COMMUNITY SUPPORTED AGRICULTURE: Good growing on so many levels
by Ephraim Payne
You’ll forgive me if I didn’t put too much thought into my first experience with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). When my college housemate suggested that we split a share in a local CSA farm, I thought a farm share might be a convenient way to cut down on shopping while getting a box of fresh produce every week. I liked the fact that the box contained a newsletter detailing events on the farm and recipes for the vegetables and root crops inside. The recipes came in handy. I had never even heard of some of those crops, much less cooked them before.
It was much later, when my family began to make a concerted effort to eat as sustainably and as close to home as possible, that I began to really understand the full impact of CSA participation on local food webs. A share in a CSA farm connects a consumer in a meaningful way to the local agricultural community. CSAs support small farmers, ensuring that diverse crops and heirloom varieties are available locally. Perhaps more importantly, they play a vital role in regional food security in an era where climate change and economic instability appear set to transform global food availability.
The American CSA movement is grafted from two different rootstocks. Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and New Hampshire’s Temple-Wilton Community Farm often share credit for establishing the first CSA projects in the U.S. in 1985. Both farms drew inspiration from the Biodynamic philosophies of Austrian Rudolph Steiner, as Steven McFadden documents in his essay, The History of Community Supported Agriculture, published by the Rodale Institute. Robyn Van En of Indian Line Farm and her collaborators coined the term “Community Supported Agriculture” to describe their Apple Project, in which members paid in advance for the year’s crop.
Even earlier, Lynn Coody started a similar effort in Oregon. After attending a presentation on Japan’s Teikei movement, Coody began “subscription farming” on her Fresh Start Farm near Cottage Grove in 1983. The Teikei movement blossomed in Japan in response to the post-World War Two introduction of western-style commercial agriculture, which decimated small farmers and increased the size, mechanization and reliance on petro-chemical inputs of remaining farms. In 1971 housewives in Kobe founded a consumer group, the Japanese Organic Agriculture Association, in partnership with local farmers and agricultural researchers in order to protect access to traditional chemical-free food. Teikei alliances, ranging from less than a dozen members to groups of several thousand families, help small farmers determine what to grow and receive a regular share of the harvest much like CSA members receive weekly food boxes.
Farming for a pre-established set of customers seemed like a good fit for the 3.5 acre Fresh Start Farm, which was too small to sell to commercial distributors. “It would be like getting a subscription to a magazine,” Coody says about the concept of marketing directly to consumers. She started with a list of produce the farm could grow reliably and attracted 15 families in the Cottage Grove area.
Though many consumers were interested in the concept of subscription farming and community supported agriculture, Coody says, it took time for these concepts to take root in the region. Coody and her partners at Fresh Start Farm gave many farm tours and talks throughout the mid-80s. While her Cottage Grove neighbors knew what to expect from the farm’s new program, potentially supportive consumers outside the small community needed much more education on the concept. Other early area CSA adopters include Noti’s Wintergreen Farms, in 1991, Philomath’s Gathering Together Farm in 1996 and Blachly’s Horton Road Organics, in 1997.
In 2000, when the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition (WFFC) incorporated, there were 5 CSA farms in Lane County. The Eugene-based non-profit grew out of the Edible City Resource Center, which started in 1979 “with the broad mission of promoting urban gardening and increasing awareness of food related issues.” As part of its mission to promote local agriculture, WFFC lists all Lane County CSA programs on its web page (lanefood.org) and in its free annual publication, Locally Grown: Foods & Wines of Lane County. This year’s guide, available at local markets, lists 29 CSA programs. WFFC acts as an interface between farmers and the community. Consumers can call the organization to get more information on local CSA programs and get paired up with the farm that best suits their needs. Conscious consumers in Linn, Benton, and Lincoln counties can turn to Ten Rivers Food Web for similar services.
“We want to keep our farm economy viable. We want to support farmers for the long term,” says WFFC Executive Director Lynn Fessenden. Because of skyrocketing fuel costs and the resulting rise in food prices, she says, food consumption patterns will have to change. The year-round availability of “fresh” produce from outside the region that consumers have come to expect will not last. “Since we live in a place that can feed us, if we were using all of our agricultural acreage, it seems to make sense to keep farmers in business,” she says.
Reversing the disappearing farmer syndrome
When my family decided to shop locally, we were mostly concerned with promoting sustainability. As we learned more about CSAs, we discovered that regional agriculture, with an aging workforce and a slowly shrinking land base, definitely needs local support. According to a 2007 census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average Willamette Valley farmer is over 57 years old. Though Lane County gained 758 farms and over 10,000 more planted acres than in 2002, overall the valley is losing farms and farm acreage. The average farm size is shrinking as well, both statewide and locally.
The Willamette Valley, one of the most productive agricultural areas in the country, has undergone a profound change over the last three decades. Before 1980, according to the Prout Institute, valley farmers provided over half of the food residents ate, a veritable cornucopia of staples and vegetables: wheat, barley, oats, and sweet corn, tomatoes, snap peas, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, hazelnuts and squash.
