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Buying Stock in Your Food

The rise of the community-supported agriculture, fisheries, and restaurants. The Maine fisherman Knoep Nieuwkerk calls me the night before my...


The rise of the community-supported agriculture, fisheries, and restaurants.

The Maine fisherman Knoep Nieuwkerk calls me the night before my share arrives to ask if I know how to fillet a hake because he’s planning to be out in his 38-foot Novi boat–checking his lines–and won’t be able to give me a demonstration. I say I’ll take care of it, when truthfully, I’ve only ever de-boned a hake after the fish has been filleted. I joined the Hannah Jo Community Supported Fishery last week. For $240 up front, I’m getting 10-12 pounds of fish every week from Knoep, a fishermen who works about 30 miles south of where I live. When I get my first share–four, clear-eyed redfish, and one fresh hake–I don’t have a clue whether the fish I’ve bought have any eco-credibility, which I suppose is why I’ve bought into a community supported fishery in the first place: to learn. Community-supported fisheries are just one of many attempts to replicate the success small farmers have had with the community-supported agriculture model. CSAs act sort of like a food stock market: A farmer makes an initial public offer, promising to deliver a certain amount of food to consumers who purchase a share. Throughout the season, these investors receive dividends of seasonal produce each week.

Over the past 20 years, the CSA model has proven popular, going from two farms in 1984 to 12,549 in 2007. Direct-to-consumer food marketing—which includes these consumer-supported models, farmers markets, and roadside stands—might only make up 1 percent of food sales, but it has grown over 100 percent in the last decade. That’s about double the rate of growth in total agricultural sales.

This consumer-supported agriculture concept has been applied to neighborhood markets, kitchens, meat, grain, and foraged food shares in San Francisco and Vermont. In New York, Milk Thistle Farm launched a high-profile effort to finance a bottling plant—and other dairy farms have used direct sales as a way around state-level raw milk prohibitions. Two restaurants in Vermont—Claire’s in Hardwick and the Bee’s Knees in Morrisville–raised funds from their communities to open for business and pay for renovations, respectively. And a recent roundup on Serious Eats included community-supported projects for bacon, preserves, pie, and canning.

Since consumer-supported fisheries set sail in 2007 with a shrimp share, they’ve expanded to include nearly 1,000 Boston-area residents who signed on to fish shares with the Cape Ann Fresh Catch out of Glocester, Massachusetts, this year. Hundreds more in Maine received fish from the Port Clyde Fresh Catch, and The Institute for Fisheries Resources in San Francisco may also be launching a West Coast CSF.

This model of community-supported food provides benefits to both consumers and the producers. The upfront investments often allow start-ups to launch in the first place, and a customer with a stake in a community-supported restaurant tends to care about its success. It also creates a direct link between food produces and food consumers. This raises awareness in general; if you know the person who grew your vegetables, you’re more likely to care about agricultural policies.

The model also alleviates some of the pressures of food producers as consumers guarantee a market, shouldering some of the risks associated with crop failures, or mitigating the crippling economic effects associated with the widespread depletion of large, wild fish species.

It would also seem to be a more sustainable option than supermarket shopping. But here’s where things become a little fuzzy. Being a member of a vegetable or fruit CSA generally means less packaging, less processing, biologically diverse farming methods, and perhaps, most importantly, less meat, all of which tend to add up to more sustainable food. But unlike a field of corn, it’s hard to see the ocean—and harder to see how a boat’s fishing. (Weirs and hook-and-line gear may be more sustainable than trawlers, gillneters, or purse seiners, for example.) On the other hand, community-supported fisheries ensure participating fishermen get a consistently higher price for their entire catch than they might get wholesale, which could, in turn, help deter wasteful dumping of less valuable, “bycatch” species. The issue of sustainability is complex. As one scientist told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s important to recognize that local doesn’t mean sustainable, and small-scale doesn’t mean sustainable.”

At home, I gut my redfish and filet my hake. The kitchen is a mess. Only after grilling them, laughing with friends, and attempting to feed fish eyeballs to neighborhood cats do I realize the UN has classified redfish (also known as ocean perch and sometimes marketed, incorrectly, as Pacific redfish) as endangered. At least I know it was an actual redfish. Under many circumstances—at the fish wholesaler, the sushi case, or the frozen fish sticks aisle—a kind of “ichthyologic name-swapping” makes it difficult for any consumer, even one armed with a sustainable food buying guide, to make ethical buying choices. As with any community-supported project, the benefits of a fish share center on the transparency of talking to the farmers and fishermen delivering food. I feel like I still have a lot to learn.

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