e-mail us
Community agriculture puts farmers’ face on food

Editor’s Note: This story is a sequel to “Food for thought: The political, economic and moral implications of your grocery list,” which appeared in NCR’s Feb. 12 issue.

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

If pesticides won’t do it, if genetic engineering isn’t the catalyst, if mega-farms aren’t enough, then maybe Y2K will turn Americans back to the land. At least, that’s the hope of Pennsylvania farmer and self-proclaimed optimist Rob Wood.

Wood believes that the potential computer glitch -- which some fear could turn clocks back a century by erasing our technological advances at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1, 2000 -- has a growing number of people seeking ways to be less dependent on big systems. And that might mean a boon for community supported agriculture.

Community supported agriculture (or CSAs, as such farms are called) is part of a small but growing trend among farmers and consumers around the country to bypass conventional agricultural distribution channels.

Although food buying habits of Americans -- the regular trips to the supermarket -- are deeply entrenched, Wood believes that a quest for personal autonomy could make people look harder at the sources of their food.

U.S. consumers generally accept food products that travel an average of 1,300 miles from farm to table. Compared to their European counterparts, shoppers here cast a less critical eye toward the unknown effects of genetically engineered species and seeds designed to work in concert with specific pesticides, as well as other farming practices dictated by multinational interests and global markets. So Wood says he’s convinced it will take “something catastrophic” to finally make people aware of the origin and quality of their food. And that’s where the millennium comes in.

But even if Y2K fails to come up big in the catastrophe department, Wood would continue to be a booster for community-supported farms. A 54-year-old urban refugee, Wood fled Baltimore with his wife in the 1980s to live off the land. He operates 26-acre Sproutwood Farm, which makes regular produce deliveries to about 40 subscribing members throughout the growing season. “Whatever it takes, the main idea is to get people connected to the source of their food,” Wood said.

In conventional agriculture operations, a grower sells one or two main crops to a middleman who takes it to the broader market. The food eventually makes its way to the grocery and finally to the table. The idea behind community supported agriculture is to eliminate the steps between growers and consumers, developing a regional food supply that, in turn, leads to a healthy local economy and a stronger sense of community.

According to the University of Massachusetts, people in almost every state buy 85 to 90 percent of their food from someplace else, which means billions of dollars slip through each state’s coffers each year. Studies done at the university found that Massachusetts was capable of producing more than a third of its own food supply, translating into about $1 billion annually in spending that could be kept at home.

The concept of community supported agriculture originated in Japan about 30 years ago, where it is called teikei, which translates as “putting the farmers’ face on food.” And just as it takes a certain kind of consumer to be willing to “subscribe” to a CSA, it also takes a special kind of farmer -- someone who can market products as well as grow them -- and that means networking, newsletters, recipe suggestions, even Internet Web sites.

At Mariquita Farm, a family-run farm in Watsonville, Calif., at the heart of the fertile Central Valley, the husband-and-wife team of Julia Wiley and Andrew Griffin grow “everything but mangoes and asparagus,” Julia said with just a little exaggeration. The couple has been running their CSA for three years, serving about 150 members in trendy Santa Cruz County and high-tech Silicon Valley.

Farmers’ market on the Web

The home page of the Mariquita Web site (www.mariquita.com), was built by a friend of Julia’s and is updated every two to three weeks. It includes links that tell what a CSA is, how to join, what’s being grown, the length of the growing season, the cost of a share -- $14 to $19 a week -- and the location of the farm’s 17 weekly drop points for produce (“usually a member’s shady porch,” said Julia, who, starting each April, makes the rounds twice a week.) More than half of the farm’s members are on line, and they get a regular e-mail bulletin advising them of what’s coming in that week’s food basket.

“Most of our members are people who love farmers’ markets but can’t get there or they don’t like to because they’re such a scene,” said Julia, who has been working with the family farming operation since 1992. A teacher by profession, she has a B.A. in history.

At the Mariquita Web site, cyber visitors learn that Andy, who has 20 years’ experience in organic farming, also writes articles for the farm’s newsletter and has written a fascinating history of the farm.

When Mariquita member Bruce Bennett needs a little extra basil or another eggplant, he doesn’t have to run out to the grocery. He can go to his Cupertino, Calif., office, where he and about 10 coworkers started receiving produce deliveries in April.

Bennett, who lives in San Francisco, said he decided to subscribe to Mariquita “to encourage me to eat better and eat more vegetables, and to force me to get more involved in my cooking rather than eating processed foods.”

“The other great thing about it is, if I get a bunch of celery, I’m not going to eat it all. So I’ll take what I need and share the rest with a neighbor.” Bennett, a human resources administrator at Chordiant Software who helped brainstorm the CSA service launched by the company last year, said he sees it as a great benefit for the company’s employees.

For this year’s recent informational meeting, Julia sent over a complimentary box of organic samples. Julia also is helping create a Web site for all California CSAs. She expects it to serve both as a resource for consumers and as a place where farmers can exchange information.

That kind of be-all, do-all approach to farming is exactly what many say it takes to run a CSA. It is a transition that some conventional farmers are unwilling or unable to make, said Kathy Ozer of the National Family Farm Coalition in Washington. The coalition works to ensure that federal programs benefit family farms and rural communities.

“Some of the limitations have to do with the individual farm or a farmer’s interest in being both farmer and marketer, dealing with all those logistics.”

Also, a farm’s location has a lot to do with its viability as a CSA. Those near more urban population centers in major metropolitan areas often fare better than operations in more rural areas, where people already grow much of their own food. But at a time when federal farm subsidies are fading, thanks to a 1996 farm bill that takes the most market-oriented approach to agriculture since the New Deal of the 1930s, many small farmers are finding a need to subsidize their operations.

