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Local farmers find new way to reach customers through community-supported agriculture

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Three Carroll County farms have planted the seeds for community-supported agriculture, and now they hope to see the idea bear fruit — and vegetables — for all involved.
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a kind of a pact between farmers and customers to share the risk and the rewards.
The customers pay for their produce at the beginning of the growing season and receive packages made up of the yields throughout the season.

Farmers send their produce directly to their clients in the CSA group.
Webb Flowers of the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service approached Groundswell Farm in Pipers Gap and the team of Childs Farms and Brady's Produce to supply 24 weeks worth of "shares" to participants.
Flowers had the idea of promoting the CSA groups locally and to large employers in nearby metro areas like Winston-Salem, N.C.
Getting enough employees at a large company would make it worthwhile to deliver to customers there, the thinking went.
The necessary marketing to make those connections, though, could have been better, he acknowledged.
Between them, the CSA group probably sold around 30 shares.
Other add-ons were also available, including meat, eggs and flowers.
"The producers that are participating like what they're doing," Flowers said. "They're interested in continuing, and they want to improve."
Groundswell Farm, run by Sara Fennell, has supplied its participants with a spring mix of chard, greens, spinach, lettuce and potatoes. And there are two more seasons to go.
Fennell had undertaken a similar subscription-style program in Charlotte before moving to Carroll County.
"Groundswell Farm CSA is one-third through the season, and the response and support have been incredible," Fennell noted in an e-mail to The Gazette. "A good friend once told me, 'It's all about relationships,' and this has proven to be true for our first year. 
"This marketing strategy seems to be a good fit for many folks in and around Galax."
In their joint effort, Childs Farm supplied the first six weeks of produce from its greenhouse, said Donna Peery of Brady's Produce. Then, Brady's Produce stocked the boxes after their crops came in and sent them out from the Southwestern Virginia Farmers Market, where they run their direct sales business.
A half share — enough to supply a couple — costs $336 over the 24-week period, or $14 a week.
The box contains a colorful assortment of zucchini, squash, cucumbers, green beans, corn, early apples, peaches, plums and tomatoes.
The tomatoes come from Welcome, N.C., the corn comes from Salem, Peery said. "And then everything else is out of Carroll County."
(The fruit came from Ayers Orchard in Cana. The families are related by marriage.)
Buying from local farmers can be seen as a rejection of the industrialization of agriculture, shipping produce across the nation to sell and importing food from countries with fewer health and quality standards than the U.S.
"It's knowing where your food comes from," Peery summed up.
The dozen or so members of their CSA could drive about five miles from the farmers market to see where their food is grown.
"It wasn't like we needed a CSA to grub in an extra dollar," she said. "The idea was to have another way to market your product and guarantee you have somewhere for your product to go."
Brady's did not increase production to fill the shares, as they were growing fields of produce to sell to retail and wholesale customers anyway.
Peery could see how the rise of community-supported agriculture efforts could bolster young farmers. Getting funds from customers at the beginning of the season could lessen the need to get a loan for supplies, for example.
There are a lot of input costs that come all at once for farms. A season's worth of fertilizer alone could be tens of thousands of dollars, and then there's equipment, fuel, seeds and more to pay for.
She sees CSA groups as a way to keep agriculture healthy in this country, despite all the challenges that farmers face. "It's just another avenue to keep agriculture viable in Carroll County."
Brady's could have supplied more customers, but Peery notes that it is the first year for their program.
If customers' interest in participation continues, Peery expects that Brady's would continue the effort into next year.
"We'll try anything once," she said. "Sometimes, we'll try it twice."
Flowers is planning a panel discussion on CSA at the Extension office July 27 at 7 p.m.

For more information, about CSA and the farms, go to brpfcsa.webs.com/ or groundswellfoods.com