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Salads fresh from John and Judy’s backyard

By RICH HEFFERN

In January the seed catalogs arrive. Shortly after, here in the Midwest the red cardinals begin to sing, no matter how frigid the weather or how dark the mornings. My spring hunger really cranks up then. I wake up having dreamed of fresh salads, plates piled with peppery arugula, fresh sprouts and crisp radishes. Then it’s time to fill out the CSA form, lick the envelope and send it off.

Every spring now for the last five years we have signed up with a local farmer in a CSA subscription. CSA stands for community-supported agriculture. As with all CSAs, we pay a fixed amount up front in February or March. In return, we can expect to receive 24 or more weeks of fresh organic produce beginning in May and ending in late October or early November. The advantages of CSA are many. We get quality produce first, the freshest pick, the best selection. We receive an astonishing variety, depending on what is in season. By participating, we support a local family farm operation that is ecologically and environmentally sound, locally focused and sustainable. By paying for food in advance, we help keep the farmer from borrowing for seeds and start-up costs. There’s a slight risk if poor weather produces poor harvests, but CSA farmers are usually so diversified that the risk is minimal.

Best of all, we know the people who grow our food. We have shared potlucks with them, visited the farm, perused their organic certification papers. Our farmers are John and Judy Kaiahua of J.J. Farms in Raytown, a Kansas City, Mo., suburb. John is retired from the Marines. His “farm” spreads over his spacious backyard -- and over a number of other half-acre backyards leased from neighbors. In this limited space, John and Judy grow enough scrumptious produce to feed 40 customers and sell at the local organic market.

Why shell out the extra money for organic? We pay because we know most supermarket food is grown, distributed and managed by a few corporate giants that annually use about 2 to 3 billion pounds of pesticides and 250 billion pounds of artificial fertilizer. Because the foodstuffs travel long distances and are doctored with artificial colors, waxes and sprays to give the illusion of freshness, it is often two weeks or more from picking by the time the store clerk neatly piles them in Aisle 2 at the local food emporium. Such wasteful and unsustainable practices not only result in food that is unsafe to eat and lacking in nutrition, but also our topsoil disappears and our air and groundwater are gravely polluted. The nearby state of Kansas came in last of all 50 states two years running on water quality because of agricultural runoff.

There’s a justice angle here as well as an environmental one. The anemic tomato that appears on winter produce shelves is most likely grown in Mexico or even Peru, sprayed with chemicals banned in the United States and picked by a worker paid $2.50 a day who is given no protection such as gloves, masks or safety instructions and has no access to health care. Organic is not only a contribution to personal and environmental health, it also serves the cause of justice in a direct way. We vote with our dollars. Spending them on organic simply tips the scales back toward a better world. Eating nowadays is a profoundly moral act.

We like it that we are buying locally. As small family farmers, John and Judy belong to an endangered species. Recent statistics show that 80 percent of farms in our agricultural state cannot sustain themselves financially by farming alone, mainly because of competition from large agribusiness operations. Three hundred thousand family farms have disappeared since 1979. Family farmers, once the mainstay of our society, are forced to either become huge business operators, an indentured kind of sharecropper or sell their holdings and find jobs in town or city. The National Catholic Rural Life Conference puts it this way: “We are forced to choose between a sustainable food system or an industrial one. Sustainable food systems factor in the environment and future generations; industrial systems factor these out and focus only on profit.”

A native of Hawaii, John likes the fact that he is cultivating the earth naturally. “I plant in half an acre what most people plant in one full one,” he boasts, referring to his technique of staggering double rows of crops crowded so close they are able to create their own shade, preventing sunburn and discouraging weeds. His success is due largely to his intimate knowledge of the ways and means of his soil and location. John and Judy take great pride in their produce, rich with vitamins and minerals. Their buyers often get their goods the same day they are picked. “A lot of agribusiness produce has to be picked when it’s still green so by the time they transport, it’s ripe,” John says offhandedly. By contrast, his produce is fresh and mature, which translates into some of the finest eating imaginable.

Not only did we have a freezer full of tomato sauce, spinach, turnips and green beans for this winter, we also stored away fond memories of last year’s dining highlights: A simple meal of grilled salmon, along with Swiss chard doctored with plum and hoisin sauce; fresh relish made with beets, carrots, lime juice and sweet onions, with a sliver of habanero pepper thrown in for flavorsome pep. Or green peppers stuffed with seasoned rice, shitake mushrooms and fresh parmesan. Or ratatouille made with fresh eggplant, zucchini, plum tomatoes and red peppers, seasoned with basil and oregano just picked from our backyard. One weekend we got some lamb from another local farm couple, David Shaffer and Alice Dobbs, who raise their animals humanely and graze them on pastures that belonged to David’s grandparents. We grilled the lamb on sticks with peppers and onions, served a fresh salad and some rice and applesauce made from windfall pippins, green tomatoes and sage, all washed down with homemade beer from a little Ozark microbrewery. It was the kind of meal in which every bite is savored, lingered over, memorable. Such delicious food is tangible proof that God is good. Lovingly preparing it is a true contemplative exercise.

You’ll have to excuse me. It’s time to sign up again for this year!

Rich Heffern is the former editor of Praying magazine and a frequent contributor to NCR. His e-mail address is Tinseltigr@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001