Monday, November 5, 2018

C is for Community

CSA members sharing a meal at the farm

It seems this concept feels very much different now, than it did from long out of the past. Perhaps because we are living in a different kind of society than when we grew up. At least, I think I can say that for those of us from the Baby Boomer and Gen X generations. We didn't grow up with 6' wood fences, they were chain link - if we had them at all. We all walked to school together, our parents had dinner parties and everyone on your block and in your homeroom class or grade was your community. Now, with charter schools and driving kids there instead of flocking there in packs down the sidewalk, living at a breakneck speed to get to as many out of the home activities as humanly possible, as opposed to playing hide and seek catching lightening bugs till mom called, and we're entering and leaving through the garage so, many people don't even know their neighbors, much less consider them part of their community. Many of our neighborhoods feel fractured, unconnected.

Eden's Organic Community Garden Ground Breaking Crew
Maybe that's why the philosophy of CSA farming appealed to me so much when I first discovered it in 2007. I had read the book, virtually a how-to handbook on CSA, called Sharing the Harvest, (if you happen to buy it, please sign on through Amazon smile and choose TOFGA to support TX farmers.)

Not only did this book help me gain much respect and admiration for farmers, none of whom I really knew personally at that time, but its concept of this CSA format of farming, reminded me of something else on which I couldn't quite put my finger. Not until I decided to break ground; first on the community garden in my front yard and then to start an actual commercial farm, growing for my community.

Ground, er, manure, breaking crew for Eden's Garden CSA Farm
After all of these years of growing for many of the same families, I think I get it now. It was the growing familiar with the people I fed; the forming of a community within what I was doing that fed the human need for connection. Even introvert farmer types need people around sometimes

When I worked part time in my hometown of Franklin Park up in IL, at the local camera store with a small crew of 3 employees, just about anyone who took photos back then, brought their film there for developing. We got to see kids' parties, Halloween, vacations and everything in-between. Many came in at the holidays to get their kids a new camera and pass on the tradition.We had waited in the same line for lunch at the local hot dog stand, bought our groceries at the same family owned grocery store, and banked at the same local state bank. It was small town living of the 80's. Our small town was a big community where everyone knew each other somehow.

Working corporate, where I went after graduation, you sort of lose that environment. Other than the community that might form within a department. But with all of the shuffling of personnel, it seemed hard to really get the same sense of community we'd had with a small staff and loyal group of customers at a small retail store, much less my old neighborhood. Plus, there were often feelings of competition among employees in the big corporate offices where I worked. It rarely felt genuine.

The Original Eden's Organic Garden Center
So when I decided to break out and start my garden shop down here in Dallas, I was eager to re-create that feeling of knowing your customers and making them feel at home. Even if I am terrible with remembering names, I wanted to remember the people and what they liked to grow and help them garden safely.

When the garden center didn't make the move well to where I now make it my adult "hometown",  south of downtown Dallas in Balch Springs, I started a local market of organic local farmers and ranchers in order to hopefully create a sense of community around something I thought surely people everywhere would have a common value for – food.

First Market Day at the Relocated Garden Center
Homegrown, food raised locally, using sustainable and safe methods by someone they could meet, get to know and trust. I thought I'd create a community of like-minded people who wanted to have peace of mind about their food and get to see who raised it.
Early years work share members help plant crops

Little did I know there were way more eaters than organic farmers. So, I rolled up my sleeves to grow some, hoping maybe some would even help plant or harvest that food. They did!

Making REAL Food Accessible for all

And as a result of that support, a small, urban farm is around for the whole community to share from and from which kids and adults alike, can learn things they don't generally teach in school. Since 2008 - we've come a long way, baby!

That's what CSA means to me, and hopefully to all of my members.

We're not a “subscription” to a farm box program. Some folks belong to huge CSA's, like the ones out in CA, where they never even see the farmer, or the staff of farm workers, much less go to the farm to connect with the land. It's a CSA in that they are directly paying the farm, as opposed to a 3rd party middleman, and often it's a farmer's choice "share", meaning they're getting a variety based on the harvest. But from what I understand, more than ever these days, in many CSA programs, there's usually no risk shared in this transaction. And shared risk is one of the key elements of the CSA concept! It's what helps keep small farmers from going under.

Many customers are paying week to week, as they get their produce. So if there's an early freeze, drought, fire, flood and there's not any share to pick up, or not the selection of what they want to order, there's not a payment to the farm. And the farmer, in the throes of a disaster, is left to punt alone.

Other farmers will go into debt buying produce from other sources to fulfill their customers' baskets in lean times out of fear they'll lose their "subscribers" if they don't get what they feel should be coming. As if there's a truck re-stocking the flooded rows of the farmer's fields.

That's not much of a relationship. It's missing the C - community. They don't really have their farmer's back if they are going to bail on her during tough times.

Gratefully I feel, and have felt for many years, that my members - have my back. And that's a great feeling.

And CSA's are way more than some door to door service that drops off a box of chopped up veggies and plastic pouches of dried herbs that were obtained from who knows where. Often funded by venture capital, once the infusion of cash dries up, commonly so do these businesses that have a hard time operating on the razor thin profit that goes along with selling produce. Even produce prepared to that extent. There's hardly enough profit for the small farmer to make a good living selling produce, much less to include a middle man who's paying a chef to cut and assemble your meal!

