When I started growing vegetables over fifteen years ago, as a hired hand at Trillium Haven Farm, there were only a couple of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in West Michigan. Since then, that model has so gained in popularity I have lost track of how many there are now. Knowing that there are plenty of CSAs to choose from, we are ever grateful for those of you who have chosen us. But given that many of these CSA farms grow the same vegetable varieties, order from the same seed suppliers, and even use the same brand of potting soil, you might be wondering what sets us apart.
In short: Blackbird Farms is a member-first CSA. Everything we do—every decision we make, every action we take—is focused on delivering the best possible CSA experience to our members.
What does this look like in practice?
First, and most simply, our members are known by name. It is a point of pride that I learn every new member’s name by the end of June, at the latest. And I make sure to be present at every pick-up and greet everyone by name. Not all CSA farmers can do this. Not all CSA farmers even want to do this. But I do, because I believe in reestablishing the connection between people and the place where their food is grown, and you can’t do that when everyone is anonymous.
Second, and similarly, our members are welcome on the farm. While some farmers are not eager to open up their places to “outsiders,” we go out of our way to create opportunities for our members to engage with our farm. Whether participating in the farm work on one of our Thursday evening field parties, attending one of our chamber music concerts in the barn loft, or enjoying an evening potluck and bonfire, we want to share with our members this beautiful place where we get to live and work.
Third, we always place our members before farmers markets (as well as wholesale accounts and restaurants). The danger of a farm having a significant market footprint or extensive restaurant or other wholesale accounts is that there is a profound temptation to siphon off the very best, highest quality, and most popular produce to those outlets, and then leave the CSA members with the leftovers. I have seen this happen with my own eyes at other farms. That will never happen here. We don’t even sell to restaurants, and nothing is sent to our modest farmers’ market stall that isn’t first made available to our members.
Finally, we follow the traditional CSA principle of “share the risk, share the abundance.” This means that, when deciding what goes in any week’s share, I simply tally up what is ready to harvest and then divide by the number of shares. That way, our members share in both the farm’s victories and vicissitudes. I understand that some CSA farms have moved away from this model toward one where the quantity of vegetables their members receive is pre-set, either by some sort of point system or through a prepaid debit card. While this model may be useful to some farmers and appeal to some members, we have decided not to go down this path. Members of such a CSA may have a reduced risk of a poor season, but they also do not get to enjoy the abundance of a good season. What’s more, I worry that such a model transforms members into merely consumers, loosening their personal connection to the farm. And, again, it is my conviction that personal connection is at the heart of what it means to belong to a CSA.
There are many great CSA farmers in West Michigan, and I count it a privilege to have them as my colleagues and friends. It is a good thing that the CSA movement has evolved into different and innovative expressions. And there is no single correct model to suit everyone—you should find a farm that fits who you are and what you believe. But if you crave not only delicious food but also a connection with the people who grow it and the place where it is grown, I invite you to try us out. As I never tire of saying, there is a place at the table waiting for you.