideas for using seasonal produce, as well as invitations to tour the farm or attend special events. Large CSAs like the Frys' serve more than 100 households, small ones as few as 10.

"They become a part of that family," says Siporen.

Since Whistling Duck Farm started a CSA 14 years ago, followed by Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative and the Frys, CSAs have continued to catch on in the Rogue Valley.

More recently, farmers have modified the model to give shareholders more flexibility. Blue Fox Farm in the Applegate sells "bucks" toward produce purchases at local farmers markets. Other farmers allow payment plans or substitutions of some items.

But even as THRIVE instituted its own online growers market last year, Siporen says there's value to be found in "giving up all control to the seasons."

"We're bombarded with so many decisions as consumers these days," she says.

Yet anyone considering joining a CSA should shop around and look at their own patterns for cooking and eating. For families who consume a wide variety of fresh vegetables, CSAs can save time and money. For those who don't, making the most of a CSA can be a major challenge. Depending on the program, prices for five months of produce range from $700 for "full" shares to $300 "mini" shares for one person.

Comparing prices might be difficult because most farmers can only estimate how much food and the variety each box will contain. If a crop fails, shareholders may lack a favorite vegetable. If a crop does better than expected, CSAs may furnish it for weeks and weeks, even if customers are sick of it.

THRIVE encourages prospective shareholders to talk to farmers and their CSA participants. Ask for tips on using the share and advice on what size to choose. Arrange a visit to the farm and determine if the share includes items from other local businesses.

Some CSAs, like Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative, allow shareholders to add locally raised meats, as well as cheese, eggs, bread, honey and other items for a set cost. Willow-Witt Ranch near Ashland and Yale Creek Ranch near Jacksonville operate meat-only CSAs that include ranch-raised pork, beef, goat, lamb and chicken. Teri White's new Runnymede CSA is the only one, she says, that includes eggs as part of the standard share.

After almost a decade of farming, most years attending three growers markets per week, White says she started a CSA last year to take the place of Saturdays spent at market. Of the four shareholders signed up so far, three are repeats from last year, she says. Other local farmers report that at least half of their customers return season to season.

"That gave me an extra day on the farm to work," says White.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

Suzi Fry of Fry Family Farm operates a community-supported agriculture program that delivers boxes of produce and other local foods to subscribers in summer and fall. Fry and other local CSAs already are taking subscriptions for this season. - Jamie Lusch