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CISA’s Model for Locally Grown Produce is Putting Western Mass. Farms on the Map

Helping farms introduce their products to the local marketplace is one part of CISA’s mission, but there are several other aspects of the organization’s work that place greater emphasis on integrating the community at large with the agricultural economy to help people eat healthier — and promote social change through everyday decisions.

At a time when the world is focused on differences — be they political, religious, or just matters of taste — Phil Korman, executive director of South Deerfield-based Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), said his organization focuses on the one thing that we all share, and always have.

“One thing that’s definitely true for everyone is that we all eat,” he said. “And it’s part of our core mission to make local, fresh produce a part of our community’s everyday decisions.”

CISA has been in existence for 15 years, providing marketing support and advocacy to local farmers (or producers) and buyers across the region, as well as bolstering access within the community at large to fresh, local food.

A largely member-driven organization, its influence is felt most predominantly in three counties of Western Mass.: Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire. However, that reach is gradually expanding to include parts of Worcester County and some of the Berkshires.

Several programs of CISA also bring local products to buyers in other parts of New England, further adding to its name recognition as a proponent of sustainable agriculture and buying locally, and the organization also partners with other groups across the country.

Korman said this work is important on a number of levels. It assists the local agriculture force, one of the largest business sectors in Western Mass., and in turn gives the region’s economy a needed shot in the arm.

But it also, says Korman, helps to preserve the area’s rural character by maintaining its farmland, creates a positive impact on the environment by promoting the purchase of fresh produce in lieu of processed, packaged foods, and adds to the overall social well-being of Western Mass. by making a strong bridge between agriculture and community.

“The agricultural economy is so important here,” he said, “but agriculture is also important to the landscape — the vistas we see, and the food culture we have. CISA really represents the diversity of the community; there are lots of reasons why we love where we live, and this ties a lot of those reasons together.”

A Menu of Options

CISA has a number of programs that formalize this work to increase access to local food produced by local producers. Four separate initiatives fall under the group’s ‘business development and marketing’ arm, while two round out the ‘community access to local food’ project. CISA’s advocacy efforts are also ongoing, and factor into both community and business-related programs.

CISA’s largest endeavor is its Be a Local Hero — Buy Locally Campaign, the longest-running such program in the country, founded in 1999. It works by promoting local farms through point-of-purchase materials, events, and advertising.

Korman said CISA promotes agriculture in general through its marketing efforts, but noted that the Local Hero program has proven to be a particularly strong brand.

Bolstered by the involvment of CISA’s membership, ‘Be a Local Hero’ is the country’s longest-running and most comprehensive ‘buy local’ program for farm products.

The Local Hero campaign uses a wide array of paid advertising — print, radio, and the Web among them — to engage the public and increase support for local farmers.

CISA’s bright yellow logo, seen everywhere from bumper stickers to bread aisles (bright yellow stickers differentiate local products from others in stores), is a key part of this multi-channel marketing effort, as well.

“We did a study in Franklin and Hampshire counties that reported that 82% of local residents recognize the Local Hero logo,” Korman said. “And in 2006, we surveyed our producers, and 90% said that the program had a positive impact on their business. They’ve also found that if they don’t sticker all of the product going to a store for sale, the unstickered units actually move slower.”

There’s also a training component; once an individual or business becomes a member of the program, they’re eligible to take part in workshops covering everything from financial literacy to wholesale markets.

The success of the program has earned CISA some national attention — it collaborates frequently with other agriculture-based assistance, marketing, and advocacy organizations across the country that are looking to replicate the model in their communities. Sometimes, groups travel to Western Mass. to meet with CISA staff, and other times, CISA sends representatives to other locales. The agency has also penned a manual titled Harvesting Support for Locally Grown Food that offers a primer of sorts to any community looking to start a buy-local campaign.

“We’re so well-established that we get contacted a lot, and we do some national consulting,” said Korman. “It’s not often that a nonprofit like us is a marketing leader. But we’re also so excited that it works as well as it does to keep us connected to the community.”

CISA also publishes a Food Products Guide each year, in both print and on the Web, which lists all of the places CISA members produce and sell local food. In addition to a listing of farms, stores, farmers markets, and restaurants, the guide also includes a regional farm- and food-festival calendar and a ‘farm product availability chart,’ designed to further promote buying locally year-round (and keep the guide itself hanging around, too).

“People have gotten disconnected from how and when food grows,” Korman said. “This tells them when different things are coming out, and they can find out in the guide which farms produce what.”

Finally, CISA chooses three recipients of Local Hero awards each year as a capstone event of the program, in recognition of achievement furthering CISA’s mission and sustainable agriculture in general. The winners can be individuals or organizations, and range from farm owners to journalists to other nonprofit groups in the region.

Margaret Christie, special projects director with CISA, said the Buy Local program was created to allow people working in agriculture — not just farmers, but farmers’ markets, restaurants, grocery stores, landscapers, garden centers, foresters, fiber producers, and others — to connect with the community more easily and effectively.

