Popularity of community-supported agriculture programs growing

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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photoJoyce Valdivia feeds chickens at Northwest Organic Farms in Ridgefield on Thursday. In addition to produce, many community-supported agriculture programs offer eggs, herbs and honey to subscribers.

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For more information and a list of CSA programs in Clark County, visit CSA Farms

RIDGEFIELD — Cover crop still blankets many portions of the earth at Northwest Organic Farms.

As the weather warms, Greg Valdivia relocates seedlings from the greenhouse to the ground outside. Sugar snap peas, purple kale, red cabbage and romaine lettuce made the move recently. Next up: heirloom tomatoes.

In the coming weeks, those rows of small seedlings will flourish into leafy lettuce and colorful kale. And once the bounty is ready to be harvested, it’ll end up on the kitchen tables of families throughout the county.

Farmers across Clark County are gearing up for the spring harvest and the start of the community-supported agriculture program season.

Community-supported agriculture programs, or CSAs, sprouted up in Clark County several years ago, but their popularity continues to grow. CSAs give community members a chance to purchase fresh, locally grown produce directly from Clark County farms.

Farmers who operate CSAs sell shares in various sizes — full, half, quarter or family, for example — ranging in price from $300 to $800 per season. The length of the season varies from farm to farm, but many begin in May or June and run until October or November.

Variety of produce

CSA members receive a bag of produce every week, picked up from either the farm or from a central delivery point. The bags include a wide array of produce, based on the season. For example, spring bags likely include lots of greens like lettuce, cabbage, kale and broccoli. Summer bags could have peppers, squash and tomatoes. And fall bags may include onions, corn, potatoes and cauliflower.

“They’re getting a diversity of produce that they’re unlikely to find anywhere else,” said April Thatcher, who runs April Joy Farm in Ridgefield. “It’s pretty neat to taste a purple carrot or a red-skinned kohlrabi.”

The produce variety in CSAs depends largely on the weather, as opposed to grocery stores, which ship vegetables from across the country.

“Unless it’s grown on the farm, you won’t have it in your basket,” said Joyce Valdivia, who runs Northwest Organic Farms in Ridgefield with her husband.

Since the produce is harvested locally, it tastes better and lasts longer, she said.

“One of the big things is that we pick it and we put it in the basket and you get it all in the same day,” Valdivia said.

“When you go to other stores, you have not a clue how long it’s been sitting there,” she added.

In addition to being fresh, the quick turnover from field to table means the vegetables are more nutritious. The longer produce sits, the more nutrients it loses, Thatcher said.

“Not only does it look better and taste really good, it’s also most nutritional,” she said.

Thatcher’s CSA members have reported other benefits to purchasing locally grown food. Several members told Thatcher they have less garbage, not only because they’re throwing away less produce but also because they’re buying less packaged food.

Liz Nelson, who operates Heavenly Bounty in Battle Ground, said her members are reporting that their kids are becoming more interested in eating vegetables.

“We grow it in all different colors, shapes and sizes so kids look at it and get fascinated,” she said.

Adults are becoming more adventurous, too, Thatcher said. They’re cooking dinner based on what’s in their basket as opposed to what they find in a recipe book, she said.

In addition to the produce, many CSAs offer members other food such as eggs, honey or herbs -- all grown in Clark County. CSA members are not only supporting local farmers, they're investing in their community, Thatcher said.

The locally grown option is also affordable, she said. Many farms accept food stamps and work with members to set up payment plans if they can’t afford to pay for the whole season upfront, Thatcher said.

“This is not something that is exclusionary or elite,” she said. “This is food for everybody.”

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.