By GREGORY ZELLER //
At least, after today, they’ll stop playing all that Community Supported Agriculture music on the radio.
In case it somehow escaped your attention, today is CSA Day, a quasi-holiday/day of observance started in 2014 by Small Farm Central, a Pittsburgh-based tech firm that creates software and other digital tools for agricultural entrepreneurs.
Community Supported Agriculture is a model through which customers buy pre-season “shares” of local crops, helping farmers survive lean pre-harvest finances and ensuring access to fresh produce later. The notion has been around for a quarter century and has taken different forms through various food co-ops, farmer’s markets and eat-local programs in many states.
But local produce is, in more ways than one, a growth industry – and for this and other good reasons, the blossoming importance of CSA Day is not lost on Kathleen Masters, executive director of the Amagansett Food Institute.
The institute – a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit membership organization uniting East End farmers, food producers and consumers – is keenly aware of the need to help farmers, especially early-stage agri-preneurs who haven’t yet established an annual income cycle, plow through the pre-season.
“The whole concept of Community Supported Agriculture is to help farmers get the money they need for seeds and planting,” Masters said Friday, noting it can be a risk for the investor – “You’re basically taking your share of the harvest sight-unseen” – but offers plentiful rewards.
Not only does a regional agricultural economy get to grow – and deepen its community roots – but customers lock up the season’s freshest-possible farm-to-table spoils, and even the occasional organic surprise.
“Most people find they’re eating things they didn’t eat before they were CSA members,” Masters added. “The variety of produce is much greater than what you’ll find in a local grocery store.”
But the No. 1 reason to join a CSA program, according to Masters, is to support local farms. There are 10 registered CSA operations serving eastern Suffolk County, including Amber Waves Farm, Balsam Farms and Bhumi Farms in Amagansett and the Garden of Eve organic farm and market in Aquebogue.
Several East End farms offer limited community-support programs. Browder’s Birds in Mattituck hosts a CSA program focused on chicken livestock and Invincible Summer Farms in Southold hosts a tomatoes-only version, while East Hampton’s Share the Harvest Farm hosts a CSA program specifically for “working families.”
CSA Day is just the start of the Amagansett Food Institute’s busy season. While this week’s record-setting thaw “had everybody wanting to get out and mess with the soil,” according to Masters, it’s still a little early for that – though planting season is right around the corner, followed by months of harvests, festivals and other food-related events.
That includes events that are not necessarily farming-related, including the open house scheduled for March 15 at South Fork Kitchens, the business incubator/small-batch commercial kitchen the AFI operates on Stony Brook University’s Southampton campus.
With a rotation of “about 10” startup food enterprises currently sharing the space – “some four hours a month,” Masters noted, “some four times a week” – the 24/7 kitchen, stocked with state-of-the-art food-prep equipment, has plenty of open hours to fill, according to AFI’s executive director.
“The open house is really for anybody who wants to come,” she noted. “But we’re hoping to attract people who are serious about starting a food-related business and have a product they want to produce in a commercial kitchen.”
The institute’s version of spring training continues in late March, when it hosts a series of produce-safety training courses – a little Farming 101 for inexperienced agri-preneurs and their employees – in conjunction with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.
It’s all part of the annual cycle, according to Masters, which is a basic truth for crops, business owners and nonprofits alike.
“Many of our producers are seasonal and we’re much busier as we get toward the start of the season,” Masters said. “This year, there are lots of new products being worked on and lots of exciting things happening.”