Kathleen Purvis

Farm subscriptions are growing up in Charlotte

Jenifer Mullis (left) of Laughing Owl Farm usually has CSA customers pick up orders at local farmers’ markets.
Jenifer Mullis (left) of Laughing Owl Farm usually has CSA customers pick up orders at local farmers’ markets. Observer files

“CSA” is one of those insider phrases. If you focus on eating locally, you know what it means. If you don’t, you wrinkle your forehead when you hear it.

It’s been 30 years since Community Supported Agriculture entered the vernacular. Most histories credit it with starting on two farms in Massachusetts in 1986.

The idea is, literally, putting your money where your mouth is: In the spring, when farms have lots of expenses (seeds, mulch, gas for the tiller) and not much yet to sell, you buy a subscription, usually for $400. In summer, when the farm has lots to sell, you get a share of the weekly harvest.

In 30 years, a lot can grow and change. When Dean Mullis of Laughing Owl Farm, who writes The Observer’s Life on the Farm column and sells pork and produce at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, announced a change in his farm subscriptions last week, I took a look around to see how CSAs have adapted.

Mullis thinks he and wife Jenifer started offering CSAs on their Stanly County farm in the mid-1990s. “And they were complete failures,” he admits. “We didn’t know what we were doing.”

They learned, though, and eventually ended up with 50 members, adding more variety to what they grow, like kohlrabi and fennel that farmers market customers hesitate to try.

That’s part of what makes CSAs special: A study on the website Civil Eats found that farms that offer CSAs tend toward more crop diversity to keep the weekly deliveries interesting. CSA farms grow an average of 115 varieties of 38 different things. That protects against failure of a single crop, but it means members have to learn to use foods they may not know, like kohlrabi and fennel.

There are drawbacks, though, Mullis found. We all get busy and can’t get to a market for pickup. Or we try, but we just can’t embrace fennel. This year, he’s switching to a credit system: Members pay $400 in advance, but they pre-order what they want each week. If you miss a week because you’re at the beach, you can spend more the next week.

Kim Shaw at Small City Farm in Mecklenburg County says she wishes Mullis luck with that. Letting people pick what they want makes it much more complicated. Over the years, though, she’s made changes, too. She’s added fall CSAs, as well as options for eggs and flowers. She also offers half-shares now.

“That has made it a lot less intimidating,” she says. “You don’t want to spend all that money and get punished for going on vacation. People are busy.”

Spring is sign-up season in the CSA world. If you’re looking for a farm with openings, a good place to start is localharvest.org.

Even though the models have changed, CSA has stayed a good way to get involved in farms. Karen McSwain, director of farm services and food systems for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, says CSAs are still big statewide. They’re particularly good for new farmers, as they learn what they can grow.

“They’re definitely healthy and thriving,” she says.

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis