The [New] Harvesters
Across the country, people are using their food choices to save energy, preserve open space, and reduce harmful chemicals in the environment. They're part of a movement called community-supported agriculture.
By Mary-Powel Thomas
On a brilliant blue day in october, Brookfield Farm is hopping. Bluebirds and sparrows and goldfinches peck through the dirt where the cucumber vines were recently plowed under. Apprentice farmer Sue Wasseluk is harrowing a field to prepare it for winter rye, a cover crop. And I'm watching farmer Dan Kaplan and Amy Cloud, another apprentice, harvest red peppers. They move swiftly down the 700-foot rows of bushy plants, tossing shiny fruit into large plastic buckets that have been set out every 50 feet or so. "See how organized we are?" Kaplan says with a grin. In his mid-30s, he has a thin face, large glasses, and a larger smile. Curly brown hair pokes out from under his baseball cap. He urges me to taste a pepper"These are the nicest ones we've ever grown!"and I sincerely regret that I don't actually, um, like peppers.
But that's no problem; there's plenty of other produce to sample. This is a community-supported agriculture farma CSAand its success depends on growing a wide variety of vegetables. Whereas conventional farmers will plant a huge field of a single cropcorn, say, or broccoliKaplan and his crew grow 35 acres of herbs, berries, melons, and vegetables, from arugula and eggplant to snap peas and zucchini. Whereas conventional farmers sell their entire crop at harvest time to one or two buyerswhich sell it to wholesalers, which sell it to grocery stores, which sell it to youBrookfield Farm sells its produce before planting, then doles it out as it ripens to a group of about 500 "shareholders" who live nearby. In this way, Brookfield and other CSAs minimize the use of jet fuel and truck fuel to transport vegetables across the country or up from South America. And the farms are almost invariably organic, so they don't add chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers to the environment.
Of course, I already knew all that. I belong to a CSA back home, in Brooklyn, New York. I've come to Brookfield, 12 miles outside Amherst, Massachusetts, to see what my CSA experience would be like if I lived around here. So far, it's no contest. The field where I stand is ringed with trees in all shades of red, orange, green, and yellow. "The leaves just popped todayjust for you," Kaplan kids me. Goldfinches chase one another down rows of peppers. A warm breeze brings the faint sound of the road beyond the field, and I'm hot in my blue jeans and sneakers. Kaplan (who's sensibly dressed in shorts) picks a pepper with a soft spot on the side, then tosses it into the plowed-up cucumber field. "See how many I throw away?" he asks. "That's why they're so expensive."
All peppers may be expensive, but organic pepperslike other organic vegetablesare often the most expensive of the lot. Since Brookfield is "completely organic," says Kaplan, "we're really at the whim of nature. We can't guarantee the broccoli crop the way a conventional grower can, because we can't spray fungicide to keep the gray mold down." That's where CSA status can be a godsend. If the broccoli crop succumbs, Brookfield just gives its shareholders more peppers, lettuce, chard, radicchio, carrots, beets, eggplant, beans, plum tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, summer squash, scallions, cucumbers, kohlrabi, radishes, and fennel. If conventional farmers have a crop failure, on the other hand, they've lost the year's entire income from that crop.
Community-supported agriculture is a fairly recent concept in the United States. The movement began in Japan in 1965, where it is known as teikei, or "partnership," then spread to Europe and America. Since 1985, when the first CSA took root here, the movement has grown to some 1,000 U.S. farms earning an average of $26,346 a year (though many earn much less), according to survey data collected by the Robyn Van En Center, a clearinghouse for CSA activity. That's still a tiny fraction of the 2 million farms in the United States, however, and of the $200 billion in yearly U.S. farm earnings.
The movement has been growing more rapidly over the past three to five years, notes Jerry DeWitt, who oversees the sustainable-agriculture program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "People are looking for connections," he says, "and what they perceive to be healthy food. There's even interest in some rural areas, which is surprising because you'd think everyone would have a garden. But times have changed; lifestyles have changed."