Share Cropping

“When we launched Buy Local, we were looking for ways everyone could work together better,” said Christie. “A lot of groups needed a buy-local campaign.”

She added that creating Buy Local didn’t require a lot of explanation, though — they were already aware of many of the potential positives associated with sustainable agriculture, but needed a way to harness that potential, and an independent entity to organize those efforts.

“Before we launched, we did some research, and found that people already understood that buying local helps the economy,” she said. “But they saw it as something that could be more convenient. Our mission became helping people do what they already wanted to do.”

Today, about 170 farms participate in the program, and Buy Local foods and products can be found in a variety of stores, from farmstands to small grocers to large supermarkets, including Big Y and Stop & Shop locations. In addition, more than 30 restaurants buy ingredients from Local Hero farms.

But beyond the Buy Local Campaign, there are several other CISA initiatives working concurrently to reconnect the community with its agricultural roots. These include farm sales to institutions such as medical centers and colleges, programs for senior citizens, and the Farm2City program that provides for deliveries of fresh farm goods to various urban centers.

All three of these initiatives recruit members to become ‘shareholders,’ allowing businesses, organizations, and community members to buy in, essentially, and receive produce and other products during various times of the year, particularly in the summer and fall months. Farm sales to institutions, for example, provide ingredients for cafeterias and dining halls but also what amounts to exclusive farmers’ markets for employees.

“What you’re saying when you become a shareholder is, ‘I want to help this farm be sustainable and share in the bounty,’” said Korman. “It also provides another line of capital to the farmers, helping the economy, which is on everyone’s minds these days. Thinking locally also addresses other concerns many people have today, including environmental issues.”

Christie said Baystate Medical Center is one of the largest participants in this program; employees sign up to be members, and can purchase produce and other goods directly on-site when suppliers make seasonal visits.

“Employees can even set up a payroll deduction plan, so the cost of their purchases is spread out over the whole year,” Christie said. “This is another good example of our range, and an assistance program that connects farms directly with the consumer, as well as creating new wholesale markets.”

Similar to the institutional farm sales program, Senior FarmShare also serves as a membership-driven project, recruiting low-income senior citizens to become ‘shareholders’ at a farm in their local area, in order to receive a share of the produce each summer. Farms deliver food to about 340 senior centers, apartment complexes, and independent- and assisted-living facilities in the region.

And Farm2City is an effort to raise awareness of locally grown food in urban areas; individuals can purchase shares from area farms, and farmers deliver the shares once a week from June through October to workplaces and community hubs.

All of these programs are geared toward that larger goal of easier access for all types of individuals to locally grown food, but CISA also works directly with the agricultural sector to boost the health of their industry as a whole, too.

The Pioneer Valley Women in Agriculture Network, for instance, sponsors activities for the growing number of women farmers in Western Mass., from seminars on how to stay healthy while farming to Web site development, Internet sales, and risk-management courses.

So-called ‘agritourism’ events such as festivals and farm tours raise awareness of individual farms and the breadth of the products they produce — CiderDay, FiberTwist, the Garlic & Arts Festival, and the Tomato Festival are just a few events on the calendar — and, on a more serious note, CISA works to involve local farmers, retailers, and other members and supporters in its advocacy efforts on a legislative level.

“There are so many things involved in this aspect that there’s a move here to involve farmers in the Northeast more in the discussions on a federal level,” said Korman, adding that CISA regularly holds forums for farmers and citizens to keep both groups abreast of trends on state and national levels that could affect the health of local agriculture. “Hunger is a big part of these discussions — it’s a societal issue that we’re looking to chip away at. Also, we’re constantly evaluating how we can make our farms even more sustainable, and more vibrant.”

Fruits of Labor

Moving forward, Christie said CISA is looking to diversify even more, conducting some additional market research and tailoring new programs to address current and developing needs.

“We’re setting up for larger volume,” she said. “We’re interested in learning how to do more with larger outfits, for instance. Farms need to be fairly large to supply the warehouses of major supermarket chains or other entities, so we’re looking at what’s necessary to fit into these larger systems.

“We’re also looking at consolidating product to get more food out to more people, more often, so they can make the choice to eat locally more easily throughout the year regardless of income or schedule,” Christie continued. “We’ll do a year of research to answer the questions surrounding these areas, and to determine what we can launch and when.”

Overall, it will be a busy year for CISA for this reason and others. While planning for a new set of initiatives is underway, a series of events will also be kicking off as part of a year-long celebration of CISA’s 15th year in operation.

It’s a busy itinerary, but Korman returned to the notion that CISA’s many programs remain bound by one, overriding constant.

“It really is all about the fruits and veggies — and potatoes and cheese and yogurt and wool,” he said. “All of our goals are tied together because they each allow people to pair their values with the decisions they make about what they buy, and what they eat.”

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