As wheat prices dropped, farms throughout the valley plowed up food plots to plant massive fields of ornamental grass, harvesting grass seed for the international market. By 2006, according to the institute, valley farms were planting 500,000 acres of grass. Wheat acreage, in the meantime, had plummeted from 270,000 to less than 30,000. According to the Southern Willamette Valley Bean, Grain & Edible Seed Project, "ninety-five percent of what the South Willamette Valley eats comes from outside the region." While working at a weekly newspaper in Junction City I had covered the annual grass seed harvest, but I had not realized the extent to which the crop affects the Willamette Valley.
This drop in local food production triggered a collapse in subsidiary parts of the local food web: the regional network of growers, processors, suppliers, local food shops. According to the Prout Institute, Willamette Valley “grain millers, food processors, storage capacity, and local farm produce distribution hubs have all but disappeared from the region, meaning not only does the valley not grow its own food, but it also doesn’t have the capacity to process, store, or distribute more than a small portion of what the populace consumes.” This leaves the region vulnerable to large socio-economic forces such as oil price increases, volatility in the grain market and the effects of global climate change, which may adversely affect regions the valley now depends on for food.
CSA farms are an important part of the solution for local institutions like WFFC and Ten Rivers working to increase regional food production and bolster the local agrarian economy. Because CSA consumers pay at least some money up front, they assume some of the risks inherent in farming, including weather-related crop problems and market volatility. Just as important, Fessenden says, the influx of cash at the start of each season allows farmers to buy seeds and pay for needed infrastructure without taking out a loan. This type of security can be crucial to small farmers, who typically support other parts of the local food web in addition to supplying consumers directly via CSA programs.
“CSA subscriptions get us up to the first butcher day,” says Our Family Farm’s Derek Brandow, who raises poultry for a growing CSA membership, several local restaurants, a grocery store and a butcher shop. Brandow is typical of new farmers in the region, according to USDA statistics. At 38 he is younger than most established farmers. He holds down an outside job, managing a local AT&T outlet. And his operation is small, 15 rented acres on a 40 acre plot just south of Junction City. Brandow says the feed he uses is, at $550 per ton, his biggest expense. “It (CSA funding) eases the pressure of starting the season,” he says.
Supporting a diverse, resilient food system
CSA farms are important to the local food web in other ways as well. While mono-crop agriculture might make large scale economic sense, Fessenden says, it can present problems for regional food security. Besides being vulnerable to global economic trends, mono-crop farms may suffer the most from effects of climate change. Global mono-crop agriculture depends on an ever-diminishing number of strains of a relative handful of crops. According to UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, since 1900 75 percent of crop varieties have disappeared, while 20 crop species provide 90 percent of the calories we consume.
These high-producing hybrids tend to be much less tolerant of floods and drought than the heirloom varieties that set many CSAs apart. Because mono-cropping depletes soil fertility, it is more dependent on fertilizers than methods that rely on diversity and careful crop rotation. Giant fields of genetically identical plants, which tend to harbor few beneficial predators such as spiders and wasps, are an open invitation to infestation and disease and thus heavily dependant on chemical pest control. As Christopher Picone and David Van Tassel wrote in “Agriculture and Biodiversity Loss: Industrial Agriculture” – published in Life on Earth: An Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, Ecology, and Evolution –
“Landraces of many crops have provided the genes needed for pest and disease resistance, or to adapt crops to poor soils, drought, and cold temperatures. By losing landraces we are undermining our ability to adapt crops to future conditions, including climate change.”
Small-scale agriculture based on crop diversity, the integration of farm animals and care for the soil is important for the survival of local food networks, Fessenden says. CSA farms grow an ever-widening range of crops to satisfy consumers, adding to their biodiversity and resilience. If blight takes out the regional tomato crop, CSA farmers can still deliver the rest of their harvest. Diseases or pests adapted to commercial strains of a crop may find the multitude of varietals grown by local farms less susceptible. And, as local cookbook author Elin England notes, eating a variety of local produce makes for a healthier diet, too.
“If you are eating seasonally and locally you are eating the freshest food possible,” she says, adding that food loses nutritional value during storage and shipment. “Getting the food from the field to the table the fastest is the best way to ensure you get the most nutrition out of your food.”
Knowing your food
One of the biggest benefits of a CSA share, from a consumer point of view, is the way it connects eaters to the food on their plates. Consumers are growing ever more conscious of the food they eat. As result, foods in the grocery store sport a dizzying array of labels: USDA Organic, Beyond Organic, Biodynamic and Natural just to name a few. Instead of making things more clear, the profusion of labels can obfuscate how food is raised. Because farm visits are quite common for CSAs – which have traditionally welcomed volunteer labor and in some cases even made farm work part of the share price – consumers can investigate growing practices for themselves and find out how their farmers raise plants and animals and care for soil.
Farm visits may be especially helpful for those concerned about the ethical treatment of animals, including my daughter, Lily. After two years helping care for our backyard flock of laying hens, Lily has come to understand farm animals as more than just a source of food. She sees them as unique individuals that deserve to be treated with care and respect, especially considering that some give up their lives to nourish us. She’s also learned about the cramped, unsanitary and often inhumane conditions of commercial chicken factory farms.
