According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 12,000 farms in the United States “marketed products through community supported agriculture (CSA)” in 2012. And in Massachusetts, 431 farms “marketed products through community supported agriculture (CSA)” in 2012. Unlike some other CSA programs that offer shareholders a pre-made grocery bag of produce, Appleton Farms, located in Ipswich, MA, has provided shareholders with the opportunity for customization through their mix-and-match system since 2002.
With the mix-and-match system, shareholders arrive at Appleton Farms and receive an empty standard-sized grocery bag. They then enter the distribution barn where bins of produce await. Shareholders tailor their grocery bags of produce to best serve their schedules and their taste buds for that particular week. According to Ryan Wood, Appleton Farms’ CSA Manager, “the mix-and-match system is very labor intensive to run, as it has to account for so many variable(s) of preference. We are forced to overplant and overharvest in order to provide free choice within minimal limits, but obviously this is a big selling point to our CSA members.”
Appleton Farms’ farm crew cultivates and harvests approximately 200 varieties of flowers, herbs, and produce each growing season. This quantity translates to roughly 15 to 30 different types of crops available in the distribution barn at pick-up each week. The farm crew anticipates a diverse range of produce throughout 2016, from Azur star, a kohlrabi variety, to Starlight, a variety of watermelon.
Appleton Farms is not certified organic but incorporates practices from the National Organic Standards into their farming. In addition, Wood says, “we take instruction from our own ethical principles to steward and protect the resources of the farm. Much of the time, the practices we use guided by our principles overlap with National Organic Standards, but ultimately we make our decisions based on what will be best for the health of the land, the farmers, and our community. Our members aren’t concerned with organic certification because they can see for themselves what our weed management, pest management, and fertility management practices are. Our members trust us because they can see we aren’t taking any shortcuts and because they can meet with us and talk with us face-to-face. That’s better than a stamp from the USDA.”
The pick-your-own (PYO) options and separate storefront available to shareholders compliment Appleton’s mix-and-match system. The farm crew provides PYO options throughout the length of the 20-week share. For example, during the month of July, shareholders are invited to work in the fields to harvest not only herbs and peas, but also varieties of flowers including Cosmos, Dianthus, Snapdragon, and Zinnia.
In addition, Wood says, “on theory, PYO should enhance consumer experience by placing the consumer directly into the boots of the farmer. This allows the consumer to experience some measure of the trials and tribulations faced by the farmer but also allows them to enjoy the rewards of a good harvest. In my experience, the efficacy of PYO as a tool to facilitate empathy between CSA members and farmers is highly dependent on the level of attention and management that the PYO fields receive from both parties. When it is good, it is very good, and that keeps us working to improve every season.”
The Appleton Farms’ Dairy and Farm Store sells their own milk and cheese, as well as locally sourced beef, goat cheese, eggs, and maple syrup. Wood says, “it’s very hard to eat a highly localized diet not least because local food is often spread out or only available once a week at the farmers market. The farm store makes it a lot easier for CSA members to live by the values they believe in (at least when it comes to food).”
And according to Wood, “like many small farms, the backbone of Appleton Farms CSA program is our apprenticeship program. Apprentices work 55+ hours a week in every kind of weather. They are highly dedicated, highly skilled, and the CSA program would be inoperable without their hard work. Their contributions to the success of the CSA are not commensurate at all with their compensation. When you thank your farmer, he or she does not just smile, nod, and move along. We share your words of thanks with one another and it has a tremendous impact on morale. I wish the general public was aware of the impact their words can have on our farm team. I try to thank each member of my crew for their work every day (and you should too).”