The Extreme Sport of Running a CSA

Reader Contribution 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 from Mother Earth News or at our website

Photos by Cam Mather