While a host of labels exist for meat products, including Free-Range, Pastured, Cage-Free and Animal Welfare Approved, not all are regulated and some can be misleading. Cage-free chickens may live their whole lives in giant warehouses and so-called free range animals may simply be raised on dirt lots. Farm visits allow CSA members to see exactly how their food is raised and discuss ethical philosophies with their farmer. Lily decided this year that she would only eat meat from local farms that she could visit in person to confirm that the animals were raised well – which led us to Our Family Farm and Derek Brandow.
Brandow, a practitioner of small food guru Joel Salatin’s pasturing methods, welcomes visitors and says he gets excited to talk about animal husbandry. He might not have expected an inquisitive pre-teen to come stocked with questions about his animal husbandry practices and ethical outlook. But he was ready to answer them. “One of the things we love to do is share what we’re doing in a way that inspires other people,” he says. “My wife and I are all about a community of smart eaters. As soon as you spend one of your hard earned dollars on what we produce, you are part of Our Family Farm.”
In order to help conscious eaters start building such relationships with the agricultural community, WFFC helps organize the annual “That’s My Farmer!” event, a partnership between 13 Eugene faith communities and 11 area farms. The dinner introduces potential consumers to CSA farmers. Proceeds from the event go into a fund to subsidize CSA shares for folks who can not afford a full price share. The money goes directly to farmers.
Making unique products available
Early on, some CSAs developed a reputation for supplying the same produce week after week, or for filling share boxes with vegetables that are no longer part of the common diet, including rutabagas, turnips, celeriac and other root crops. “I think early on it was ‘love us, eat what we grow,” says Fessenden. Now, she says, farmers have a better sense of what consumers want. Because CSA competition is increasing, Fessenden says, farms tend to think about marketing now. Some have restructured the original lump-sum payment model to accommodate customers who would rather pay month by month. Others now offer smaller shares for single customers, or let CSA members pick their produce from the week’s harvest. And some buy produce from their neighbors to ensure their customers get in-demand items not grown on the farm.
While vegetables remain the mainstay of CSA boxes, the list of produce available from local CSAs includes fruits, herbs and nuts. Lonesome Whistle Farm on the outskirts of Eugene and Open Oak Farm in Sweet Home offer locally grown beans and grains. And a growing number of CSAs, including Our Family Farm, offer meat and poultry raised on the farm instead of fattened in the pens of massive Confined Feeding Operations (CFOs/CAFOs).
The CSA model, in fact, represents the last opportunity for consumers to purchase one of the oldest and now least common of agricultural products: raw milk. My wife Leeann’s quest for raw milk lead us to Wholesome Family Farm, Joseph Bray’s backyard micro-dairy, a CSA in everything but name. The herd-share business model he relies on is, in fact, the only way his raw milk-based business could operate at all.
“I don’t call it one, but essentially it is (a CSA),” says Bray. While the owner of a single cow can sell raw milk on the premises, according to Oregon Department of Agriculture regulations, a farmer with two lactating cows cannot sell even a single gallon of raw milk. But a farmer can operate a herdshare, based on a private contract between the farmer and consumer. Each member buys a share in the business and pays a monthly fee for a set quantity of milk, cream and butter. Because each member literally owns a percentage of the herd, Bray says, the Wholesome Family Farm is legally similar to a horse-boarding operation rather than a commercial dairy.
“We ended up growing faster than we anticipated,” said Bray, when I visited his six acre rental property in Cottage Grove. The nine strong herd of Jersey cows noisily munched away in the back yard, turning grass into milk. “We are frantically looking for more land.”
The taste of home
There is even a cookbook, as Leeann discovered – Eating Close to Home: A Guide to Local Seasonal Sustenance – to help Willamette Valley CSA members plan meals based on what comes in their food box. Author Elin England says she intended the book to be community resource. She wanted it to be accessible for the average consumer who may shop at big grocery stores, which make it seem like it’s always summer – with “fresh” produce grown in greenhouses hundreds of miles away or in fields thousands of miles away, then picked green and shipped across the continent or even the Pacific Ocean.
Her cookbook follows the Willamette Valley’s season because produce ripens at different times in different regions. While the average consumer might think of tomatoes and zucchinis as June crops, here they ripen in late summer and early fall unless grown in greenhouses. “If you want to have a diet that’s locally based, you have to be aware of what grows locally to know how to base your diet around it. People don’t know how to feed themselves seasonally, especially in winter when farmers markets close down,” England says. “People who aren’t really in touch with the garden don’t really know what’s available when.”
Fessenden agrees that getting to know a farm, is a great way to learn about seasonality and locally appropriate crops. Even better, she says, just sampling farm fresh produce convinces most people to support local agriculture. My family’s experience bears this out. Our milk, poultry and other CSA products are some of the best food we’ve ever eaten. “So much more flavor . . . it’s eye opening for folks,” Fessenden say. “All the food security and social responsibility stuff be damned, it just tastes better.”
Ephraim Payne is a freelance environmental journalist and editor specializing in forestry, fisheries and sustainable living.