Community Shared Agriculture: A Personal Relationship

"I can talk now — before I get on the tractor for a bit."

Getting on the tractor, working out in the fields, and taking care of his crops are, essentially, the only things that keep Bennett Haynes from getting on the phone. Farming Ralston Farm, a two-acre plot of land in Mendham, N.J., is what Bennett does day in and day out to make a living, and it's all been made possible because of his Community Shared Agriculture organization.

Community Shared Agriculture organizations, or CSAs, are groups that bring local farmers and consumers together to support the growth and consumption of locally produced crops. In Bennett's case, it's been a way to connect Bennett with his community, and form personal relationships that reach far beyond the nonchalant chitchat you might have with your butcher.

To start Ralston Farm in 2011, Bennett acquired 25 members through his CSA who essentially "invested" in his farming business. As "shareholders," members subscribe to a weekly pick of crops from the farm that starts in the beginning of the summer and lasts through the fall. Many CSAs work in different ways; most farms that participate in the CSA send their members boxes or "baskets" filled with a weekly pick of crops, but Bennett likes to have a more personal interaction with his members.

"I like people to come and pick out the head of lettuce that they think looks best," he explains. He also elaborates on how he likes to educate his members on particular crops — if one week's crop is for example, escarole, he feels it's his responsibility to explain that the unusual green should not be eaten raw and how best to prepare it. Bennett also maintains relationships with his members through a weekly newsletter, which keeps everyone up to date on how the farm is running, what crops to expect that week, and fun stories (like surrogate hens hatching chicks) from the farm.

In addition to getting to know his members, Bennett encourages people to visit the farm so that they can see firsthand how the farm operates. After working at the Alternative Agriculture Network in Thailand, he learned the importance of productivity and efficiency of small-scale farms. While he's not certified organic, he stands behind his farms' green practices and feels that having consumers come and see how his farm grows open-pollinated and heirloom varieties of crops is enough certification in itself. Needless to say, being a part of his CSA is a much different experience from shopping at your local organic grocer.

The $550 CSA membership fee covers all of Bennett's operational costs and makes running his farm possible. With the fee, members are subscribing to 22 weeks of crops from the beginning of June through the end of October, at basically $25 per week. Bennett explains that his relationship with the consumers can be flexible; if you can't afford to write a check for half a grand all at once, he's willing to accept the fee in payments, or have you volunteer on the farm in exchange for some shares. It's not always win-win, though. Like all investments, members are taking a risk. If the farm experiences a bad season and produces very few crops, members cannot get their money back.

With 50 subscribed members through the CSA, a wide range of crops, a few chickens and two pigs, Bennett is experiencing quite a successful run with the farming business, and he's also creating a community where people not only care about what they're eating but where it's coming from and who's growing it.

For the past 20 or so years, CSAs have made small farming businesses such as Bennett's possible, all the while encouraging sustainable farming. To find a CSA near you, visit Local Harvest and sign up for one close to you.

Enjoy these two recipes created by Bennett on Ralston Farm:

Ralston Farm's Eggplant Parmesan Recipe

"This recipe is a great rendition of an Italian classic. If you're lucky enough to get your hands on Ralston's crops, our heirloom..."

- Bennett Haynes





Ralston Farm's Asian Bok Choy Recipe

"Unlike dressing a salad, the longer you let this marinate, the better it gets. This recipe is meant to highlight the garlic scapes that we grow on the farm..."

- Bennett Haynes