Yes I know the NSA acronym has been in the news a ton the last few months. And no, the NSA acronym I’m using does not represent a global spying network; the acronym I’m using represents the practice of producing local food on the most local of levels – the neighborhood. NSA in the local food movement stands for Neighborhood Supported Agriculture. Similar to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), an NSA takes a micro approach to a global problem.
Let’s start with the basics – the CSA model. The CSA model typically has a handful of medium sized farms in or near a city. Patrons of the farm buy “shares” for the season. A share is usually a box of vegetables – the amount a patron pays for a share directly determines the size of the box. Additional types of shares can be added to the base share of vegetables – things like eggs, honey, bread, mushrooms, fruit, and herbs. Even meat can be added to some CSA shares. Often there are several pick-up points where patrons go once a week (during the growing season), to pick-up their goods. Patrons pay in advance for the season, and the produce they receive is, indeed, seasonal.
RECOMMENDED ARTICLE-How to Start a CSA (Even if You Don’t Have a Farm) 101(photo & video)
The CSA model is popular with farmers because they have a seasonal target to aim at – they know how many shares have been sold before the season starts, and therefore they know how much food they need to produce. While the CSA model is popular with patrons as well, some folks who have purchased CSA shares have expressed disappointment with the quantity they receive, or the variety that they receive. Retraining a population on 1) the true cost of food and 2) eating seasonally is not an easy task. CSA, locally produced, usually certified organic food, is not cheap to produce. Could a patron buy twice as much produce at Wal-Mart with the same amount of money they invested in a local farm? Probably, but they would be supplementing their Wal-Mart food purchases in taxes paid to cover the S.N.A.P. program for Wal-Mart employees. A classic case of you get what you pay for. In addition, an early spring CSA basket in Colorado is often filled with lots of kale, and sometimes little else. This overwhelming of particular vegetables, at specific times of the season, has been a turn-off for some patrons. The CSA model is not without its limitations.
The NSA model is similar to the CSA model in most respects. Patrons receive locally grown produce, usually grown using all natural or organic methods. Food produced under the NSA model is not usually certified organic, due to the high cost of certification – a micro producer simply cannot afford organic certification. Food produced under the NSA model is, however, extremely local. Like, walk-it-down-the-street local. The carbon footprint of the small scale, hand produced food, is nearly erased when compared to food produced using tractors, shipped on trucks, and held in refrigeration – and this includes organic food, and most of the food produced on the CSA scale. The NSA model is an urban model – a solution the world needs desperately as human populations continue to pack into cities and towns around the world.
So where do you come in? Why am I suggesting that you to grow food for your neighbors? I am suggesting that you grow food for your neighbors for three primary reasons – to create more resilient neighborhoods, stronger household economies, and increase access to healthy food. Let’s break these down:
Create more resilient neighborhoods – It’s amazing what happens when neighbors start talking to one another, sharing with one another, and helping one another. Resource scarcity becomes less prevalent, the social fabric is enhanced, and people smile at one another – and I’m here to tell you, never underestimate the power of a smile.
Stronger household economies – Now when I say “share” food with your neighbors, this includes selling food to your neighbors. Share when you see a need; sell when the exchange is equitable for both parties. Don’t run out and quit your day job, but an NSA run from your backyard is not only legal, it can net you a little pocket cash – or at least enough cash to buy your seeds for the following year.
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Increase access to healthy food – The increased access to healthy food includes access for you and your family, any member of your neighborhood who was gifted food from you, or any member of your neighborhood who was lucky enough to purchase some of your garden’s bounty. Nutrition goes up, health goes up, disease goes down.
In the coming weeks we’ll take a closer look at the rules and regs of running an NSA, as well as what to expect as a micro-urban farmer. With the water crisis looming in California(one of the primary produce producing states for Colorado), there is no better time to start producing food in your backyard. Stay tuned – I’ll tell you everything I know about starting your own NSA.
If you have an interest in starting a small scale, backyard farming operation (and I hope that you do), there are some things you need to consider. Producing food is hard, it can be expensive, and it is full of heartbreak. It is also gratifying, an investment in your future and the future of your community, and joyous. If you plan to get into food production, here’s my advice – buckle-up and hang on, because folks it’s about to get interesting!
Last week I wrote about why you might want to consider starting an NSA. This week I write about what you need to consider before actually taking the plunge. The easiest part (and I do mean the easiest part) of starting an NSA is attracting customers. Our little NSA only supports between one and three families each year, and we typically have around 20 inquiries each season. That means the customers that come to us are about seven times as many customers as we can support – and we don’t advertise. Our little farm is listed on two CSA websites – one national and one state level local. Both sites are free, and from these sites customers find us.
The hard part of running an NSA is indeed producing the food. The eggs and honey aren’t too tough, but the vegetables vary in degrees of difficulty depending on the years – some years are just better than others. Our first year, we had a terrible run of weather. Our produce production dropped, and we realized we could not fulfill upcoming orders. As a result, we refunded money to our clients. It was the only option we felt we had. The vegetables weren’t coming, and as an act of good faith we wanted our customers to get their money back. That was a tough season. Not all seasons are so tough, but I tell you this story as a bit of a reality check – at the end of the day, Mother Nature wins, and some years that just might mean that your NSA gets skunked.
