We’re Getting the Band Back Together – Band of Farmers That Is

March 2, 2015 at 4:32 pm

Eat Local with a CSA Now

band of farmers

There’s a new CSA player in town—actually a coalition of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms that serve the greater Chicagoland area. It’s Band of Farmers: The Chicagoland CSA Coalition. Fashioned to some extent after the longstanding Madison-area CSA coalition, FairShare CSA Coalition (formerly MACSAC), this farmer-led group recognizes that CSA farms, rather than competing with each other, have more that unites them than divides them. And the numbers show that there’s more than enough capacity in the Chicagoland area to go around. Check out these statistics:

  • The Madison (WI) metropolitan area has a population of approximately 600,000 and CSA farmers there serve 9,500 households (FairShare CSA Coalition 2013 Annual Report)

  • The Chicago metropolitan area has a population of approximately 9,000,000 and serves roughly the same number of households (based on an average of 100 households multiplied by 80-90 CSA farms serving Chicagoland)

Band of Farmers is early in its formation and, as of this writing, doesn’t even have farmer-members yet, but the steering committee made up predominantly of CSA farmers, has been working behind the scenes for over a year in an effort to craft the kind of group that they want to see. It will be inclusive, meaning that all CSA farms that serve Chicagoland and grow or produce a majority of their CSA offerings are eligible for membership, and values transparency to consumers as one of its core principles.

Beyond the mission of marketing for local foods in general and the CSA model in particular, Band of Farmers seeks to educate consumers about eating seasonally and valuing the relationship to small-scale, local farms and the land they farm. Ultimately, the coalition hopes to follow in the footsteps of Fairshare CSA Coalition to work with insurance companies and large company HR departments to recognize the health benefits that result from eating fresh, nutrient-dense foods by offering rebates to their customers and/or employees—just as they might already offer a rebate for weight loss programs, joining a gym, or smoking cessation initiatives. The coalition also plans to leverage new USDA rules to permit SNAP benefits (LINK in Illinois) for the purchase of CSA shares, and in general hopes to fill in some of the food deserts and gaps in CSA pick-up sites, thus making CSAs more accessible to more people.

What can you do to help increase the number of Chicagoland households being served by CSA?

  • If you’ve been a CSA member, talk to your friends about what you liked about it; if you were happy with your experience, sign up again with the same farm (farmers really appreciate your loyalty and continuity in their customer base); if it didn’t work for you as you’d hoped, try another one.

  • Visit the Band of Farmers website to see the tools available there that will help you decide on the CSA that best fits your needs (and to see how Band of Farmers got its name). While you’re there, sign up to receive email newsletters from the coalition; when they arrive, forward them liberally to your friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors.

  • If there is not a CSA that currently serves your area, consider having your home become a host site or talk with your employer, church, or a favorite business to see if they might consider becoming a pickup site. (Soon, when Band of Farmers is populated with farmer-members, an interactive map will hone in on exact pickup locations, making your choices—or lack thereof—more evident.)

  • Read my article on CSAs from 2014 to see all the ways that CSA farms are innovating to serve you better.

  • If you work for an insurance company or a company or nonprofit that might be willing to put a dollar value on the health of their insureds/employees, let’s talk!

  • Don’t trash-talk your CSA! CSA farmers are real people who have chosen the rewarding but often difficult work of growing food for people to eat. Droughts, flood, hail, locusts (ok, not locusts, but plenty of other pests) happen and are outside the farmer’s control. And in becoming a member of a CSA, you’re supporting that farm—not just buying a commodity. If you have concerns about the products, service, or responsiveness of your CSA farmer, let him or her know rather than jumping first to Yelp or other review sites. Give your farmer the benefit of the doubt and value the relationship that is implied in Community Supported Agriculture.

CSA farms are well underway with their 2015 marketing and signups but many still have space for you. But no need to wait—this is the time of year that your support is needed more than ever. Think of it—literally—as seed money.