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Fresh Business Model: Consumer-Investors Reap Tasty Dividends From Farms

Fresh Business Model: Consumer-Investors Reap Tasty Dividends From Farms

An example of a weekly CSA box (photo by Creative Commons user kthread)

Ted Gregory | Chicago Tribune

Organic farmers Matt Sheaffer and Steve Tiwald are busier than three-legged rabbits in a dense carrot patch.

Spring is traditionally busy. But now they have developed increasingly popular hybrids of innovative thinking and old-school food production. Sheaffer, who runs Sandhill Organics in Grayslake, and Tiwald, executive director of Green Earth Institute on the outskirts of Naperville, are Community Supported Agriculture farmers. With CSAs, customers buy shares of an organic crop in January and February. In return, they receive “dividends” in the form of weekly or biweekly fresh, organic produce dropped at sites in their neighborhoods or picked up at the farm throughout the growing season.

Sheaffer started in 2004 with 70 customers. This year, he has more than 300 and can no longer accommodate the frequent phone calls from people wanting to give him money for his product. Tiwald started harvesting in 2003 by supplying about 28 households with produce. This year, he’s supplying 500 and cannot get enough water to expand the farm to keep up with demand.

They are part of a small but exploding number of CSAs across the U.S.

“CSAs are a great concept,” said Jim Slama, president of Familyfarmed.org, an Oak Park non-profit promoting CSAs and locally grown food. “The farmer gets the money when he needs it. And when the growing season starts … people get to pick up their box of produce, which was picked the day before. It’s super fresh, and the people have a direct connection with the farm. Normally, people don’t get to have that intimate experience with their food.”

CSAs came to the U.S. in the mid-1980s in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, distilled from similar farming concepts in Switzerland and Germany, according to the USDA and organic associations. Those European approaches may have been inspired by similar efforts in the 1960s and ’70s in Chile and Japan.

Tiwald, 59, a former executive in HMO development and management, made his way into organic farming and CSA over time, establishing the Green Earth Institute CSA in 2002. He and six employees are planting produce on about 14 of the 49 tillable acres. The remaining 35 acres is cover crop, such as alfalfa and red clover.

“What was the catalyst for me was my interest in keeping people healthy,” Tiwald said. Sheaffer, 34, has a degree in environmental science, started working in organic farming in 1998 and got into CSAs only after overcoming nervousness about taking people’s money before he even planted crops. He and wife Peg cultivate about 18 acres of the 40-acre farm operation on the grounds of the Prairie Crossing development.