This food doesn’t come from the grocery store — CSA shares grow out of midstate soil

Deirdre Brownback stands inside one of the many greenhouses at Spiral Path Farm.

Story and Photo By Deborah Lynch

Imagine not having to fight crowds in the most popular activity of the pandemic — grocery shopping. Imagine opening a box of surprises every week, then biting into a big juicy strawberry that was grown on a farm just down the road. This is more than a dream — it’s reality delivered in the form of a box of fresh produce from a local farm through a Community Supported Agriculture share.

While many businesses have suffered because of Covid-19, Community Supported Agriculture enjoyed a resurgence. CSAs started more than 30 years ago with the boom years coming between 2006-2008, but after years of decline, the pandemic brought consumers back to the CSA concept, which allows smaller local farmers to sell shares of their products to people in nearby communities.

One of the larger CSA farms serving the Harrisburg area, Spiral Path Farms of Loysville in Perry County, gained 500 new members in 2020, bringing the number of members they served to 1,800. Following national trends, Spiral Path membership peaked in 2007 at more than 2,500 members. Since then, except for last year’s pandemic boost, membership averages around 1,200.

“Covid has been a huge boost,” said Guillermo Payet, founder of LocalHarvest, a website dedicated to the nation’s local farms, “and I hope the consumer habits will ‘stick’ this time.”

CSAs offer boxes of fresh produce — and sometimes meats, dairy, eggs, breads, and flowers, too, but primarily produce — to members with different farms offering different plans. Some offer weekly boxes of varying sizes, while others offer short-term memberships or biweekly shares, or opportunities to pick your own share. Just as types of memberships differ, so do prices and delivery or pickup policies. Many offer delivery to various pickup points around the Harrisburg area. Others require members to come to the farm, or for a fee, make home deliveries. Many also offer their produce at local farmers’ markets and local produce venues.

For long-time members and those new to CSAs, the benefits can be many including locally grown food — from some farms, it is organic, too — newsletters with recipes and eating tips, market discounts, farm days for members, and the ease of pickup or delivery. Some even accept EBT/SNAP cards and have community funds to help make their goods available to everyone. As Ben Langford, the CSA/Farm Market Manager for Strite’s Orchard said, “ Being a member of our CSA program is a great way to ensure that you’re getting a variety of in-season, locally grown fruits and vegetables every week during our growing season. You don’t need to wonder where your produce is coming from, as everything we put in our CSA boxes is grown locally and sustainably.”

A great way to learn about local CSA farms anywhere in the United States is through the LocalHarvest website, which strives to bring farmers together in a single online directory. Listings on the website are created and maintained by users (farmers). The company considers its directory to be the most exhaustive for data about farms and markets. Those interested should check update dates for individual farms or call farms to find out if they are still active.

According to a blog on the website, “Back in the summer of 1999, a small group of software engineers, farm activists, and farmers from the Central Coast of California met to talk about how the Internet could contribute to a vibrant future for family farms.” Today, the page thrives as it works to connect family farmers with people who want great food. 

Payet said the website typically gets about 400,000 unique visitors per month, but during March and April of 2020 saw a huge boost in activity, with 675,000 unique visitors in April. “This year, we’re seeing about the same traffic as pre-pandemic,” he said.

Interest in CSAs grew between 2006-2008 thanks to lots of media coverage, and consumers who “rushed to it, and then later realized that it is not for them. They dropped out within a couple of years,” Payet said, noting that starting in 2015, CSAs had been going out of business left and right prior to Covid. 

He blames some of the loss to competition from meal plans and other big businesses along with more widespread availability of locally grown produce in supermarkets, and just plain “novelty fatigue.” Lucas Brownback of Spiral Path Farm said the availability of local produce at the growing farmers’ market scene also contributed to fewer memberships.

The Harrisburg area is fortunate to have quite a few farms that have kept their CSAs alive — some as long as 28 years (Spiral Path Farms). Farms serving this area include Spiral Path of Loysville, Strite’s Orchard in Harrisburg, RowenTree Farm in Mechanicsburg, Jade Family Farm in Port Royal, Village Acres Farm and FoodShed near Mifflintown, Good Keeper Farm in Gardners, and Baken Creek Farm in Landisburg. Others listed on the LocalHarvest Farm, but not confirmed as active CSAs by Harrisburg Magazine include Yeehaw Farm in Duncannon and Oak Grove Farms in Mechanicsburg. All of these farms are listed on the LocalHarvest website. Other area farms also offer other types of share programs, such as for flowers, meats, cheeses, etc.

The farmers welcome the competition, which they say is good for the community. “The more available local foods and regenerative farms, the better for the health of our entire region and ag industry,” Brownback said, noting that Spiral Path has partnered with other farms to share local pick-up sites, too.