WRENSHALL -- The onions were the first to hit dirt on March 1 and they're already reaching for the sky.

So Catherine Conover is visiting her hoop house often now, watering and nurturing the first vegetables at her Stone's Throw Farm off County Road 102. The onions even got a haircut on Friday; farmers say it makes them hardier and bushier.

Months from now the onions will join tomatoes and broccoli and beans and potatoes and a dozen other vegetables and herbs as part of the potpourri of produce Conover will bring to Duluth for her shareholders, once each week, all summer long.

"Most of what we plant we start in hoop houses. We really don't get too much into the ground until June," said Conover. "That's how we get a head-start."

Many Northland residents have fond memories of walking through a farmers market on a warm summer morning and buying fresh vegetables in season. But what if that farmers market came to you?

That's the concept behind Community Supported Agriculture, where consumers become partners with the farmer and buy into an entire season of food production.

In the Northland, it started with the Food Farm near Wrenshall, still running strong into its 19th season. Now, at least 14 CSA farms have sprouted across the region. Localharvest.org lists more than 4,000 CSA farms across the country, and the number keeps growing.

And now is the season for consumers to sign up.

"Most people probably won't start thinking about vegetables until May, when they see things greening up," Conover said. "But we really need to know now what we are going to plant for. We need people to sign up now."

The concept is a unique mix of socialism and capitalism. CSA farmers sell shares in their crop before it's even planted. That gives the farmers a known income for the season, and it spreads the risk of growing among the community members, not just the farmer.

If the harvest is bountiful, all members share in the bounty. If crops fail, all members share in the loss.

In return for their up-front payment, the consumer/shareowner gets a set percentage of all produce grown over the summer. Unlike a grocery store where you can pick just about any vegetable just about any time of year (which may come from thousands of miles away), local CSA farms can provide only what the soil and climate and calendar will offer.

All summer long

Starting in June with green, leafy vegetables, the farmer sends boxes of produce to their shareholders each week, ending in the fall with things like squash and pumpkins. Some CSA farms also offer winter shares of things like potatoes, and others offer shares in free-range poultry and grass-fed beef. Conover is offering shares in pigs, too.

Conover's members will get 17 shares of produce from June 18 to Oct. 11. And that can be a lot of vegetables, especially for people who aren't used to eating "seasonally." Many CSA members split their shares, and last year Conover's 45 shares were enjoyed between 85 families. Like most CSA farmers, Conover also offers weekly tips on how to cook what can be an overwhelming choice and amount of vegetables.

"We still have a lot of education to do, even for people who make the choice to participate," Conover said. "Most people aren't used to eating and cooking at home that much anymore. And a lot of people just don't know what to do with all those fancy vegetables."

Having the cash in hand at planting time also is a huge benefit for the farmer, Conover notes. For her, the 45 shares she offers at $475 each will net about $21,000. That's still not enough for her to live on -- she and her partner have jobs off the farm in town. But it's a start.

Conover is planting about 2 acres this spring on the 40 acres she bought in Carlton County. She's had to fight weather, insects and hungry deer, but she's entering her third year as chief farmer, marketer and staff member, and she has no plans to stop.

"I spent two years learning at the Food Farm before going out on my own. I guess it's a labor of love," said Conover, 34, who grew up on a farm in Iowa. "After leaving the farm where I grew up, I never thought I'd go back. But this has really drawn me in."

Competitors, compatriots

Conover's now in competition with her mentors down the road at the Food Farm, and with her neighbor across the road, Rick Dalen, another Food Farm graduate. But she said it's also a blessing to have "people down the road that do the same thing I do. We help each other a lot."

Eight of the 11 CSA farms in the region earlier this month formed a "guild" to share information and services and market their businesses.

Janaki Fisher-Merritt, a second-generation farmer at the Food Farm down the road, said the more CSA farmers, the merrier.

"As far as people who are committed to eating good food and who really are into supporting sustainable agriculture, we may have saturated that market in the Duluth area," he said. "But there is still a lot of room for growth by bringing in new people. That's what's great about all the new (CSA) farmers; they seem to bring in new people with them."

Fisher-Merritt's parents, John and Jane, started vegetable farming near Wrenshall in 1988. They became the first CSA farm in the area in 1994 with 50 shares. The Food Farm now sells 165 shares split among hundreds of families.

In addition to better-tasting food, Fisher-Merritt also extolls the virtues of building a relationship between consumer and producer, of bringing city folk closer to the land to understand where and how their food is produced. It might even encourage people to eat healthier, he said.

Conover lives in Duluth and spent nights at the farm in a pop-up tent camper last year. Now, when busy at the farm, she sleeps in a room inside the new shed that houses her 1958 International Harvester tractor.

"I couldn't afford to buy a farm with a house on it, so this will have to do for a while," she said. "Someday I hope to make a living out of this -- live on the land."

Greener for land, farmers

The idea of locally produced, sustainable agriculture that's easier on the environment -- fewer pesticides, less chemical fertilizer, far less transportation and fossil fuel burned, and usually organic -- has become a big selling point for a growing number of local vegetable, fruit, berry, livestock and orchard farmers in the Northland.

But the CSA model takes sustainability to the economic level for the farmer.

"It's a huge advantage knowing how much money we have when the season starts," Conover said.

Conover also has a relationship with Minnesota Power, which advertises her farm to its employees, and she drops off their shares right at the company's downtown Duluth headquarters. Other customers drive to her Duluth house to pick up their shares. The Food Farm has multiple pickup sites across the Twin Ports for its shareholders.

Heather-Marie Bloom, who calls herself a "traveling farmer" until she can buy land of her own, is planting her vegetables on Conover's land this year. Bloom's Rising Phoenix Community Farm will offer up to 25 shares this year.

"I did the farmers market at UMD, which can be great. But it also can be pretty slow some weeks. And then we're stuck with all this food," she said. "The great thing about CSA is that it's constant. We know how much to plant and how much to send out, and we don't have to worry about trying to sell it. We can concentrate on growing it."