An alternative business model is growing across the U.S. and taking root in Columbia’s fertile soil. Columbia’s citizens and farmers are investing in one another through Community Supported Agriculture farming.

In a CSA, farmers sell shares to members of the community, who usually pay for their CSA share up front and receive a regular supply of locally grown, fresh food.

Chert Hollow Farm LLC is a USDA-certified organic farm located about 20 minutes outside of Columbia. The farm sells to farmers markets and local restaurants but is one of two Columbia farms moving to a full-time CSA in 2012. Eric Reuter runs Chert Hollow with his wife, Joanna. He says Chert Hollow can succeed as a CSA because the business model provides a stable income and a core set of customers.

“Worst scenario, we don’t sign up as many customers as we want,” he says. “We’re still going to know by February how many people we have, and we can plan for that. I can plan not to grow as much, and at worst, I still don’t waste product.”

Moving to a CSA allows Chert Hollow to avoid inconsistent sales at farmers markets that are affected by weather, competing events and irregular customers. The Reuters are gathering names of people who love their food and might take the plunge to invest.

Today, 5 percent of Columbians get their food outside of supermarkets, and that number is growing, according to Mary Hendrickson, CSA expert and extension associate professor at the University of Missouri. But the CSA can be risky for consumers looking for a steady supply of food, she says.

“The ‘true’ model of a CSA is a total sharing of risk between farmers and eaters,” she says. “If the bounty is great, the CSA is great. If the bounty is not there, the eaters don’t get a share.”

Because shareholders pay up front, they might not receive a full return on their purchase.

Liz Graznak, who runs a 56-person CSA called Happy Hollow Farm, says successful CSA farming means preparing for every possibility. She plants an array of drought-resistant, heat-resistant and cold-resistant crops to ensure she meets her customers’ needs.

“There are weeks that the boxes are not as full as other weeks,” she says. “That happens for sure. But there are also many, many weeks that the members are getting way more than their $35-a-week or $26-a-week value.”

Graznak says she started selling at farmers markets this summer because she grew an overage of crops. But CSA buyers want more than just food; they want to support local farms making quality food.

“You are in effect saying: ‘I like what this business does. I want them to succeed,’” Reuter says. “It’s an investment in a farm you think will work.”

A CSA can be its own community, where shareholders work on the farm, have farm socials and share in the farm’s goods. Jordan Dawdy ran a dairy-based CSA for seven years in Tennessee and is running a meat-based CSA as an MU graduate project. He says the point of a CSA is to know how and where food is made.

The Japanese word for CSA is “teikei.” “It literally means ‘putting a face on your food,’” Dawdy says. “That was the original idea of CSAs when they came out of Japan in

the 1960s.”

When CSAs came to the U.S. in the 1970s, they used the community work model. When they arrived in Missouri in the 1990s, the CSA tree had grown many business model branches.

Today, consumers can choose subscription model CSAs where shareholders do not work on the farm and get a box of food each week. Many farmers are doing all the work, but that gives them some challenges.

Graznak says CSA farmers sometimes struggle to provide the wide variety of food their customers want, with less than a handful of Columbia farms growing enough to be successful CSAs. Some farmers cope with shifting demand by grouping multiple farmers, crops and customers into one giant CSA farm.

Farmers may also struggle with the social aspect of running a CSA, especially on a farm requiring work from members, Dawdy says.

“The first word in Community Supported Agriculture is community,” he says. “You’ve got to walk into it being excited about being with people. If you’re not a people person, then try something else.”

Graznak says successful CSAs keep close contact with their members. She runs an active website and a weekly newsletter to inform customers about which crops are in season in mid-Missouri.

“Fifty percent of what I do is education; the other 50 percent is growing vegetables,” she says.

Each CSA has differing levels of community interaction and responsibility. Consumers must invest in the right farm, and farmers must pick the right shareholders. The Reuters at Chert Hollow are looking for a specific type of customer who truly values the CSA.

“We’re looking for people who like to cook,” Reuter says. “We’re looking for people who care a lot about their food. We’re looking for people like us.”

Harvest hootenanny

Four kegs of beer from Broadway Brewery and five cases of wine from St. James Winery — urban farmers know how to party. The drinks, 250 bratwurst, 60 chickens, 100 hamburgers and vegetables were part of a free homegrown feast as the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture held its Second Annual Harvest Hootenanny Fundraiser on Oct. 1.

“We hold this event as a fundraiser, celebration and open house,” says organizer Billy Polansky. “Fall is a time of year when things are starting to wind down, and the weather is beautiful, so we want to celebrate our harvest and that of other local producers. It is also a fundraiser because as the temperature drops, so do our revenues, and we still need to pay our insurance, taxes and salaries in the wintertime.”

CCUA is a nonprofit organization that runs the urban farm and helps Columbians put together their own urban community farms. The urban farm on Smith Street grows produce and raises its own chickens.

A silent auction in the background and the fast-paced pleas of live auctioneer Brent Voorheis helped raise close to $8,000 to support the nonprofit farm. CCUA’s urban farm, located at 1209 Smith St. just north of the University of Missouri, had leftovers after nearly 650 visitors enjoyed the free food, according to Polansky.

Live music entertained the adults, mountains of dirt entertained the kids, and roasted chestnuts from the MU Center for Agroforestry entertained the early Christmas-lovers. A raffle gave away prizes, including a CSA farm share in Happy Hollow farm, won by CCUA supporter Lea Langdon.

The urban farm is usually made up of one farm manager, five interns and a few volunteers. Leading up to the event, more than 100 volunteers helped the farm put together its yearly celebration.

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