Friday, September 27, 2013

CSA and Its Roll in Local Food

This week, Eden’s Garden CSA Farm was recognized as one of the two top CSA programs in the metroplex by the Dallas Observer. I honestly didn’t even know it was a category – much less that we were in the running to win! It was late one afternoon when I found out that we had been voted BEST CSA in a tie with another farm from Pittsburg, TX, Comeback Creek. I’ve known the owner of that farm for several years and he’s got a great operation out there in the woods. I’ve learned a tip or two from him over the years, helped sell some of his produce at my market and even remember when he was supplementing his farm income by making dairy deliveries for a former local dairy producer. There are a handful of other very deserving farms who operate small CSA programs in the area, too, I wish they'd have mentioned them all. Many are friends of mine, all are considered mentors in one way or another. 

In the DO story about the award we were given, the author uses the term "co op" interchangeably with the category of the award, CSA. One of the chefs who buys from both of our farms, Mark of Garden Cafe, was quick to comment on the story about there being an important difference between food co op programs and CSA programs. I was grateful for the call out. Sadly, not a lot of people know the differences that distinguish the two types of ways to get food to your plate. Even sadder still, a lot of people apparently don’t know the difference between a farmer and a food distributor. (In the same “BEST OF” issue, the reader’s choice awards gave “Best Local Farmer” to a food co op delivery program instead of an actual local farmer.)

So Let Me Try To Clarify the Differences Without Sounding Like I'm Putting Anything Else Down
As I noted in my reply to Mark's comment on the original story; "There are several ways to support small, local farms and CSA is the most direct, and probably one of the most important ways, because small farms can not compete on a wholesale level with mid size or large farms." In order for a farm to sell on the large scale for a co op or wholesaler to make anything re-selling the product, the farmer needs to be able to sell twice as much, or more, in order to make the same profit margin as if he'd sold it directly at retail price. Or, often times, they are taking a loss, just to get rid of a bumper crop of something that did well for them, so the food doesn't go to waste. That's like the farmer working 10 acres of land, and getting paid for working half of them. Try that this week at your job.

A CSA program is a direct and important relationship between the farmer and the end user of their crops – the eaters in the community where the farm is located. Or in most cases, at least not too far away; usually within 100 miles at the most. Otherwise, it’s not likely going to be economically feasible for the grower or the consumer - or very green unless everyone is driving a Prius. And ideally, you have weekly contact with the farmer who brings the shares into town once a week, or in many cases, you go out to the farm itself to get your shares.

In either scenario, one of the sweet benefits of supporting a small, local farm through CSA, is that there’s a real connection to your food’s birthplace and those who grow it for you. It’s not a relationship with your supermarket produce manager, or a dealer at a market stand or some other third party who pays for the produce as they pick it up and then re-sells it to you – often for twice what they paid the farmer.

In a CSA, you have pledged your support to the farmer for the upcoming season’s harvest in advance – come grasshoppers or high water – and the farmer relies on that pledge (of money or in some cases labor), to give them some sense of peace of mind about being able to go about their daily work to get good food on your plate - and not worry if those grasshoppers or that high water do come that they’ll lose everything to the banker. Whew! The banker is someone they’d usually like to have less of a relationship with than those who are going to appreciate the food they grow. Someone who visits the farm regularly also tends to be more understanding when a hail storm kills the entire garden of young seedlings and its too late to replant certain things – or that the harvest will be late and sparse. You share the risks with the farmer. CSA programs help stabilize an unstable and unpredictable seasonal budget for the farm.

Eden’s Garden CSA Farm is a bit unique in its CSA program in many ways. Not only are we a short 15-30 minute drive from just about anywhere within the I635 loop and you don’t have to drive down a muddy dirt road to find us, but our CSA members can easily come out to the farm and pick their own goodies when they want to. On weeks we’re not making a regular distribution, or if say they are having company and need some extra greens that week, we’ll meet them in the garden and show them where and how to pick what they need. Additionally, some of our members bring their kids out for picnics or school trips – gratis, and they enjoy the benefit of a nice discount at various classes we offer and in the organic garden shop on the property where they can get advice as well as home gardening needs when they shop during our on-farm market days twice a month. This is a time when other farmers who also follow organic methods, show up at the farm and sell their wares. We’re as close to a one stop shop as a farm can be and "mi farm es su farm" - so to speak, anyway. I want my members to feel at home and welcome down on this farm.

