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November 9th, 2011 12:01 am CARRIE STURROCK | News Stories

A Trip From Bountiful

Buying from “community supported” farms groups is trendy and fun—until the food you paid for doesn’t show up.

news1-csaILLUSTRATION: nolannolannolan.com
Last spring, Michael Halstead used $860 of his tax refund to invest in an increasingly popular way of buying vegetables: community-supported agriculture.

He and his wife, Angela Carpenter, gave their money to Singer Hill Gardens LLC of Milwaukie, their first experience with a CSA, as these enterprises are called. Subscribers pay up front to help nearby small farmers with the cash they need for the growing season. In return, Singer Hill promised them a bounty of organic vegetables and sustainably raised meat and eggs in a weekly bucket.

The couple who ran the CSA, Jessica and Jacob Dean, also promised subscribers they were part of something bigger. As they wrote in one email, “Your Urban Farmers/On the Front Lines of the War for Food!”

“We’re like most starry-eyed Portland people looking for a new, interesting way to help local businesses and feel like we’re a part of something important,” says Halstead, a 42-year-old stay-at-home dad from Northeast Portland.

But Singer Hill Gardens didn’t deliver on its promises. The supply of produce stopped, Halstead and other subscribers never saw a refund, and the owners cut off communication with dozens of people who are out their money.

The popularity of CSAs has exploded across the country, but they’re especially celebrated in Portland as a way to keep food-buying local, local, local. And they’ve developed a good reputation, since the majority of farmers fulfill their promises.

But as the CSA business grows quickly—there are more than 60 in the Portland area, up from 15 in 2000—investors face greater risk when they pay for a season’s worth of food up front.

The Oregon Department of Justice is pursuing complaints against Singer Hill, but there’s little recourse for people who pay in advance for produce and end up with paltry weekly baskets—or see the delivery of vegetables and meat halt altogether.

The Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, a group of CSA farmers, says Singer Hill is only the second local CSA failure since 2004. But other operations have faced complaints that their bounty was sparse and buyers didn’t get everything that was promised.

“We do need to be careful when we’re investing our money in a startup business,” says Steve Cohen, who heads up food policy and programs for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. “When we see more young people getting into farming—which we need—who are untested, there are probably going to be individuals who aren’t going to make it.”

But a good track record isn’t enough, as the Singer Hill case shows.

Singer Hill first sold shares in its produce in 2009, led by Maureen “Mo” McKenna, who started the enterprise with the Deans and others. McKenna had significant experience, including a degree in sustainable agriculture from Warren Wilson College near Asheville, N.C., and as a crew leader for a 1,400-subscriber CSA operation outside Madison, Wis. The CSA didn’t own its own land but farmed a number of backyards whose owners were paid in produce.

McKenna says she was clocking 80 to 90 hours a week between the CSA and a second job. Singer Hill had become financially untenable for her. “I have a master’s degree and student loans,” she says. “I’d been trying to make this work for so long.”

The Deans took over for the 2011 season and signed up about 120 subscribers. One was Cindy Anderson, a satisfied 2010 subscriber who renewed for $1,000 to get vegetables and shares of a new offering—eggs and cheese. “I had a certain expectation about how things were going to turn out,” says Anderson, a 45-year-old real-estate investor who lives in Colonial Heights. 

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