Yet many a farmer has lost a lot of customers to the convenience factor. And some of those farms end up going into debt trying to compete with door to door delivery models, folding up or taking on extra off-farm jobs to support their addiction of farming. It's a hard thing to give up if it's in your blood.

Work share and volunteers often help plant and harvest

CSA Members Picking up Shares at the Farm
This little guy just turned NINE!
My members pledge to support their farmer with an annual subscription. We have a variety of payment options, but they're always made in advance of the season to come, giving the farm its seed money and keeping the bills paid. No one gets a cash refund if an ice storm takes out our winter crops or a drought means the watermelons are small and pithy that summer. But chances are, I was begging people to take more of something else that enjoyed a bumper crop season. Rarely is there nothing to harvest unless fields are under water or frozen. The farmer of a CSA farm works hard to bring in a harvest for her members as many weeks as the weather allows in a given area. Many farms have a set amount of weeks per season. Some farm year round, like I do.

CSA members at Eden's receive a share of in-season vegetables, fruits and herbs that I've hand selected for them just days before they come to get them. (some pick up at the farm, some at various in-town locations).  I try to familiarize myself with what many of them like or don't like, or are allergic to, and I do my best to grow accordingly. And I offer "pick your own" on "off" weeks to our members.

I've watched member couples wed, (here on the farm), kids born and grow up and some even get big enough to leave home and come back to the farm to reconnect.

It's been 10 years now since I broke ground, and a lot happens in a family in that amount of time! And likewise, many of my members have seen me and this farm from the ground up, too.
CSA Member Joan Firra - a founding farm member, picks up at the farm faithfully
Most have been members for 8 years or more. That's a loyal bunch of folks!

Members picking up "market style" at a remote site in town
Much is written about those door to door delivery services and I see big farms crossing over into other regions, projecting the same small, local farm connection as the actual local small farmers living in the areas they serve. But it seems to me that's just not the same thing at all - for either party.

I know that this farmer loves being able to shake the hand of the family who eats what she grows. And as much, I like getting to shake the hand of the rancher who raises the cattle for the beef I eat and the milk I drink. And I even have the privilege of knowing who catches my fish!

My members know they can trust the woman who grows produce for them because they've come to know me as a person, not just a concept or a picture in a blog they read.

I am grateful for the people who find it important to know where they get their produce, and then trust me to be that person.

Preparing one of the fields for planting
I never imagined making a living as a small farmer. Even though I made my way from corporate and office work to horticulture, this is a world away from even that.

My job is more than just growing vegetables, though. I try to educate people I meet about how important it is for them to get at least some of their diet from nutrient dense foods grown in season from their local area sustainable farmer.  It's not only good for their health, the environment, and the farmer, but it's good for their local economy as well. I know many of my local hardware store employees by sight, and they recognize me coming, too. We return those dollars back into our communities. And if we get busy and successful enough, we can hire local help.

Along the way my CSA members and market customers learn about new foods, and new things about familiar ones, and I always try to be as transparent with them about the process as I can. Maybe too transparent sometimes. But telling the chickens of the woes of the day, or yelling at the invisible cotton tail rabbit that decimated an entire row of cauliflower and collards transplants, doesn't have the same effect as sharing it all with someone who can say something besides “cluck cluck” in response. I need to tell my community! And then we talk about recipes for Hasenpfeffer! LOL 
(*no cottontails have been harmed by humans on this farm. We leave it up to the natural cycle of Nature.)

So if you're looking for a connection to where your food comes from; being able to shake the hand that feeds you and hear all of the details about how it got from seed to your kitchen, I hope you'll consider joining our little CSA farm.

We have openings for our upcoming 2019 farm year - spring, summer, fall and winter seasons. If you reserve a share now with $100 monthly payments, Nov., Dec. and Jan., you'll be all set for the spring distributions when they begin. Continue those monthly installments of $100 through April, and you're on board for summer shares of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, etc. Keep it coming through July, and you'll receive fall shares, and the October installment pays you through for winter crops. A full year with a farm is a great way to appreciate your region's foods like never before. And the flavor of freshly picked veggies and fruits, is unsurpassed by anything you find at the big box supermarket - organic or not. Mass production is not intended for flavor - it's intended for mass distribution. 

Right now we're harvesting fall crops, and planting winter crops. It's a never-ending cycle in North Texas. At least it is on this farm. I don't have the luxury of taking the summer or winter off. The animals have to eat, and the garden grows, or the bills don't get paid. Some day I'll afford a paid staff. I hope!

If you are really interested in learning how it all works, or you have some helpful special skills, or are maybe a little down on cash; please ask me about work-shares. Folks without any gardening background have come to love gardening today, and those who came with an interest, have gone on to homestead and even market farm themselves.

We have a sliding scale option for Lone Star SNAP customers, too; because I think all of us deserve to eat as well as possible. Eating healthy is the key to being healthy – and that should not be out of reach for anyone who is willing to strive for it.

Most of DFW is full of fast food and processed food. Most of this town is full of fast food and processed food.

Think of Eden's as an oasis of REAL FOOD, GROWN with INTEGRITY!

Come - out to the oasis! Come out to Eden's Garden CSA Farm.

We're just up the road, down on the farm.

15 mins southeast of downtown Dallas, Lakewood, and next door to Mesquite, Seagoville, and Pleasant Grove. Join our CSA or shop during Market Day, each 1st, 3rd or 5th Saturday morning.

Balch Springs -  It's All Here!

 Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Farmer Marie