Community support grows for farm shares

STARKVILLE – Mississippians who want the freshest blueberries and butterbeans have more options as community-supported agriculture programs increase.
Kimberly Morgan, an agricultural economist and professor with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said Mississippians are participating in a trend that began within the past 20 years.
“As more people become interested in buying locally grown produce, we’re seeing an increase in the number of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture, or CSA, programs,” Morgan said. “Mississippi’s 10 CSA programs are clustered around Memphis, Jackson and Mobile, a pattern that exemplifies the national trend of typical CSA customers, who live in or near a major city and seek out locally grown food items.”
In CSA arrangements, growers invite a set number of customers to invest by buying shares in exchange for a predetermined amount of produce provided over a set period of time. Morgan said advantages for farmers include cash flow early in the season to help offset expenses, a guaranteed outlet for products, and an opportunity to market their produce before they begin spending long days in the field. Satisfied customers become repeat clients and provide priceless word-of-mouth advertising.
When Mike Steede retired as county director for the George County Extension Service, he and his brother Heath had been growing some watermelons and vegetables on their family farm.
“I learned about CSAs from Gary Bachman, of Southern Gardening fame, who explained the concept to me and talked about how much he and his family enjoyed fresh produce straight from the farm,” Steede said.
An Internet search directed him to the Local Harvest website, an online source for finding locally grown foods. After careful research, the Steede family launched their new business.
“The first year, we had 36 members and about four acres of produce,” he said. “We had a lot of extra produce to sell to farmers’ markets, restaurants and at the farm. The second year we had 68 members and four acres of produce. Most of the crop went into the CSA and a couple of restaurants.”
Steede Farms has been a family operation for more than a century. Mike and his wife Darlene, son Garrett and daughter Shelby, plus Heath and his wife Mandy and their son Gunter are all owners of the CSA.
“The biggest lesson we learned is that if you will be honest with your members about what is happening at the farm, most of them will understand and be very patient,” Steede said. “Our first season was cut short due to extreme heat, and our members were very understanding.
“We also worried about the lack of variety of veggies late in the season, so we talked to our members at the drop points. To our surprise, we were the only ones with that concern,” he said.
Though he retired from his career in the MSU Extension Service, Steede remains an educator.
“The ideal farmer must be willing to educate,” he said. “Folks ask questions about everything, and we must be open with our members. We also must not mind folks coming around the farm to see what we do.”
One such client is Christopher Williams, who has been a member of Steede Farms’ CSA since its inception.
“I grew up on a farm, and we always had a garden,” Williams said. “When I moved to the city, I really missed fresh vegetables. We have a young daughter, and we wanted to provide her with healthy food. I like doing business with someone I know and keeping those dollars in Mississippi.”
Williams said he appreciates the quality of the produce received from Steede Farms.
“The difference in something that has been picked fresh that morning compared to something that has been shipped across the country is huge,” he said. “The variety has been fun. Sometimes it was a challenge to figure out what to do with vegetables that were new to us, but we have found several great new recipes because of it.”
Clients come to understand how much work goes into farming.
“In Mississippi, we’re blessed to be able to sit down to a fabulous meal and have everything on the plate raised within our state,” Williams said. “I believe being a member of a CSA helps keep that possible.”

Keri Lewis | Mississippi State University

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