To that end, I’ve come up with a list of 12 things you should consider before you decide to start an NSA. Read over this list carefully – really let these items sink in.
12 Things You Should Consider Before Starting an NSA
1.Determine how much food you want to sell
2.Estimate space required to grow the amount of food you want to sell
3.Determine if you have as much space as you need – if don’t have enough space, consider SPIN Farming
4.Estimate cost to build your gardens – cost is everything in food production
5.Keep your costs low, as low as possible
6.Calculate your time as a cost – you will be spending more of it than you think
7.Determine if you can ever, seriously, get a return on your investment
8.Plan your vegetable growing operation for the season – include succession planting
9.Sell your extra honey (after the first year)
10.Sell your extra eggs (either as an add-on to an NSA share, or whenever you have eggs available)
11.Charge what your food products are worth in time and money, not what you think people will pay (people will pay more for a better product)
12.Maintain the highest standards possible in your food production operation.
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If you have visions of grandeur in your head, fantasies about quitting your day job, or a get-rich scheme in mind, let me nip that in the bud right now. Agriculture is many things; lucrative it is not. If you do want to start an NSA, set goals for your farm like “I just want to pay for my gardening supplies this year” or “I want to make a couple hundred bucks to buy some fruit trees.” Financial plans like “I want to pay off our 20 year mortgage in 2 years with profits from our NSA” will most likely end in frustration.
Small scale agriculture in cities and town is an important method for increasing food access in communities. My advice, in its simplest terms, is this: grow food for you and your family, but plant extra to sell. If you plan to invest in the infrastructure of food production, you should concern yourself with getting a return on your investment. That return might take several years, but with a well-run NSA you will see your money again, and over time you might just earn a little pocket change.
All right folks, let’s talk rules and regs. This is the not-so-glamorous side of food production, but it is arguably the most important. Food safety is a hot topic, and for good reason. You may recall the cantaloupe/listeria outbreak that made ill or killed a number of people across 28 states. This outbreak was directly linked to poor food handling procedures – contaminated water in the farm’s storage facility. As a result, the farmers each faced 6 years in prison, and 1.5 million in fines. The Federal judge who sentenced the farmers offered the “mercy” of the court; the farmers will serve probation, and pay reduced fines. Even though the farmers did not serve time in prison, make no mistake, food safety handling is a very important topic. The safety of the public and the protection of our businesses and livelihood are important topics, now and into the future.
While there are a number of regulatory hurdles to jump in order to start a backyard farm (home business use permit, state business filing, DBA filing, EIN filing, State sales tax license, and city sales tax license), what I want to focus on in this post is the food safety side of things. Backyard food production, intended for sale, does not fit neatly into the over-arching bureaucratic documents that tend to govern food production in the United States.
The Food Safety and Modernization Act was developed by the FDA in response to major food contamination occurrences, none of which involved small scale producers like a backyard farmer. The Food Safety and Modernization Act has been criticized as not just being unfriendly to small scale, local food production, but indeed that this act is openly hostile to the backyard farmer. To the credit of the FDA, they took those complaints seriously and made some adjustments to the act in an effort to calm the fears of small scale farmers.
Next up is HACCP, the Hazards Analysis and Critical Control Points method for preventing food borne illness during food production. HACCP was developed by the Codex Alimentarius Commission on behalf of NASA and the Pillsbury Corporation. The initial effort was to make food free from risks for astronauts. This system is widely embraced around the world as the gold standard for safe food production.
Not to be outdone, the USDA has a set of protocols all their own – Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices. The GAP and GHP protocols are audits – checklists to verify the safety of the food being produced. As backyard farmers, we are mainly concerned with GAP –Good Agricultural Practices. The GAP audit scores a food production facility/farm and verifies what practices are in place.
Now, what does all this regulatory gumbo mean for the average backyard farmer? Well, we’re not really sure. We know that HACCP and GAP are best practices, and most food retailers require this documentation from their producers.
We know that if you produce food from your backyard farm, and sell directly to a customer through an NSA, CSA, or farmers market, many of the Cottage Laws cover those sales. We know that liability for tainted food falls, ultimately, with producer (that’s you). And we know that food can be a dangerous commodity. We also know, at least in El Paso County, that there is genuine interest on the part of the health authorities to support local food production and sales, without endangering the public.
If you plan to sell food through an NSA, CSA, or farmers market, you will have less red tape to wade through. That doesn’t mean that selling to grocery stores or restaurants is out of the question, but it will mean more forms to fill-out, and possibly a lower price paid to you for your produce (you will most likely be paid wholesale prices by grocery stores and restaurants, and retail prices for sales directly to customers through an NSA, CSA, or farmers market).
I would strongly encourage you to have a conversation with your local health department and learn what food policies you need to follow.
What is allowed in one state or county, may not be allowed in a neighboring state or county. Check with your local food policy folks, get the facts, and follow the rules. Producing food for others opens you up to liability, and you do not want to be on the receiving end of a lawsuit. Take it from the cantaloupe farmers – best practices are best for all involved.
Have general legal questions about producing food from your backyard? Check out this site for support.