If you’ve ever visited a farm on CSA pickup day, with overstuffed baskets of vegetables all in a row, the word “bountiful” might come to mind. But in many cases that bounty remains unfamiliar to low-income families unable to pay the upfront costs the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model typically entails.
Fortunately, in communities throughout New England, that model has been shifting, still giving farmers the financial boost they need while also spreading the fresh-produce love to residents who typically wouldn’t have access.
One great example is the Farm Share Program led by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire (NOFA-NH). “It began in 2017 and is based on the longstanding successful model of our sister chapter, NOFA-VT,” said operations manager Nikki Kolb.
The programs in both Vermont and New Hampshire aim to reduce the cost of local CSA shares for residents in need of financial assistance, while at the same time ensuring farmers have the monetary support to be successful.
In New Hampshire, “It was initially entirely funded by a one-year grant, with the goal of developing a sustainable, annual program,” said Kolb. It has now grown into an ongoing program funded primarily through a yearly “Share the Bounty Day” fundraiser.
“Local grocers, restaurants, and other community partners contribute a percentage of sales from the day or donate a flat amount to the Farm Share Program,” Kolb said. Support also comes from other sponsors and individual donors who contribute throughout the year.
“In addition to these existing fundraising sources, NOFA-NH is participating in a three-year USDA FMPP (Farmers Market Promotion Program) grant award that will establish Farm Share programs in each of the NOFA chapter states that do not yet have one,” Kolb said. The effort is being led by CT-NOFA and new programs will be established in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
While NOFA-NH covers 50% of the cost of each farm share for low-income residents, recipients and participating farm partners each contribute 25%. So how do farms make up the difference without taking a hit?
“Many of the participating farmers fundraise for the Farm Share Program through their CSA membership base, providing options for buyers to donate towards shares for community members in need,” Kolb said.
In addition to raising the 25%, participating farms must be certified organic and be members of NOFA-NH. While it might equal some extra steps, a steadily growing number of farms have come on board since the program’s launch.
“We want to provide farm-fresh, certified organic vegetables to households with limited income,” said Jodie Martinez. She is the CSA and office manager at participating Brookford Farm in Canterbury, New Hampshire.
Owned by Luke and Catarina Mahoney, longtime practitioners of organic and biodynamic farming, Brookford Farm made its permanent home on 613 acres in Canterbury in 2012. The farm produces vegetables, as well as raw milk, farmstead cheeses, free-range eggs, grass-fed, pasture-raised meats, and more.
Its home base, Canterbury, which is bordered by the Merrimack and Soucook Rivers, is well-known for its farming culture and is even home to the Canterbury Shaker Village. Now a National Historic Landmark and museum, it preserves the story of a thriving farm and artisan community started in 1792.
Canterbury continues to honor the work of local growers, artists, and performers with its popular, annual Canterbury Fair. While the town offers that classic New England feel, it also has major highway access and is situated close to several of New Hampshire’s urban centers, including Exeter, Manchester, and Nashua.
Brookford has pickup locations for its CSA members in each of these areas and more, even serving some people in the Greater Boston area of Massachusetts. During summer, the farm peaks at 200 to 500 shares, which includes their Farm Share members.
Brookford has been part of the Farm Share Program for the last five years, and their aim is to “help increase food security in the Granite State,” Martinez said. Those that receive their reduced-cost CSA shares frequently express gratitude for the opportunity to participate.
“We have found that the Farm Share Program is especially beneficial for community members who identify as low-income but who do not qualify for typical food assistance programs like SNAP,” said Kolb.
According to Feeding America, 119,990 of New Hampshire’s residents are facing hunger; 27,980 of them are children. Since the pandemic, Kolb has seen demand for food through the Farm Share Program increase. “Our goal is to continue to grow the program annually by adding new farms and supporting more shares at each participating farm so that we can reach even more residents,” she said.
Based in nearby Western Massachusetts, Red Fire Farm is also taking an innovative approach to enhancing healthy food and living for its neighbors. “There is a huge disparity in our country when it comes to finances and access to good food. The biggest benefit of the SNAP CSA program is that everyone is able to get beautiful, organic produce,” said CSA program manager Kelley Dennis.
Since 2017, Red Fire Farm has been a SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) CSA retailer. It’s a streamlined structure to simplify the use of SNAP benefits that was launched by The Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA).
“It’s not like the farmers markets where we need to have dedicated equipment to process payments,” Dennis said. Instead, qualifying CSA members fill out a form, which is then sent to DTA. The monthly benefit funds are then withdrawn automatically and sent directly to the farm.
While most CSAs are accustomed to full payments received in winter, “getting the SNAP funds during the individual seasons is something that we’ve grown used to,” Dennis said. The biggest challenge in her mind is spreading the word. “I am always getting phone calls and emails from people who have just realized they can sign up,” Dennis said.
Red Fire Farm is based in two primary locations. The first is a town called Montague that consists of five villages, totaling to a population of 8,580. The other is about 30 minutes away in the town of Granby, with 6,110 residents.
Through the purchase of these two farms and a number of rented fields, owner Ryan Voiland, who has had a passion for growing vegetables since middle school, and his wife Sarah Voiland, are able to grow enough food to serve CSA members in Western Massachusetts, Worcester, and Boston. Their produce is also sold at markets and stores, as well as through wholesale partners and a doorstep food delivery service that curates offerings from local producers.
Rooted deeply in organic practices, sustainable agriculture, and farmland preservation, Red Fire places great weight on being an integral part of the community. Annually, they donate over $90,000 worth of produce to food relief organizations, like the Food Bank of Wester Mass, Lovin’ Spoonfuls, and Food for Free.
Generating shares for SNAP CSA members is another way Red Fire continues to invest in community support. “I love the fact that more people are learning about sustainable, regenerative agriculture and that everyone can take part in it, even if you live in the city… whole organic foods really are attainable for everyone,” Dennis said. So far, the farm has seen an increased number of SNAP CSA participants each year, and she hopes it’s a trend that will continue.