Community-supported agriculture may be a niche market, but it's an important one for those involved. The average U.S. farmer gets only 21 cents of every food dollar, down from 40 cents in 1952. With a CSA, by contrast, 100 cents of every dollar goes to the farmer. In many cases, the guaranteed market and the lack of middlemen have allowed farmers to keep farming, rather than selling their land to developers. Shareholders, for their part, get fresh, organic produce and "a connection with their food sources," says Stephanie Reph of the Van En Center. "When people go to the supermarket, they never see the farm, never know the farmer who grew their food."
Some CSAs specifically target people in urban communities, where fresh produce is scarce. Many others have at least a few shareholders in a nearby city. Brookfield, for example, delivers some 50 boxes of preselected produce a week to Boston. "It's a survival mechanism for some," says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the nonprofit Organic Farming Research Foundation. "It's also an acknowledgement that urban areas have spread so far that they're bumping into prime farmland."
My CSA is part of Green Thumb Farm, near the eastern end of Long Island. The Halsey family, which owns the 362-year-old farm, has four shareholder groups: one local, two in New York City, and one in between. Johanna Halsey says the farm's CSA income helps the family resist the tide of development spreading east from the city. "This land is worth a tremendous amount of money," she points out. "If we can keep the farm viable, so it can support our family, then we don't want to sell. With the CSA, we know that people have paid for their shares, and it's just a matter of delivery."
Each Tuesday the Halseys send a truckload of vegetables 90 miles west to Brooklyn. At a church near my house, I sort through piles of produce familiar and exoticsucculent strawberries in quart boxes, lime-green curly cress, with its sharp, peppery taste. "Good in salads," says the sign. The stuff was just picked this morning, or maybe last night, and keeps an amazingly long time in my fridge. The lettuce I buy at the grocery store, by contrast, has traveled several thousand miles and wilts quickly. (See "Dirt to Door," above.)
When your share is delivered, however, you miss a lot of the "community" in community-supported agricultureas I realize when I visit Brookfield. In the farm "store," a long, low building of weathered boards, shareholders greet one another as they choose their produce. Some also buy fruit, milk, pickles, bread, maple syrup, or other items from neighboring farms. Behind the building, a couple of toddlers play on a big tractor tire laid on its side. Children of assorted ages carefully place small stones across the shallow stream that flows from a faucet at the back of the store. In the "pick-your-own" field beyond, a woman strips a soybean plant of its pods. Other adults gather cherry tomatoes, basil, sorrel, green beans, and the remains of the raspberry crop.
Some CSAs require a certain amount of labor from their shareholdersplanting, harvesting, weeding, and whatnotbut Kaplan says, "We realized early on that trying to get a lot of work out of our shareholders was not going to work. So we use pick-your-own for the labor-intensive crops, and it doesn't matter if they pick 'em slow." On this day, the Diggs familyfather, mother, and three girlsis taking full advantage of the system, gathering basil for pesto. John Diggs, a physician in nearby South Hadley, says, "We grow a garden ourselves, but there's some lead in the soil. So we divide a share here with another family." His wife, Anju, adds, "In previous years we had looked into it, but we were too late to get a share. So this year we made sure to sign up early."
I try my hand at picking raspberries, but it's hard to find any that taste really good; I'm a week or two late. The insects don't seem to mind, though. Dozens of chubby bumblebees are nosing the berries and the tiny purple asters that grow among them. I do find some green beans, growing on bushes whose leaves are full of holesan occasional side effect of the organic routine. The beans themselves are intact, however, tender and sweet. Chickens walk between the rows of tomatoes and dill, looking for insects to munch.
