13 Is a Very Lucky Number for Fair Shares CCSA
Starting a small business is a crapshoot. Trying to educate folks about the importance of what they eat and where it comes from is a daunting proposition at best. But sisters Jamie Choler, Malinda “Lindy” Sullivan and Sara Hale have done both as founders of Fair Shares CCSA (combined community supported agriculture), which is starting its 13th season.
The Fair Shares mission is simple: to help as many people as possible access fresh local and sustainable food and to have producers earn a fair wage for their products. The seed of the business was planted when Choler, Hale and her husband, Stephen, became involved in the Slow Food movement in the early 2000s and developed relationships with many area farmers. The three eventually became members of a CSA through Biver Farms in Edwardsville.
When the three went to pick up their share at the Schlafly Bottleworks farmers’ market in Maplewood, they would fill in any gaps with produce from the other vendors—which got the trio thinking that a more comprehensive share sourced from a variety of producers (the “combined” in CCSA) would be something the public would get behind. Hale and Choler recruited Sullivan to help, and the first Fair Shares season kicked off in April 2008.
Image courtesy of Lucy May.
When they started, there were a handful of CSAs run by local farms in the St. Louis area. A few had also partnered with outside producers, like bakeries, but there was nothing as comprehensive as what Fair Shares was offering. Fair Shares currently works with 70 to 80 different producers that provide everything from produce to pickles and pork to chocolate. Some have multiple offerings, while others supply only a single crop or product.
“We’re always looking for new things to keep our members happy,” Hale says. “When we find these things, we try and add them in.”
Hale says that they’re frequently approached by farmers who want to sell through Fair Shares, but not all make the cut. ”We let them know that they don’t necessarily have to be ‘organic’ or certified ‘organic,’ but we want them to grow sustainable—and that our members would rather see a bug than have something sprayed on their food,” Hale says. “We want them to be small enough to be sustainable without necessarily selling to the big grocery store.”
One thing that’s not required of suppliers, though, is perfection. Good food doesn’t t necessarily mean consistent in size and shape, Hale says, just consistent in quality.
“Just because there’s a spot on it doesn’t mean it’s compost,” Hale says, adding that this is something they try and impart to suppliers as well as members.
From left to right: Jamie Choler, Sara Hale and Malinda “Lindy” Sullivan.
Among the many components that have contributed to Fair Shares’ growth and success, a key is the passion for quality food that the sisters had instilled in them at a young age. “We’re a big family, and homemade food has always meant love,” says Choler. “We could taste the difference when we ate at our friends’ houses. Our food always tasted better.”
A deep concern with doing good has also played a major part in the business. “We wanted to have a business based on love over profit and doing right and being good, because we wanted to live that way in our own lives,” says Choler.
Perhaps the biggest drive, though, is the personal connection the sisters have to the members and the food they curate. “A lot of our members stay because of the relationships we’ve built with them,” Choler says. “We have a lot of members from the beginning who are still in.”
Hale says in the early days of the modern CSA movement, the Japanese referred to it as “food with a face.” “It was people getting to know the farmer and who grew their food, and that’s what we wanted to do,” she says. “We wanted to make sure people were reconnecting with their food because so many people just go to the store, they pick something up, they squeeze it and throw it in their bag and and have no connection to it. People always have to eat, and I think that once you’re eating food that tastes good and you have a connection with, you’re likely to continue with that.”
Image courtesy of Mink Mingle.
For Season 13, which started this week, Hale says they’ll be focusing even more closely on making their small food system as efficient as possible, as well as getting the word out to attract new members. Fair Shares will be offering more trial shares so potential members can get a feel for Fair Shares before going all in.
“We have room for a lot more people,” Choler says.
Fair Shares is also offering curbside pickup during the COVID-19 quarantine. “We know [members’] names, we know their children’s names—and this year, we’re going to know the car they drive!” Hale says.
[Editor’s note: To learn more about other ways you can support local farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit the CurbsideSTL Farm-to-Home food project, a partnership between Curbside STL and Known & Grown STL with the goal of ensuring consumers have access to healthy, safe and sustainable food.]
Featured image courtesy of Damien Creatz.