| Largo Farm Community Shared Agriculture
by Christopher Sanford Beck
Twenty-two years ago, Judy Ternier and Tom Burns began a community shared agriculture (CSA). In this system, customers buy a share in the garden prior to planting. This share, purchased at a fixed price, enables members to receive fresh produce as it is grown throughout the year. Or, in the case of root vegetables, throughout the winter. Customers thus share in both the risk and the bounty of the garden. However, the good years far outweigh the bad. According to Judy’s meticulous records, there have been only five really bad gardens in Largo Farm’s CSA history.
When Tom and Judy first heard about community shared agriculture in 1995, through an article published in the Western Producer, they immediately recognized the potential it held. For Judy, who hates marketing, the customers’ prior commitment to buying vegetables seemed like a great idea. On top of that, less fuel would be used transporting produce to markets without a guarantee of purchase. This not only saved time and money, but was better for the environment and allowed Tom and Judy to spend more time doing what they love.
Largo CSA customers take turns helping harvest the vegetables and picking up the weekly (monthly in the winter) order. After harvesting some of the vegetables and visiting with the gardeners, they take the shares back home to be distributed. Because this is a shared responsibility, each customer only has to drive out to the farm once or twice each season. This marketing style proved successful. Prior commitment from customers spares small-scale farmers the need to haul produce to markets and greatly reduces the amount of waste. As Judy puts it, “It’s a wonderful way of selling vegetables.”
Largo Farm gardens on five acres, along with chickens, cows, pigs, and a small selection of field crops. These support both the CSA business and the eight people who live on the farm. Although operating a CSA is a lot of work, gardening is what Judy loves to do. Before they began the CSA, income came primarily from selling wheat, meat, and hay. Financially, the garden played a tiny role. When the CSA began, there were only seven shares. Now, some 22 years later, the CSA is the main source of income with 20 full shares. At roughly $20,000 in 2014, the CSA meets the needs of those living and working on the farm. However, lifestyle is a huge part of whether or not this income is sufficient. Largo Farm is off-the-grid, meaning there is no running water, grid-sourced electricity, or gas heat. On top of that, the farm produces around 90% of its own food (closer to 98% when the milk cow is in production). Judy said that at one point, her vision was to see the farm/garden provide a modest living for two full-time gardeners. This vision is being fulfilled by the CSA.
However, the CSA isn’t without hiccups. Tom and Judy told me that there are two main issues (apart from unpredictable growing conditions)—giving the customers either too many vegetables or not enough. CSA farmers cannot anticipate the amount of available produce, which is determined by growing conditions. In 2002, for example, they couldn’t give their customers 40 carrots each when the garden yielded a total of only four! However, the problem of quantity can be solved if customers communicate their needs. Although Largo decides how much to give customers for each pickup, quantities can be adjusted based upon people’s likes, dislikes, and/or allergies.
Talking to Largo’s CSA membership, many people said their decision to join was encouraged by their love of fresh, local, and chemical-free vegetables. Another benefit cited is the wide selection of vegetables received! For some customers, that means stepping out of their comfort zone and trying things that they wouldn’t buy in a supermarket. (The farm blog largofarm.wordpress.com offers great information on the CSA and includes recipes!)
The CSA isn’t only about food. During my interviews, several people told me how much their children enjoyed coming to the farm. The animals, water, land, and people are a great draw. Kids connect with the farm to such an extent that several claim it as their own. Some have been coming to the farm since before their first birthday. Over the course of the season, each member makes at least one trip to the farm, though many people choose to come out more often. Members are also encouraged to build community among themselves. In the early days, Tom said people would put on a pot of tea and visit with other members as they came to pick up their veggies. As he put it, a personal connection to where food comes from, and connecting with others who share your values “overcomes the isolation of supermarket style buying.”
Largo organizes communal gatherings several times each year. Most popular is the fall pickup in September when all of the winter members come to the farm for an afternoon of harvesting the last of the summer produce. Once the work is done, everyone gathers in the farm hall for a potluck of epic proportions. Easily the highlight of the younger members’ day, good food (much of which is grown on the farm) is shared in community. The CSA is a great place to meet new people. My favourite example is two families who met through the CSA at a time when they both had young daughters. Seventeen years later, these girls are still close.
Judy said the CSA is “about as perfect a living as I could want.” This feeling of right livelihood is reinforced by the praise and thanks received from customers and friends.
Anyone interested in eating in a more healthy, earth-conscious, and meaningful way, or who loves delicious food, should consider Largo CSA. Come for a visit! Any information you need can be found at largofarm.wordpress.com.
Christopher Sanford Beck has been living on Largo Farm since 2013 when his family joined Tom and Judy and their adult children, Josephine and Johnny. Less than a year earlier, his family had gone to the farm to buy some tomatoes and squash and had a wonderful visit. Throughout the fall, winter, and spring, the families had several more visits, and in June 2013, the Sanford Becks moved from Saskatoon to Largo Farm. Janice Sanford Beck is the main gardener of the family and Judy’s workmate. The farm is located on the north shore of Murray Lake, near Cochin, 50 km from North Battleford and 200 km from Saskatoon. For more information, call (306) 481-5654 and/or visit largofarm.wordpress.com.