Some go to work at a local factory, said Iowa turkey farmer Denise O’Brien. Others subsidize conventional farm operations by selling their products as a CSA on the side. “I don’t know that CSAs are economically self-sufficient,” said O’Brien, who is part of a unique cooperative called The Magic Beanstalk that is sprouting in and around Ames, Iowa, smack dab in the heart of commodities country. “But some conventional farmers are beginning to look at it in that sense. It’s a way to make a little extra money.”

In Pennsylvania, Wood subsidizes his farm income by canvassing for an environmental group. His wife still works in Baltimore as a pastoral counselor. “We’re piecing together a living,” said the farmer.

At Wood’s Sproutwood Farm, members can choose a working share, in which they contribute up to 80 hours of farm labor during the growing season in exchange for produce. Or if they prefer less dirt under the fingernails, they can opt for 10 hours of work and $60 per season for a large share of the harvest, less time and money for smaller shares.

“Altogether it keeps the place going. The idea eventually is to develop a community and business base that does support the farm fully. But it’s not without its struggle,” Wood said.

Linda Halley and her husband, Richard de Wilde, owners of Harmony Valley Farm near Viroqua, Wis., are in their seventh season as a CSA farm with about 350 member households that pay $17 a box, or $560 a year, for weekly produce deliveries from the first of May to the end of December -- 32 boxes a year. Members pick up boxes at one of 15 drop-off points in and around Madison, Wis., about two-and-a-half hours from Viroqua. At least 11 other CSAs are located in and around Madison, Halley said.

‘An educational hurdle’

For Halley and de Wilde, one of the biggest hurdles of operating a CSA was to learn to charge enough. “We had to learn to get our price in line with our cost,” Halley said. “When you add it all in, the produce is not really cheaper even though you’re buying direct,” she said. “It’s been a bit of an educational hurdle” for both people and farmers to understand that, she said.

“We have to grow a greater variety of crops. Then the produce has to be hand-harvested, delivered to neighborhoods. There are multiple accounts -- the cost of bookkeeping for 350 families, plus the cost of a newsletter for members. It’s fresher, often cleaner and better, but some people don’t take that into consideration,” she said. “In that sense, CSAs are limited. It’s not going to be the way everyone buys their produce. It’s for people who like good food, good flavors, who like to cook.”

It’s also for farmers who want closer ties to people in the community. And vice versa: Members are asked to volunteer sometimes to help with deliveries. Although Halley and de Wilde also sell their produce through conventional channels, they find the CSA end of their business more rewarding. “It really has complicated our farming life immensely,” Halley said. “But we feel the rewards are there.”

The Magic Beanstalk

In Iowa, O’Brien said she and her husband, Larry Harris, grew organic apples, strawberries and raspberries and milked cows in order to make a living on their farm, which they did until four years ago, when they stopped milking and Harris took a supplementary construction job.

O’Brien sells about 50 to 60 free-range turkeys each Thanksgiving through The Magic Beanstalk. The cooperative is unlike individual CSAs where farmers have to diversify, growing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to satisfy their members’ tastes. The Magic Beanstalk involves 16 growers -- five vegetable producers and 11 others who specialize in everything from flowers to garlic to pork to luxurious, hand-spun yarn. Including meat producers makes the cooperative unusual.

Once a week, the growers bring together their products in the basement of a local church, also the site of cooking and nutrition classes run by the Field to Family Project, a related organization that helps subsidize Magic Beanstalk shares for low-income families. Last season, 168 families divided the yield, said The Magic Beanstalk coordinator Marilyn Anderson, who spins the yarn from her Angora goats. The yarn is listed on the check list subscribers mark to show what products and produce they want.

A working share in Magic Beanstalk costs $250 for the season; a nonworking share is $40 more. Although the board asks for payment when the season begins, installment plans are available.

Magic Beanstalk members receive a one-page newsletter, produced by a nutritionist and a grower, which tells about the vegetables available that week, provides recipes and personal information about the farmers. That helps to “keep people connected,” said Anderson, whose 12-year-old daughter last year raised chickens to provide eggs for the project.

Anderson said only a few potential members have balked at buying shares, usually because they are fearful of losing their investment.

“We educate the consumers about the risks of agriculture and encourage them to share in those risks,” she said. “A few have shied away, but this is our fifth year, and we haven’t ever had a complete washout. A few substitutions sometimes, yes. Last year, for instance, we ran low on tomatoes, and that was a little disappointing for some people.”

O’Brien feels optimistic about the future of CSAs, which she believes are now at a stage of public awareness similar to that of organic foods some two decades ago when she and Harris began farming. The couple celebrated their 23rd anniversary of farming recently at a regional workshop attended by over 1,000 organic farmers, a striking and welcome contrast to their early days in the organic business.

“When we started farming,” O’Brien recalled, “we had to drive 70 miles to find a farmer who could help us out. People used to laugh at us and call us eccentric and hippies,” she said. “Now they’re saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t such a bad idea.’ A friend told me last week that the Farm Bureau guy out here is talking about organics now, and he’s been making fun of us for 20 years!”

The double-digit yearly growth in the organics industry is gratifying to O’Brien, who believes interest in community supported agriculture doesn’t lag far behind. Some estimates put the number of CSAs in the country at 2,000 by next year.

“Something we’re trying to deal with in Iowa is rural communities understanding that they need farmers to support businesses,” O’Brien said, “The [CSA] concept a few years ago seemed thoroughly ridiculous to people, but I think now people see the big picture. They’re really concerned about the viability of rural communities. Everywhere you go, they’re talking about local food systems, community kitchens, getting local food into schools and nursing homes. That’s what my husband and I talked about years ago. It makes me really happy.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999