SMITHFIELD -- When buying produce at the grocery store, it’s hard to tell how many miles it has traveled. But it’s almost a guarantee that it’s not from your local farmer.
Local farms in Johnston County are looking to change that with a business model called Community Shared Agriculture (CSA), where consumers can sign up to receive a box of fresh produce right off the farm.
A Clayton farm run by Patricia Parker and Ben Shields, In Good Heart Farm runs a summer CSA as well as a fall/winter CSA. Shields said half of the farm’s profits come from the CSA, while the other half comes from farmer’s markets.
With all kinds of kale, collards, sweet potatoes, winter squash, broccoli and more to sell during the fall and winter, Shields said that folks in the Clayton area don’t seem to know that the option of joining a CSA exists.
Shields estimates that three quarters of his customers come from Cary and Raleigh, while only a quarter come from Clayton.
“We want to sell more of our stuff to folks here in Clayton,” Shields said. “The less driving I have to do the better. Not only that, but there would be more time I can spend on the farm if I didn’t have to leave and go sell my stuff in Cary and Raleigh I’d be really happy.”
The farm has CSA share pickups directly from the farm on Wednesdays. Instead of dropping off shares at the Western Wake Farmer’s Market, for example, folks can come straight to the farm and get to know the people growing their food.
“We think that knowing your farmer is the ultimate organic certification,” Shields said. “We know everybody’s name and everybody’s face, and we consider our CSA customers our friends.”
For CSA member Emily Estrada, knowing the farmer is part of what encourages her to make sure she cooks and eats all the fruits and vegetables that arrive in her share. She said she and her partner have committed to cooking their own food since joining the CSA.
“It could be argued that buying fresh produce at the supermarket would also cause someone to cook more often, which is certainly true,” Estrada said. “I would suggest, however, that one reason I feel particularly motivated to cook my CSA veggies is because I have seen the labor, sweat, and love put into these things.”
Before joining the CSA, Estrada said she ate zero servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Now, she’s up to six servings.
“Someone recently saw me eating raw spinach leaves at lunch and remarked, ‘Wow, you’re definitely the healthiest person I know.’ It made my day, and definitely wouldn’t have happened five years ago,” Estrada said.
But cooking a lot of vegetables can be overwhelming, so Shields advises people to join the CSA by starting off with a small share, which only gets picked up twice a week.
“It’s not gonna pile up on you – you have two weeks to work your way through it. It’s the challenge and the fun of it,” Shields said.
At Smith’s Nursery, Inc. out of Benson, their CSA, or “Doorstep Market,” operates a little bit differently. Customers don’t have to commit for a whole season, and they can indicate in an online form which vegetables they want in their share.
Chris Smith, whose family operates the farm, said people will order anywhere from $5 boxes to $100 boxes. With about 185 orders in a week during the peak of the season, like spring and early summer, Smith says the CSA is definitely profitable.
“I think there’s a lot of people that are unaware of it, but I think it’s a growing trend,” Smith said. Maybe not just in Johnston County but in all of North Carolina. I think in the last couple years it’s something that’s become a lot more popular.”
As the farmers’ market season peters out, CSAs are certainly an option for people looking to get fresh produce year-round.
“This way you know where your produce comes from, it’s as fresh as you can get, and you’re supporting the local community,” Smith said.