The produce grown along the Long Hungry creek has become priceless-we don’t sell it anymore. The invaluable, farm fresh food is now free, and the folks who eat it cover the farm’s budget. You can’t buy vegetables from us these days, you have to join the club and support the farm in some way.
Like the morning fog rising up the hollow, the farm breathes a big sigh of relief. I’m retired as a salesman, and can focus full time on farming. Our members are trained to appreciate row-run vegetables with the dirt still on them, so post harvest handling, like marketing, has become a thing of the past.
I was hooked on CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) from the first, when John Root, Jr. told me about his in May of 1987. A group of people took over the financial burden of a farm in exchange for the produce. The group had meetings with pledges of money until they got enough to cover the farm’s budget. The farmer was guaranteed the same income whether the crops were bumpers or failures; members gave according to their ability and took according to their needs.
Economics were tough on a small farm during the 80’s, and here was a way out. In ’88 and ’89 we tried CSA, with limited crops and limited success. A core group of committed consumers never materialized, which is essential, and I was reluctant to let go of the marketing system I already had in place. Organic vegetables became in high demand, and our farm, as the only organic supplier in the area, was getting California prices.
So we kept on selling to health food stores and anywhere else we could find, riding the organic wave of the 90’s. The certified biodynamic produce was sorted, washed and packed before being shipped all over Tennessee, exposing thousands to the word, and taste of, biodynamics. Produce managers needed esoteric training to be able to explain it to their customers. Business was booming.
Then a national corporation bought one of the stores, which had been a major outlet for us, and it made corporate sense to ship California potatoes to Nashville in late July. They still wanted our spuds, they assured me, but when the truck left Los Angeles it needed to be full. It took the wind out of my sails to feel that our potatoes were no longer irreplaceable, and our markets were on shaky ground.
A box of garlic was turned down not because of quality or price, but because there was no room on their computer for another garlic item. Next, I received a letter requesting a 2 million dollar insurance policy (in case someone got ill eating garlic?), and was instructed to ship the produce to their Cincinnati warehouse, to then be trucked back to Nashville. My ideal of local agriculture was fading fast.
When a few folks from the city offered to help organize a CSA, we jumped on it. Now, as we wind up our fourth year, a community of 60 families around Nashville cares about the farm. I’m not concerned about how to market produce, crop failures or budget blues, and I make my decisions based on what is best for the farm as a whole. This doesn’t keep me from making wrong decisions-those sweet potatoes ought to have been dug by now. But my farm tells me how much to grow, where and when to plant and what to do. She’s a much wiser boss than the marketplace is.
I’d always felt that farmers, who tend their land organically with just the energy of cover crops, compost and animals, deserve to be well paid. Our CSA has made this admittedly biased opinion of mine possible. Our members are using their vegetable dollars to support a farm, which is ever bent on improving soil structure and fertility for long-term productivity. CSA’s offer hope for rural America, not only in a practical, financial way, but on a deeper level, too.
Most folks don’t want to be a farmer. CSA members enjoy many of the pleasures of a farm without having to own one. They can bring their family out for a picnic, see animals and gardens, and eat fresh organic food all week. They are reestablishing a connection to the land, reuniting a lost tie between the city and the country, developing a mutual trust and friendship with a farmer, and helping wealth to be created locally.
In May and June our members receive lettuce, green onions, peas, parsley, carrots, Swiss chard, beets, garlic, summer squash and new potatoes. By July we also send green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet corn and fresh herbs, like sweet basil, dill, chives and oregano. August finds a variety of melons, peppers and winter squashes in the baskets with some of the earlier crops dwindling. The wealth these crops produce is both made and spent locally.
The cool weather of autumn brings on the greens, like mustard, lettuce, kale and oriental cabbages. Many of these last through December, as does our big stash of Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternuts and garlic. Pumpkins, apples, pears and many other items make their way into the basket, along with a weekly bouquet of zinnias or sunflowers. Our members pay to keep the farm afloat, free and abundant, and are spending less money than if they bought their produce elsewhere.
Our fee is $25.00 per week, $100.00 per month, or $650.00 for the whole 30-week year. 20 of our members are only 1/2 shares, so we have 50 full shares, supporting a farm budget of about $35,000.00. We no longer sell produce to our neighbors, but instead give it away. In return we get rhubarb pies, harvesting help and other neighborly exchanges. Our members eat like we eat, the very best, in-season produce. 12 to 16 different goodies are delivered every Monday to a patio in Nashville, where the members pick up their 25-pound baskets. We try to have something new each week, and also include a newsletter.
Everyone gains from CSA’s. It’s a model for reinvigorating the countryside with productive and profitable, small organic farms. Members learn where their food comes from, and eat what is in season. They bear crop losses and bumpers crops along with the farmer, and become part of the farm. Rekindling this feeling of caring for the land may be more nourishing than the fresh organic vegetables they get each week.