What is a CSA?
A CSA—which means Community Supported Agriculture—is a subscription to a local farm. Members pay up front for a certain length of time during which they each pick up a share of fresh, locally grown, organic produce every week. It’s an efficient system—the farmer knows how much to plant and how much to harvest, so there’s no waste. It’s also good value for members.
What made you decide to start the Tucson CSA when you did?
Back in late 2003, when I was a UA geography student, I learned about CSAs while interviewing Frank Martin of Crooked Sky Farms for a class project. He was supplying CSAs in Flagstaff and Prescott. I offered to start one in Tucson. Within a week, I had rounded up 15 members from among my classmates and we started distributing produce shares on my front porch.
Besides Crooked Sky Farms, what other local producers does the Tucson CSA work with?
When our members started to ask about products other than veggies, we looked around for local and regional sources. One of our vendors is Josh Koehn, who grew up on a farm in Willcox and has been raising chickens since he was 6 years old. He just loved chickens. Now Josh is in his mid-20s and raises poultry and cattle on land leased from his dad. He practices sustainable ranching methods and provides us with grass-fed beef and lamb, pasture-raised chickens and turkeys, and the most amazing, truly free-range eggs I’ve ever tasted. We get delicious goat cheese from Black Mesa Ranch in the White Mountains. We also have incredible, naturally leavened, organic bread from Barrio Bread, a Tucson CSB (community supported baker). Don Guerra, the owner and baker, is a true artisan and he now also works with local flours, like Sonoran wheat.
Was there a watershed moment for the local food movement?
The interest in the Tucson CSA was immediate. Within a year, we grew to close to a hundred from the original fifteen. All by word of mouth. But the watershed moment came in 2007 or so. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out, and also Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, a former Tucsonan. Those two books got a great deal of press and generated a lot of interest in local foods. As a consequence of that momentum, our membership went from 200 to about 500 in about a year. Our membership now oscillates between 300 and 500. In the summer, many people are out of town and membership drops. It’s highest in the fall, when people return and the produce diversity is at its highest. That’s the time of year when the CSA is really at its most glorious.
Does the Tucson CSA have any competition these days?
When we began, we were pretty much the only CSA in town. Now there are many. I think it’s great. To have a healthy and resilient local food system, you need many producers and many outlets. If we were the only CSA and something happened to our farmer, we would collapse and that would be the end of a major source of local organic products in Tucson. Luckily, the local organic food system here has become a lot stronger in recent years.
What can a member expect when they join the Tucson CSA?
Besides the wonderful, organically grown produce, they’ll join a vibrant and supportive community of people who want to eat and shop locally. This shift usually creates a positive impact in people’s lives. They feel like they’ve adapted their shopping and cooking habits to our Sonoran seasons and like the challenge of cooking predominantly with the veggies they receive each week. But it can be a new experience to cook with veggies you’re not familiar with. That’s where our newsletter and online recipes come in (at tucsoncsa.org). Most of the recipes are written by ourselves or our members, people who are creative cooks and come up with interesting, easy recipes.
What have been the chief rewards of running the Tucson CSA?
Without a doubt, I would say it’s the community that the Tucson CSA has created. The CSA is a happy place. It’s incredibly gratifying to meet these people who have chosen to buy local organic food. Many members joined because they wanted to start a family and eat healthy food. Over the past decade, we’ve watched members’ children grow up—we call them CSA babies. They come every week with their parents to pick up their veggies. It’s great to see those little kids know their vegetables. And then there are the CSA volunteers who make it all happen. Week after week, they unload the farm truck, distribute produce, and provide helpful cooking advice to members.
You mention the CSA babies. What sorts of foods did you grow up with?
I grew up in post-colonial Belgian Congo. The economy had totally collapsed and there were few food outlets and not much choice. Many people grew their own food. I baked bread for my family. I grew tomatoes, avocados, and citrus, which I traded for chickens and eggs from a neighbor. My mom would buy a cow every year, and we’d split it among several people, one of whom was the daughter of an Italian butcher who knew how to cut a steer and make sausage. So I grew up fully immersed in a local food system. Starting a CSA was enormously appealing because it was like going back to my roots. ✜
Join at TucsonCSA.org. Pickups are Tues. and Weds. 4 – 7 p.m. in the courtyard of The Historic Y. 300 E. University Blvd.
Roxane Ramos is a local writer who also volunteers at the Tucson CSA. She loves the way getting fresh ingredients each week sparks creativity in the kitchen and inspires delicious meals to share with friends.