By Paul Pickett
Right now I bet you are eating something. Maybe you’re having a burger piled with lettuce, tomato, and onions at your favorite hole-in-the-wall. Or you’re in a nice restaurant having a garden salad while you wait for dinner. Or you’re at home having a spinach omelet for breakfast. Or if you aren’t eating right now, just imagine you’re having your favorite meal somewhere.
Now think about the food you are eating. Where did it come from? How many people worked to bring it from a farm somewhere to your plate? How much water was used to water plants and animals, and wash and process the food? How much petroleum was burned by the tractors, worker’s cars, freighters, or semi-trucks to bring it to you?
You probably can’t answer that question, but consider this. Maybe the tomatoes or lettuce or spinach you ate came from Chile. Or Mexico. Or Texas. Or British Columbia. Or Thurston County. Depending on where the food comes from, the answers to those questions would be quite different. And add one more: when you paid for the food, where did the money go? To a far-away nation? To a giant food corporation? Or did it stay in here in our own County?
I’m hoping this thought exercise made a point: your choice of food has environmental, social, political, and economic consequences. And not only to the planet or your community, but to yourself as well. Did the nation that food came from have the same laws about pesticides that we do? Quite likely not. Some nasty things that have been banned in the United States are still in use on farms in other countries.
Which brings us to Community Sustained Agriculture, or CSA. You may be hanging in a groovy restaurant in Olympia, but not far away are farmers working to bring food to your table. And CSA is a direct link from steamy fields of vegetables to urban cool.
Let me introduce you to some of our local farmers: Jennifer, Asha and Joseph, Sue, Jan, and Lydia Beth.
It’s an April Saturday, and the rain has finally gone away and left us with a bucolic sunny spring day. My wife and I follow a winding county road through the rural countryside south of Rochester. We’re in the Independence Valley, and our first stop is Rising River Farm. We turn off the county road and follow a dirt road down to a cluster of homes and plastic-covered greenhouses. Someone is mowing the lawn around the house. The mower stops and a tall, slender woman pulls off ear muffs and greets us. It’s Jennifer, and this is her farm.
Jennifer tells us she has about 12 acres under cultivation. She and her partner have been farming since 1994. It started as a back-to-the-land self-sufficiency effort, but soon grew into a living and a way of life. “Betsy of Independence Valley Farm helped us get started. The first few years I had a side-job” she explains, “but now we are self-supporting. But we have a simple lifestyle and live frugally.”
Rising River is aptly named. The Chehalis River is just on the far side of the fields and they are surrounded by wetlands. “Every year some of the fields flood from the river backing up. We just plant those late. But in 2007 the water came up to the doorstep of our house. We escaped in a canoe to a neighbor’s house. Luckily the previous owner had raised our house in the 1996 flood.”
I ask if Jennifer if she has bad years. “Two years ago was tough. The economy was bad, and the spring and summer chilly. Sales were down and expenses up. But we got by ok.” She says it really helps that they are farming organically. “We have over 40 types of vegetables and succession planting from spring to fall. We can avoid crops with problem pests, and if some crops do poorly others will do well.” How does she solve problems when they come up? “Our community is close, we are always talking to each other. We are sorta in competition, but we’re helpful to each other. We’ve each found our niche.”
Jennifer explains how CSA fits into her farm’s operation. “Customers pay up front by buying ‘shares’, which entitles them to a box of produce every week from June through October. That gives us a predictable customer base and helps us pay expenses up front. It floats us through the spring.” She explains that they sold 25 shares in the beginning, and 130 shares last year. About one-third of their produce goes to CSA customers, and the rest she sells locally to the Olympia Coop and Farmers Market.
“CSA connects us personally to the people who eat our produce. We are a tiny little part of their family food-wise,” explains Jennifer. “And with CSA they get their produce within days of harvest, sweet and flavorful, not like the store. It changes the way they eat. We do surveys so we grow what customers want. But the customers have to create meals from what they get in their weekly box. It’s a change in cultural view. Food changes from convenience or drudgery to the joy of cooking for the family.”
As we talk, a friendly dog walks over and gives me a sniff. “Isaac belongs to our workers.” Jennifer points out a half dozen workers in a field. “They’re weeding the strawberries.” At the height of the season she says they employee 10 to 11 employees, most of them regulars who return every year.
Jennifer gives us directions to Asha’s place, which is the Wobbly Cart Farm greenhouse operation. After a few minutes’ drive we’re in the rolling hills of the Michigan Hill area. We pull into a cluster of houses and greenhouses. Asha comes out of the house in her jeans and checked shirt, with a cold latte’ and a big grin.
“We’re not really a collective anymore” explains Asha. “Joseph and I are partners and we have 6 or 7 full-time employees in the summer.” Wobbly Cart Farm is a relative newcomer. “We started in 2005. I was an Evergreen student and worked at Rising River. Joseph apprenticed with Betsy. Now we’re entering our eighth season and have about 7 acres in vegetables.”
I ask about the greenhouses. “We do starts in the spring, then greens and carrots, and then summer crops like tomatoes and squash later.” How did the greenhouses hold up in the January ice storm? “We had 18 inches of snow. I was out with a long pole knocking the snow off the roofs so they wouldn’t collapse. “ Asha also is a survivor of the 2007 flood. “Our barn near the river was damaged. We lost a lot of equipment. But we got lots of help from the community with clean-up and money.”
Wobbly Cart has a CSA program, and also sells at Farmers Markets, to the Olympia Coop, and to restaurants in Portland. “We had about 50 CSA shares last year,” notes Asha. “It’s a great way to develop a connection with the farm, to have a relationship, to partner with the farm.”