Even with the members as in touch with their farm as ours are; I, as well as other CSA farmers, still carry the farm challenges of paying the bills, making the repairs, planning the season’s crops, working the fields, feeding the critters, speaking out against and watching for stray mosquito spraying foggers in the dead of night, fighting off ridiculous city code enforcements, fighting potential water pollution issues, stressing out about pending legislation in both Austin and DC that could render what we do for a living as basically a danger to society and shut us down, guide city folks through the farm for a tour, trying to attract new customers, watch fire ants eat our lettuce seeds, as well as do laundry, eat the occasional meal, and watch a sunrise or sunset in awe of all that still needs to be done in order to keep a place going. It’s not that much unlike what most small business owners experience I suspect – except that a farmer does it outside in the fresh air, 365 days a year, and if we don’t do it well, our customers don’t get their food. At least, they don’t get fresh, organic and local food.

And to me, that’s mostly what this is all about.Getting really good food to people who desire it, at a price they can actually afford it, in a way they can really grow to appreciate it, while not going broke or crazy in the process. 

Farmers are just as deserving of a slice of the American dream as anyone else, yet, the product they sell is seen as something that should be made available to the consumer as cheaply as possible.

Finding a way to make a respectable and halfway decent living, afford health care when needed, or even take an occasional vacation, is as important to the well being of anyone who lives, as it is to a farmer. Farmers are generally very loyal, hard working, smart, forward thinking, big picture seeing kinds of folk, who think nothing of driving out to another farmer’s place and helping them with a project or solving a problem or picking up extra supplies and dropping them off when they’re coming through town. I have yet to meet a small farmer who I didn’t like.We generally work in cooperation with each other, as opposed to in competition with one another, even swapping out bumper crop items, extra canning jars, advice and tips. Many farmers I know offer low cost or free classes - to new upcoming farmers! There's plenty to go around, and the more the merrier. Sowing the seeds of respect and profitability for this profession, are what will help secure a future of new farmers through various training programs our farm and others are implementing.

Farmers are just as deserving of a slice of the American dream as anyone else, yet, the product they sell is seen as something that should be made available to the consumer as cheaply as possible - often, more cheaply than it costs to produce it. When was the last time your electricity company undersold their product? Your gas? Your telephone bill? Your new car?

But I learned that we can all do our part to show respect and support to the local farmers who bring a slice of the real world to our communities.

Why is it that the basic need in life, nutrition, is expected to be the cheapest part of our budget? Think about that for a bit. Without food – your phone will not get answered, by you anyway. And without nutritious food, you won’t be driving a car, you’ll be sickly and likely in a hospital bed watching others drive around in theirs.

I love the quote below by farmer Tom Willey. It puts into perspective what it took me a long time myself to realize, as I was not born into a farming family. I grew up shopping at the grocery store like most other people in this country. But I learned that we can all do our part to show respect and support to the local farmers who bring a slice of the real world to our communities. Whether it is through a CSA program, buying from a farmer at their market stand each week, rolling up your sleeves and volunteering when a farmer may need it, or writing a check to support a specific project; small farms are a true asset to you, your family and the communities they serve. And just like I advocate supporting any other small, independently owned business as much as possible, the same holds true in where I think we should first turn for at least some of our in-season food. Big ag has its place, otherwise where would we get our hearts’ desires of things we can’t grow here in N. Texas. But small ag, even micro farming, has an important part in the place of its' community.  I hope you’ll reach out and shake a hand that feeds you soon.

"We must consider it a scientific fact that you are what you eat. The same molecules that make up the food we consume become the molecules of our minds and bodies. So, unless you are your own farmer, you should choose one as carefully as you would chose your doctor or your pastor. Therefore, it is fitting that farmers, like doctors, lawyers, professors, and pastors, should command a high level of respect and income, commensurate with this level of responsibility. I consider it an honor and a privilege that you have chosen me to be your farmer." Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms 


Put Your Money Where the Farm Is &
Eat Your Food - Naturally!