Nearby, eight-year-old Kemaya Diggs cries, "Eew, Daddy! There's a grasshopper there!" It's beautiful, with a green head and thorax and a herringbone pattern on its legsa differential grasshopper, according to my field guide. Later, entomologist Robert Bugg of the University of California, Davis, confirms the obvious: "There is greater species richnessthe number of insect species collectedon organic farms." The trend holds true for birds as well. Kathryn E. Freemark, a songbird ecologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, says, "Organic farms have a greater variety and abundance of birds, largely mediated through the food chain. Because herbicides aren't used, there's a greater variety of plants on the non-crop edges, where a lot of the birds live. That means more seeds and more insects, which provide food for more birds."
Farmer Dan Kaplan, however, points no fingers. "Farmers don't want to go out there and poison the wells and poison their farmworkers," he says. "It's just that the agricultural economy is so bad, because people don't want to pay anything for food. So farmers do everything they can to externalize their costs. They pollute the rivers and pollute the streams, because it's cheaper than not using pesticides. Pesticides are very cheap to use, generally. It's just the long-term costs that are expensive." Instead of chemicals, CSAs and other organic farms choose hand weeding or cultivating, fertilizing with natural materials such as manure, covering crops to protect them from insects, and other labor-intensive methods. On many farms, shareholders pitch in to help with these jobs, which bolsters the bottom line.
Of course, community-supported agriculture is not a universal solution. For one thing, even if the movement grew a thousandfold, there would never be enough farms close enough to Los Angeles, say, to provide all 3.7 million residents with fresh produce. Many of the nation's farms are in sparsely populated areas, where potential shareholders are scarce. In addition, not all farmers have an interest in serving scores of individual customers. "You have to be a good manager of people," says Kaplan. "And you have to do advertising, PRall these time-consuming things. Being good at mechanics won't help you with your shareholders."
The main reasons CSA farms fail, according to Sharing the Harvest: A Guide to Community Supported Agriculture, are that the farmers can't make enough money, and they can't (or don't) get shareholders to help with the organizing and distributing. Many of the farms that succeed have a "core group" of members who take responsibility for various organizational chores, often earning a share in the process.
must be willing to try new thingsand should realize that eating
from the farm is often tougher than it sounds. You can munch
strawberries right from the box, but if you get rhubarb, too, you have
to make a pie-a delicious chore, but a chore nonetheless. My more exotic
CSA produce sometimes rots because I'm just not sure what to do with
it. Many farms address this problem by offering recipes; mine gave me
a great one for using all sorts of mystery greens with pasta and ricotta
CSA members can fall victim to inflated expectations, too. As shareholder Laura Sylvester chooses produce in the Brookfield store, she explains what happens: "I think, 'Ooh, those leeks look good. I could make potato-leek soup!' And then the reality of my life is that I don't have time. I did try pickles: I got a ton of cucumbers and made all these jars of pickles, and they came out terrible! It was my biggest cooking disaster ever." She laughs gently, then says, "But it still works for me. I get plenty of food, I try new things. And I've gotten better at not taking more than I need."
As the sun begins to set, the store building empties of all but a few people hurrying in after work. I wander out behind the pick-your-own field to the pigpen. Brookfield sells pork and beef from its own animals, as well as eggs from its chickens. Though destined for the slaughterhouse eventually, these pigs seem to have a fine life in their large, grassy enclosure. They come hurrying over to meet me, grunting deeply, but when they see I'm not going to feed them, they quickly begin munching grass and cloverstaying within range, just in case I change my mind. When I walk away, one gives an indignant creak, just like a squeaky gate.
I remember Laura Sylvester saying, "It's one of my favorite things in the world to come here. I love being in the field with the sunshine, the earth under your feet, the beautiful hills in the background. It's like heaven." Though the pick-your-own field lies in shadow, I can see to pick a few more green beans. A woman is nursing a baby by the sandbox, but most of the children have gone home to dinner. Their muddy stones sit near the back door of the store building, where the faucet drips. As I crunch my beans, I see a bus go by on the road beyond. The advertisement on its side says, "Be a local hero. Buy locally grown."
Mary-Powel Thomas is the features editor of Audubon.