The Extreme Sport of Running a CSA

By Cam Mather

Over the years I have been reading about CSAs.  “Community Supported Agriculture” or CSAs deliver a basket of produce to people once a week during the growing season, so the members share in the harvest. They take the ups with the downs.

Now as I reach back into the recesses of my brain, and think of what I’ve read about CSAs and the people who run them, I remember that every CSA I’ve ever heard about has been run by young people. They are generally about 25 years old and what they lack in growing experience they make up for in enthusiasm and youthful energy. Many of the CSAs have been run by groups of people, growing together. This means there are many hands to share the work. I have this image of a photo of a CSA with 4 principal owners; 2 young men, 2 young women, with lots of piercings, dreadlocks, and those cool multicolored hats like you see in Bogota.

Which brings me to the idea of me starting a CSA at the ripe old age of 52. No really, what am I thinking? I don’t even own a tractor. While Michelle is always an integral part of everything we do, she is still focused on running Aztext Press, shipping books, doing web work (i.e. she posts all this stuff) etc., so the majority of the gardening responsibility falls on me. I’ve always been the vegetable gardener, with Michelle focusing on flowers.

So now I’ve committed to growing enough food to make 12 local families happy. I’ve grown food for 35 years, but this will be the first year when there really is pressure. I’ve always been marvelously talented at giving my produce away for free. It’s a skill I have. And last year after a morning selling at our stand in town, I often ran around delivering the leftovers to our friends, for free. Nothing lost other than the time I’d invested. As it was, the stand went very well which inspired me to go to the CSA format this year.

Cam’s Award Winning Veggies

But really, it’s quite terrifying. I’ve always experienced pressure in earning an income, but this year is different. It’s personal. These are people I know. They are friends. And neighbors. And I do NOT want them pissed off at me.

I think of what many 50-year-olds do during their mid-life crisis. Many buy a motorcycle and pretend they are free spirits, but 2 (or 3) wheels simply don’t fool anyone. Neither does the mandatory black leather gear and grey goatee. Sorry. You aren’t a member of a biker gang; you’re just a bunch of lawyers and accountants out for cheeseburgers on bikes that get the same gas mileage as my Honda Civic.

Others do the rock-climbing thing. But more often the rock wall kind of thing. Usually those rock-climbing walls are made out of fake rock, like something at a theme park. Oh, and sometimes the fake rock walls are on a Disney Cruise. Oh, and there’s always a safety rope in case you fall.

Nope, if you want to try something really extreme, try running the marathon of an organic CSA for 5 or 6 months of the year. No safety rope. No automobile association for when the bike stops. Just you and an acre of soil and some seeds.

I get a little bit stressed out every spring. I never seem to get stuff in to the ground early enough. I always get distracted on some other project that keeps me out of the garden when I should be in it. Some years I was distracted putting up a wind turbine or a solar tracker, and some years it’s garden related. Making gardens bigger. Building cribs to get the rain barrels up higher. This year I’ve been building a greenhouse. And making gardens bigger. And spreading hay for mulch. And planting 20 new high-bush blueberry bushes that won’t be producing for years. And 120 new asparagus roots that won’t be ready for a few years. And…

So now I’m finally trying to focus on getting seeds in the ground. The bizarre warm weather that we experienced in March had most gardeners thinking it was time to pull the trigger, but last week we got 3 nights of -5°C temperatures, which nipped a lot of stuff that is usually pretty frost hardy.

I’m now focused on planting every day. I’ve planted a whack of onions in an area of the garden that I call “The Holland Marsh.” The real “Holland Marsh” is a boggy area north of Toronto that Dutch farmers drained decades ago. It has some of the darkest, richest-looking soil you’ll see anywhere. They grow a variety of things like carrots and onions there. At certain times of the year, as you drive past the Holland Marsh on Hwy. 400, the aroma of onions in the air is overpowering. My “Holland Marsh” is near my dug well where the concrete cattle trough is. Many cows spent a lot of time there many decades ago and left behind some pretty awesome soil.

I’ve put in a crazy number of peas, and since I put up chicken wire fences for them to climb on, it has been way more work than usual. I’ve started putting in lettuce and spinach too, always in much larger quantities than ever before.

When I look at how large the gardens are and how much is still left to be planted, I freak out. How am I going to plant this much stuff? And water it? And weed it? Really, what was I thinking? Where are all the helpers that most CSAs have? Well, I guess that’s my fault because I don’t play well with others. I like to stick to myself and while our experiment with having WWOOFers last summer was great, I’m simply not that sociable to want to have volunteer helpers living here with me all summer.

It’s my own fault. I got myself into this situation and I’ll get myself out. It’s been a theme since we moved off grid. And I’m already visualizing delivering that final box of veggies next fall. And I’m pretty confident that somehow, people will feel they got good value, and I’ll have a major buzz on that will last the winter. Can’t get that on a Harley.

Oh listen, I hear the marathon starters’ gun about to go off. Tighten up that bungee rope around my feet. I’m about to jump off the bridge into the abyss. Look out below!

Editor’s Note: If you are looking for the best gardening book, check out Cam’s “All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook.” Available at our website or through any bookseller.

