After graduating from Ithaca College as a journalism major, Kara Cusolito worked on a number of farms, including in Australia and Cape Cod. Now, she owns and operates Plowbreak Farm in Hector, New York, which she and her partner, Aaron Munzer, began in 2011. They rely on a community supported agriculture (CSA) model, which strengthens the relationship between the farmer and the consumer.
Community supported agriculture allows consumers to purchase a share of a farm’s harvest in advance, meaning that they support the farm, and local agriculture, in exchange for a supply of fresh produce each week.
Kara also said CSA has numerous economic and environmental benefits which go hand in hand. She said that one main benefit is that money spent on food is kept within the community.
“It’s the sort of vote with your dollars idea,” she said. “People are choosing to buy our produce, so we’re farming with sustainable, responsible practices, and they’re funding that, and they’re being able to eat this wholesome food in exchange, and the money that they are giving us we are spending at local stores.”
She also said that another benefit to CSA is that it encourages a healthier lifestyle, both in terms of diet and in terms of putting more thought into what one eats. She said she loves having conversations with CSA members about new recipes and ways to cook the different kinds of vegetables that are grown at Plowbreak.
“I think think it’s a pretty cool tool to change the way you eat...I think a lot of people get in the habit of eating the same vegetables, and CSA sort of exposes you to different vegetables and encourages you to cook a little bit more creatively,” she said.
Kara said they harvest twice a week at Plowbreak, but that Thursday morning is the main CSA harvest morning which they approach with a list of what needs to be harvested. They also have a work-share program in which community members can have a free CSA share in exchange for three hours of help on the farm each week.
Produce is then harvested, washed, cold-shocked and stored in the walk-in cooler. After that, produce is driven to The Westy, a bar and grill, where a farmer’s market-style stand is set up and CSA members can pick up their vegetables by bringing in reusable bags. Plowbreak Farm follows the free-choice CSA model, meaning that members simply pick out the produce that they need each week instead of picking up a pre-packed box.
Kara said she believes the free-choice model gives people flexibility in terms of what kinds of produce they take home. She also enjoys the interactions with the community that stem from this kind of CSA model.
“We are very much involved in the whole process,” she said. “We harvest it in the morning and then we get to hang out with the people in the afternoon who are coming to pick up the produce, and we give each other updates on our weeks. We get to know our members, which it’s nice, to have that connection with the people that are eating the food.”
Plowbreak Farm is also a participant in the Healthy Food For All program, a program housed at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, which helps low-income families afford CSA shares.
“It’s a super awesome program,” Kara said. “Not everyone can afford CSA, and they do awesome work in expanding access to CSA, and we are also allowed to take EBT payments through a partnership with GreenStar because of Healthy Food For All and so people can pay with EBT which is really, really important, too.”
EBT payments, formerly known as food stamps, are another option for paying for CSA. Kara also said that the stability that a CSA program gives to farms helped both her and Aaron grow the business when they first started out
“CSA helped us start our farm and become successful quickly because we have the security of knowing we have to grow enough food for ‘this many people’ and that we need enough of ‘this crop at this time,” Kara said. “It gave us structure and security that helped us grow the business and produce more food more quickly.”
Matthew LeRoux, Agricultural Marketing Specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, said CSA as a business model is actually more profitable for farms, primarily due to guaranteed sales.
"When you compare CSA to other marketing channels—farmers markets, wholesale to grocery stores and restaurants—CSA comes out on top," he said. "It's the best gross sales per hour of labor because you sell those memberships during the off season, not when the plants are growing, not when you're busy, and then you distribute thousands of dollars of produce in a few hours, which you can't really match. So, CSA members are getting a discounted rate compared to retail, but there’s a payback to the farm for that discount which comes in terms of long-term commitment and guaranteed sales."
Interview by Maggie McAden