Valley consumers opt for produce fresh from farm

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Nick Salazar has become a modern day milkman of sorts. Except Salazar is selling fresh fruits and vegetables and delivering them to peoples’ homes and offices.

Every week, the Reedley farmer collects his customers’ orders and packs their boxes with everything from potatoes to pluots. Salazar has about 125 members who pay $30 a week for his service.

“People are really looking for food that is local and fresh and this is one way to get it to them,” said Salazar, who runs Farmer and the Dale.

As a food entrepreneur, Salazar has become part of a growing national movement called Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. The concept allows farmers to provide a weekly supply of their produce to a group of regular subscribers.

Although the idea has been around for at least 20 years, it has gained momentum in the last several years as more people embrace the local-food movement. Farmers markets and CSAs have become popular among people looking for locally grown food that is high-quality, organic and healthy.

“People want a stronger connection to the food they are buying,” said Erin Barnett, director of Local Harvest. “To some, shopping at grocery stores seems anonymous and they don’t want that.”

Nationally, the number of CSAs has grown dramatically over the last decade. Federal officials don’t track CSAs, but a list compiled by Local Harvest — a Santa Cruz-based online directory of farmers markets and CSAs — shows the number of programs in the U.S. has swelled from 374 in 2000 to more than 4,400 this year.

Locally, there are about 20 CSAs in the San Joaquin Valley, up from a handful a decade ago. Many are organic farmers. Others, like Farmer and the Dale, sell both organic and conventionally grown produce. And the CSAs vary in size. Some have more than 3,000 customers throughout the state, while others have fewer than 30.

Melanie Davis of Fresno is typical of many CSA customers. She uses the service because she wants to support local farmers and likes the freshness and quality of their products. She also likes the convenience and knowing who is growing her food.

“I have watched pretty much every documentary there is about how food is made and I really am trying to be more proactive and support our local small farms,” Davis said. “And you just can’t beat buying local produce. It just tastes better.”

In the Valley, CSAs have become an attractive option for farmers and operate in several different ways.

Some farmers fill their customers’ boxes with what’s available on their farm or a partner’s farm. The boxes are packed and dropped off at several locations where customers pick them up.

Newer versions of a CSA allow customers to select what they want from a menu of choices. And some operations, like Salazar’s, deliver directly to homes and offices.

People usually enter into monthly, quarterly or yearly subscriptions. The weekly cost can vary from $15 to more than $30, depending on the size of the box.

The advantage for farmers is that they can be paid in advance for their product. They also sell directly to consumers, eliminating the added financial cost of dealing with a packinghouse or broker.

Produce isn’t the only thing available through a CSA. Some are starting to offer beef and poultry.

Farmer Mike Corcoran of Springville expects to launch his egg and poultry CSA in about a week. Corcoran sells his farm-fresh eggs at farmers markets throughout the Valley and his customers have been interested in buying poultry that hasn’t been mass-produced. He plans to offer cuts of chicken, duck and turkey.

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