Brock Horton and Maria Caradonna at the Homeless Garden U-Pick, a CSA. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

Brock Horton and Maria Caradonna at the Homeless Garden U-Pick, a CSA. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

“CSAs make it doable for farmers,” says Chris Menge of Tierra Madre Farm, a Santa Cruz County nursery operation that is offering its first Community Supported Agriculture program this spring.

In the CSA model, customers pay a farm at the beginning of the season and receive a basket of produce each week. “It's actually supporting the farm because farmers receive almost retail price,” Menge says, “and the money comes in at the beginning of the season, when costs are the highest.” 

It's no secret that Santa Cruz County has long had a vibrant local food scene; one need look no further than the daily farmers markets, or grocery shelves that are stocked with produce grown just a few miles away. For more and more locals, though, the best way to get local produce is through CSAs, which typically deliver weekly boxes of produce to a given location, where subscribers can then pick up their weekly allocations.

CSAs are not a new phenomenon, having spread to California from the East Coast in the early ’90s. But they have recently taken off in popularity, here and throughout the state. One UC–Davis study showed a doubling of CSAs in the Central Valley between 2004 and 2009. According to that study, one reason they’ve become so popular is their direct marketing model. CSAs also allow shoppers and farmers to move beyond the typical consumer and producer relationship.

Customer interest in CSAs often stems from a desire to not only support but to form a personal relationship with a specific farm and farmers.

“People are wanting the opportunity to connect with land and farms, and to be a part of something that is so fundamental and real,” says Kirsten Yogg of Santa Cruz's Freewheelin' Farm. “Members commit to us, and we also commit to them.”

Many CSAs encourage member involvement by hosting events, or even allowing customers to stroll through the fields with on-farm pick-ups.

Another reason for the popularity of CSAs is the quality of produce. 

“People want to get the freshest and highest-quality produce,” Yogg says.  Customers are also exposed to a rich diversity of produce, and varieties that are rarely available in markets. “It's about growing and appreciating beautiful produce,” Menge says. Tierra Madre focuses on rare and heirloom varieties, with the goal of both preserving these crops—which might otherwise become virtually extinct—and also exposing more customer's to their unique flavors and characteristics.

While CSAs traditionally focus on fruits and vegetables, farmers markets in Santa Cruz County are expanding to offer more local products. Fogline Farm, a Soquel-based, 50-member CSA farm, also provides its members with a weekly protein source in the form of a whole chicken, a dozen eggs or pork. Tierra Madre Farm will also be stocking their baskets with staples like dry beans and dry corn for flour. “This allows customers to source more of their food locally and directly,” Menge says.

For a guide to local CSAs, click here.html.