CSAs – Know your Farmer, Know Your Food

Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) was at the cutting edge as consumer interest in buying food directly from local farmers started to build. True believers eagerly subscribed to receive CSA boxes from their favorite farms, ensuring that they would enjoy the products they love while providing the farmers with cash to cover costs of growing that food.

After enjoying a long period of growth, CSA struggled a few years ago, the result of factors that included oversaturation of CSA farms and the proliferation of farmers markets. CSA rebounded, though, as pandemic-related supply chain issues sent consumers flocking to secure local food sources, and farms adjusted to market realities with more flexible subscription options and convenience (home delivery or additional drop sites).

CSA remains the most personal way to know your farmer and know your food. We think you’ll enjoy the following story about Broadview Farm and Gardens in Marengo (northern Illinois), which does CSA and farmers markets.

Broadview is a member of the Buy Fresh Buy Local Coalition and is listed in its essential directory of producers and sellers of local food. Listings are free to values-driven farm and food businesses (sign up by clicking here), and consumers can find a list of CSAs near them by entering CSA in the search box (we provide a starter list at the end of this article).

Taking the Broadview on CSA

When it comes to Community Supported Agriculture, there has been a common complaint voiced over the years even by dedicated subscribers. At some point, your CSA farm might provide a box of products that you don’t exactly know what to do with — summed up by the stereotypical big box of kohlrabi.

Tim and Delicia Brown are among the farmers who address this issue by taking a more specialized approach with the CSA they run at the Broadview Farm and Gardens in Marengo, located in northeast Illinois at the edge of metro Chicago. Their featured subscription is the Salad Bowl CSA, available June to October, that highlights lettuces and 10 varieties of tomatoes, all chemical-free from their Certified Naturally Grown farm.

“I’m going to grow what I normally grow, which is lettuce and spinach and cucumbers and tomatoes, things that I know the vast majority of people want,” says Tim Brown. “It’s not going to be difficult for me to sell anything. I don’t grow anything exotic. I make it a point not to grow anything exotic.”

The Browns also have a flock of laying hens that enable them to stage an Egg CSA.

Broadview Farm became the Browns’ landing spot in 2014 after a long physical and personal journey. Tim and Delicia were born and met in Los Angeles. They developed unhealthy eating habits — Tim says he maxed out at 325 pounds — but they adopted better diets and quit smoking as they started a family that now includes three young children.

They also moved first to the Northwest Side of Chicago, then to a house with a backyard in Elgin. Tim fulfilled a longtime dream to grow a vegetable garden and started to contemplate a second career in farming. At the same time, he became increasingly disenchanted with his day job with an audio-visual firm. “I was just obsessed with gardening,” Tim says. “The only thing I wanted to do is come home and spend time in my garden.”

He tested the waters in the Farm Dreams and Farm Beginnings programs presented by Angelic Organics Learning Center in Caledonia, Illinois. In 2013, he took a giant leap, quitting his job, initiating a land search with Delicia that landed them in Marengo, and working for two years at organic CSA farmer Janet Gamble’s Turtle Creek Gardens in Delevan, Wisconsin to learn the ropes.

Broadview Farm and Gardens started full production in 2016 but initially eschewed CSA. After a long stretch of surging growth, CSA was struggling at that point in the Chicago region. Tim attributes that mainly to oversaturation, as small farms surged into the space and competed for subscribers. There were other issues too, including limited say over what goes into the CSA boxes, and the challenges getting product to consumers (as few CSAs did home delivery at the time).

Yet the Browns eased into CSA, recruiting subscribers through the personal relationships they had developed vending at the Woodstock Farmers Market in McHenry County and the Edgebrook Farmers Market in Rockford. Their farm stands also became their primary pickup points for CSA customers.

The couple addresses the product selection issue by focusing on the salad ingredients that they feel they do best, and the upfront price issue by creating subscription plans of varying lengths and creating a la carte options. Like many such farms, Broadview rode the CSA revival during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, as supply chain issues and empty shelves prompted many consumers to look to local farms for secure access to food.

And this year, Broadview is tackling the convenience issue by initiating home delivery.

Broadview is on trend in other important ways. The Browns are bullish on the opportunities that hoop houses provide for year-round growing. “The rewards that they can bring are significant,” Tim says. “I think that anybody growing in the Midwest should have them. I want to put in as many as I can.”

He concedes, though, “I can honestly say that I do enjoy the natural built-in breaks in the season like right now. I don’t want to be outside every day battling with the cold, dealing with iced-over equipment and all that kind of stuff.”

The Browns also intend to take advantage of the new Illinois Home to Market Act that greatly expands opportunities for farmers to sell value-added products made in their own kitchens to the general public. “The cottage food law that the Illinois Stewardship Alliance was able to help get pushed through has been amazing,” Tim says. “We can convert some of our stuff into jams, jellies, nectars, preserves, chutneys, whatever, and legally sell it without issue.”

And Tim notes that Broadview will actually be adding kohlrabi to its lineup… just not whole boxes of it. “I’m growing kohlrabi this year for the first time in like seven years. It’s a very limited amount, but I have seen areas where I can fill in my CSA or I can throw them on the [farmers market] table,” he says.

Find CSAs Near You

You can find CSA farms near you at www.buyfreshbuylocalillinois.org. Just use the filters to search by proximity. Below are just a handful of CSA farms across the state:

Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm Meat CSA, Ottawa: Northern IL

Henry’s Farm, Congerville: Central IL

All Seasons Farm, Cobden: Southern IL

Terripin Farm Stand CSA, Quincy: Western IL

Get Listed with Buy Fresh Buy Local Illinois

Are you a farm, farmers market, farm-to-table restaurant, or grocery store that sells local products purchased directly from local farms? Get listed in Illinois’ most trusted guide to local food. Your listing is absolutely free. Buy Fresh Buy Local Illinois is a local foods marketing project led by a coalition of organizations across the state working to promote local farms and food businesses like yours. Get listed and start reaching new customers today!