10 Responses to “The Extreme Sport of Running a CSA”

  • Farmgirlwanabe:

    Howdy -it’s me again Musia aka farmgirlwanabe -one thing you might to think of is offering a reduced share for some ‘inkind’ weeding time -the CSA we participated in when we lived in Alberta offered that. Also did you think of upping your number of layers and offering a weekly egg share?
    Our CSA out near almonte on does that and also offers a meat share as they raise pigs and lamb. We will be a drop off point and have signed up for eggs,meat and veggies. I even offered to weed in the summer to help out

    He raises heritage breeds chickens and pigs and the eggs and meat are delicious -to boot his chickens are range free and help to fertilize his veggie fields

    Looking forward to seeing pics of your garden and also thanks for the advise re coffee grinds -we are trying it out on our blueberries

    Take care

  • Jeff M:

    Good luck and keep us posted on your CSA. My long term plan is to start a CSA when I retire and spend the time between now and then in getting the gardens ready. Currently I don’t even have the time to grow all of my own veggies never-mind for others but I am working on it. Hopefully this will be the year.

    I see some beautiful green peppers in the picture. I grow beautiful and lush green pepper PLANTS, which never produce so fruit I think our nights are too cool when they are flowering so I have dropped them from my list of veggies I grow. Like you I am in Eastern Ontario (im zone 5b) How do you grow such nice peppers?

  • Cam – those 12 families are probably out there cheering you on! They want to be part of something epic! You’re going to do great! If all else fails you can send them dandelion leaves as salad greens for many weeks (and if you run out I will gladly contribute as much as you need – free of charge!)

  • I felt quite envious of all the good-looking veggies in the pictures you have with this post. Each year I grow a little more and learn as I go. I have yet to have a real bountiful harvest that I had hoped for at the beginning of the growing season. I have to admit that I don’t spend that time I’d like to throughout the growing season. I’m all gung-ho at the beginning of the year and then my enthusiasm wears off when the weeds are looking bigger than the vegetables! However, I’m not giving up, and one year I’ll have the expansive garden that I’ve seen you have there in a previous post. I’ll be coming for a visit sometime in the summer to get personally inspired by your way of living. Do you have another workshop planned?

  • Cam

    I know this type of pressure. Every week I need to make Payroll, every month Payroll taxes, every 3 months Property taxes, HST , WSIB and Every year Federal Tax.
    I hope you have invested more in your irrigation system and I truly hope that you will have good weather.
    Yes you will have a lot of pressure to perform but you cannot worry about everything that can go wrong. If you did that you would not be able to do anything.
    The most important thing to do is sell the job which you have done. With hard work a and a bit of good luck (i.e. more hard work) you will persevere

    Good luck. I look forward to reading you post about how rewarding the CSA has been!

  • Gerrit Botha:

    Good luck Cam! We’re putting in our garden over the next two weekends. But we don’t have any pressure: its just a backyard garden for our family. You’re off on a grand experiment, and without help too! Keep us posted when you find the time.

  • I hear ya. Following behind you actually, I guess. Expanding the garden yet again, planting more of everything again, starting earlier again, trying new things again. I know we can’t consume all the kale and lettuce and radish leaves…but I’ve got a plan. This year I’m going to visit my neighbours and ask if they’d like to be able to purchase limited amounts of things at a flat rate of (I think) $1/pound so they can have right-from-the-garden salad that evening. They’d go through the garden and pick a couple of kale leaves here and a couple of red salad bowl lettuce there, grab a cucumber, toss in a handful of green beans and radishes and perhaps a few cherry tomatoes and green onions. Then when they’ve got enough we’d just weigh it all together and transfer it to whatever bowl or basket they brought. If they ended up with 1 1/2 pounds of mixed produce, they’d pay $1.50. They’d provide their own containers so no extra expense for me. If I have canned goods that for some reason my family doesn’t eat (why did I do so much relish when we hardly ever eat relish) or feel like baking muffins or buns for the sale table (who am I kidding), then so much the better.

    The few extra bucks would be nice but the idea is more to keep the leafy greens and cucumbers and radishes thinned out without wasting anything or making more green powders than a person can consume in a lifetime. I don’t have an acre so I cannot produce enough of anything to call this a business so I’m not advertising far and wide. I just plan to hang a flag or something so my neighbours can see when they’re free to come for a thinning visit.

    A further benefit will be getting to know my neighbours and encouraging neighbourhood watchfulness. Hey, if they want fresh veggies they’ll want to make sure I’m not getting unwelcome harvesters!

  • Suzanne:

    Way to go…I wish you were my neighbour!!!

  • Go for it!

    There’s never been a test designed that can adequately measure the capacity of the human soul to accomplish great things any better than jumping into water over one’s head and paddling like crazy! Theory is great stuff, and fun to argue about late in the evening when the pantry is full from the supermarket and the thermostatically-controlled climate is set ‘just right.’

    But theory can’t compare to actually getting in there and doing it.

    You’ll find you work harder, smarter and longer than you thought you could. You’ll push yourself beyond any pre-conceived notions of limits or ability or knowledge. And you will succeed in spite of yourself.

    Think of all the ‘science’ and theory that goes into the development of bailing pumps on boats. Automatic switches and water sensors, electric pumps, hoses, drains, carefully calculated equations, etc. Now, compare that to putting a sailor in a leaky boat out in the ocean with nothing but a bucket.

    Who’s going to win? The pumps have no motivation. They will do what they are programmed to do and nothing more. They won’t adapt to changing circumstances, weather, equipment failures or anything else. They will certainly go down with the ship. The sailor, on the other hand, will fight for his life and won’t give up. He’ll adapt to whatever comes his way. He MAY go down with the ship, but then again, he MAY survive and even thrive.

    Carry on, Sailor Cam! Best of luck to you on this noble venture.

  • Glad its you and not me. I couldn’t stand that kind of pressure. Instead I have had people sign up for email in which they get an availability. If they show great. If not my family and canner get what doesn’t sell. I am a few years older than you and just don’t have that kind of energy any more so will be watching to see how you fare. Good luck and I hope the weather cooperates with you.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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