Joseph arrives and he shows me the young plants sprouting from the soft brown soil in the greenhouses. “We’d like to expand by about an acre per year” he says. “The quality is good at the current scale, but we’re not at the size we want yet.” Four youngsters come running up barefoot in the grass. They pile onto Joseph and grab for his hat. After a tussle he still has his hat. One little girl runs up to me. “What are you doing?” “I’m taking pictures for a newspaper,” I explain. “We’re going to be in a newspaper!” the girls shriek, and they gallop off across the green hillside.
We drive up the valley to Helsing Junction Farm where we meet Sue, one of the owners. She looks relaxed in her t-shirt and sandals on the warm afternoon. “I’ve farmed here for 25 years, 20 with my partner Annie,” she explains. “I first worked at Kirsop Farms, then started working on wholesale produce with the help of Betsy and the former owners of Kirsop. We are now 100% CSA.”
One hundred percent CSA! It’s an impressive business accomplishment. I ask how she did it. “Our wholesale business was in trouble when the market got flooded with California organic produce. It was hard to get loans. So we offered the local community the opportunity to pre-buy food. The CSA program kept us going.”
They have been fully CSA for 3 years now. They started at 75 shares twenty years ago and now sell 1,100 shares that are delivered to 40 drop sites from Lynnwood to Portland. Sue continues: “Wholesale was awful. They controlled the prices and we constantly had to defend the quality of our produce. And I don’t miss the Farmers Markets – it’s great to have my weekends back! Now we are more streamlined and can control what we grow and put in the box. We have loyal members and we drop at State offices as part of their wellness programs.”
I wonder how they can plan their crops under this model. “We grow what customers like and organize the farm with a computer program,” Sue explains. “We give members at least their money’s worth of produce, and extra of what’s doing well. Last year we gave people about 25% more than what they paid for. Our outlet for surplus is direct sales from our Farm Stand and donations to the Food Bank. And every year we throw a big benefit concert and provide the food.”
Sue is proud of what their farm has accomplished. “We grow with minimum debt. We have 15 employees at peak season. The food is really fresh, more nutritious, and keeps better. We can spend more time improving our soils. And we are partnering with other small businesses to expand into new areas like honey, yogurt, and chickens.”
Sue is a successful farmer and businesswoman, but she also sees her work as a mission. “I can’t deal with all the bad things, the excesses of Capitalism. So I focus on the positive and create an alternative. And look at the biggest killers in America now – cancer, diabetes, heart disease – they’re all food-related. We are transforming diets.”
Her vision also encompasses young people. “I can’t do this forever. We’re in our 50’s, right?” (She’s got me there!) “Young people are drawn to this work because it is authentic and meaningful.” It’s kind of an “Occupy the Farmland” movement.
Our last stop is quite a different kind of operation. Left Foot Organics’ mission is “promote the self-sufficiency, inclusion and independence of people with developmental disabilities through involvement in environmentally sustainable agriculture.” They provide employment and job skills for a half dozen disabled “Growers” who work year-round on the farm. They have also recently launched a program where they bring in “Growing Partners” from local high schools – students who are employed on the farm in the spring and summer.
Lydia Beth is Farm Production Manager. She is lean and wiry with a sunny smile and the hands of a gardener: strong and stained from the soil. “CSA fits right into our charitable mission,” she says. “We model an inclusive community. CSA members share in the risk of farming. Our volunteers also provide diversity.”
When we arrived a Girl Scout troop was touring the green houses. Now as we talk there are dozens of workers in the field. “They are weeding the rhubarb and herbs.” Lydia Beth introduces me to Joe, one of the Growers.”I’ve been here almost 4 years,” he says. “I was looking for a job and volunteered. Then they hired me. I like the work, the pay, the people. People really care.”
Besides the Growers, some of the workers are Growing Partners, and some are volunteers. I even recognize Chris, one of my colleagues from work. Lydia Beth expands on the value of the volunteers. “We bring volunteers and Growers together. The volunteers model work habits, but they also learn how to focus on what people can do, not on what they can’t. Community participation helps change the attitudes of the fully-abled. And the volunteers often have no farming skills either, and learn from the Growers. “
Lydia Beth describes some of the other benefits of the farm. “Farming keeps the land in production and not developed. We provide a local source for food. We also create habitat. We are working with the Center for Natural Lands Management to grow native plant seeds for prairie restoration.”
Left Foot Organic gets about 50% of its revenues from sales. “CSA is an important part of our sales,” explains Lydia Beth. “It gives us working capital in the spring. We also sell to Farmers Markets, the Coop, restaurants, and through direct sales on the farm. But CSA provides us with some of our strongest supporters.”
These are not the only organic farms in the County with CSA. I talked to Jan at Pigman’s Farm in the Nisqually Valley, who echoed many of the themes: CSA supports local agriculture, builds partnerships, and brings good food to the table. “People come to the farm each year with their kids to visit,” she says. “And they always get first dibs on the best produce.”
It’s now the season for CSA sign-ups. My wife and I tried it last year and it was an adventure! Every week we enjoyed the glory of a box of beautiful produce and the challenge of trying new and delicious recipes. We’re buying a share again this year.
There’s a saying: “Think globally, act locally.” CSAs let you think globally and eat locally. Some people call it the “Foodshed” movement – buying the native produce of your region. Jan Pigman called it the “100-mile diet” – eating what has been produced within 100 miles of your home. It creates jobs and keeps money in your community. It lowers your carbon footprint. And you get the freshest, most healthy food you can possibly get!