"In the spring, all farmers are broke," jokes Rita Bachmann, the owner, planter, shoveler, and picker of local veggie company Rita's Roots. "After a summer harvest, you basically have to hibernate all winter, and it's hard to keep that money aside to get everything started again."
Bachmann currently farms a handful of acres at Ambrose Family Farms on Wadmalaw Island. A year ago, Pete Ambrose was ready to sell the land he's tilled for 32 years and leave farming behind. Wal-Mart had become the world's leading buyer of produce, and he claims the competition of industrial-scale commercial farms made growing anything on a couple-hundred-acre scale largely unprofitable. Then he met Bachmann and realized that "local is the new organic."
As genetically modified foods, meat recalls, and pesticide use become commonplace, consumers increasingly want to know where their food is coming from. Local produce doesn't have to be transported across the nation, burning petroleum in the process, and it's ready to be eaten much sooner after being picked than a box of tomatoes grown in Florida, packaged in Georgia, and sold in New York. But for a small local farm to survive takes the assurance that your crops will sell, and at a fair market price.
In the last few months, three farmers have announced Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs in the Charleston area. The concept is simple: consumers pay a set fee for a share of the season's harvest — normally around $300 for a family of four. Once picking begins in mid-April, they get a weekly box of fresh produce delivered to a predetermined location, through the season into July.
"It's a way to have shareholders buy a little stock in the farm," explains Bachmann. "It lets us buy all the seed, compost, fertilizer, and supplies to ensure that our customers get a whole season's worth of produce in return for their investment."
CSAs also serve as insurance for a farmer. If a hurricane, late freeze, or pest outbreak wipes out their crop, the risk is shared with the consumers. And in times of plenty, the same shareholders receive a part of the abundance as well.
Legare Farms on Johns Island also announced a 100-share CSA last month, after reading about the idea in magazines and online.
"It gives us a way to get some money up front, without having to go to the bank," says Thomas Legare, who operates the farm with his sisters. "We wanted something new to try, and felt the demand was out there for it right now."
His instinct was right. After their CSA was written up in The Post and Courier, they sold all 100 shares within a day and a half. Pete Ambrose saw the success of Legare Farms and Rita's Roots and decided to begin his own, offering between 300 and 400 shares, at least half of which have already sold.
Legare attributes some of the CSAs' quick success to the state's "Certified S.C." program, an initiative by the S.C. Department of Agriculture to brand and promote locally-grown food.
"You can look at it all day, but there's no better way to endorse S.C. agriculture than to eat it," said Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers on a recent stop in Charleston to publicize the program. "It's not just to feel good about farmers — this is a call to action to impact consumers' buying decisions, which then impact agriculture and our lives in a positive way."
Along with being local, the farms are moving toward growing organically as well. Legare says he's been weeding and mowing more often than in the past because of steep rises in the price of chemicals and fertilizers, while Bachmann says that many of her customers prefer and request organics. Before joining Ambrose, she began and certified a USDA Organic farm on Johns Island, and she is well-versed in the intricacies of growing without chemical help. She's rubbing off on Ambrose as well, but he says he's nervous because he's never done it before. "I can't just marry someone after the first date," he jokes.
The weather is warming, and in less than a month, Charleston's first CSA shareholders will begin receiving boxes of squash, tomatoes, beans, corn, arugula, carrots, beets, radishes, strawberries, and whatever else the farmers can successfully raise from the fertile dirt of Johns and Wadmalaw Islands. Rita's Roots has also recruited chefs from Anson, the Glass Onion, Hominy Grill, and other area restaurants to compile a cookbook, so that every box will include a recipe and canning and freezing tips. In addition, she's planning a fund-raiser with Lowcountry Local First at Middleton Place on April 27, featuring a chef's potluck that will create a fund to draw from if other farmers want to begin similar initiatives.
Once the neighbors see the boxes of fresh food arriving next month, it's likely that CSAs' popularity will grow as abundantly as the veggies themselves.
To inquire about the availability of CSA shares with Rita's Roots and Ambrose Family Farm, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and check Stonofarmmarket.com/CSA.html, respectively. Learn more about CSAs and the chefs' potluck at Legarefarms.org and LowcountryLocalFirst.org.