Going from the big city to the countryside can be quite a challenge. Saying goodbye to the fancy coffee shops, sushi on the go and public transportation, as I moved across the country from Washington, D.C. to a very rural part of Washington state, I wondered what I was getting into. Beyond the big city’s amenities, I was worried about the community of friends, neighbors and co-workers I left behind. Here, my closest “neighbor” is a grain silo overlooking a few dozen acres of alfalfa. So instead of trying to find the big city in the countryside, I decided to embrace my new life and the offerings of living so close to nature. In particular, I was excited about the readily available fresh produce. Sure, you can get locally grown produce at the farmer’s markets in the Dupont Circles and Union Squares of the big cities out east, and, on occasion, I would buy a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread for $15. But I was ready to find accessible produce that could be eaten on a daily basis and not just as a special treat.
Upon arriving here, one of the first things I did was join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. As the name suggests, CSAs involve the public community supporting a farm through buying “shares,” typically consisting of a box of seasonal produce, offered weekly during the harvest season, which runs roughly from May through November. Over the last 20 years, CSAs have become a popular way for consumers to buy locally grown food directly from a farmer, and for farmers to receive financial support from the community.
This system benefits both parties in an impressive show of synergy. The farmers receive payment early in the season which helps with their cash flow, as well as having the opportunity to know the people to whom the fruits of their labor go. And members of CSAs get to know who is producing that food, creating a relationship with the farmer, the land, and their surroundings. Additionally, the food is fresh, local, and often organic. At the same time, one element of joining a CSA accepting shared risk. With a CSA, there is no guarantee of what you will get; it depends on what is growing and being harvested. This promotes the feeling that we are all in on this together; if the farm is productive, we reap the benefits and if it suffers we feel the consequences.
Schreiber & Sons, the CSA I joined, started offering community shares to the public in 2006. Along with the box of organic produce, I get a weekly email, telling me what is going to be in my box and what is going on at the farm; that the tomatoes will be out later this year due to the unusually cool spring or cilantro is suddenly plentiful due to a few warm days. This new sense of connection with my environment allows me to see how much the weather impacts agriculture, and now, me. Coming from a city, rain used to mean that I had to wear a rain jacket. Cold temperatures caused me to leave the house with an extra sweater. Now, these things translate into the amount of mixed greens and strawberries I will be eating.
The true beauty for me though, is the way that CSAs draw people together.
“In a lot of communities, with the whole agricultural system in this country, the farmer was getting more and more pushed off to the periphery where you actually didn’t know your farmer as a member of the community. He was the guy that lived on the outskirts of town and you never actually went to his farm to visit. I think this is pulling that member of the community back into the circle where he or she can be seen,” said Pete Shelton, a fellow CSA member, who himself spent some time working on a CSA farm.
In my case, this union of farmer and consumer came to fruition at a Farm Party. Schreiber & Sons has two Farm Parties a year, one in the spring, which I went to last weekend, and one in the fall. This party involved a farm tour followed by a roasted pig and grilled asparagus provided by the farm and long tables piled with pot-luck dishes brought by all of the members of the CSA; about 200 showed up. Handwritten recipes next to the dishes illustrated the numerous ways the farm’s bounty could be prepared. The food was delicious, the conversation easy, and I was struck by how naturally the community was brought together as we were led through fields of cilantro and greenhouses full of peppers, marveling at all the work it took to bring us the food we ate each week.
“Generally CSA’s do things that connect their members to what they do. We’re really taking people who have not been involved in farming like this and putting them into an agriculture area and we really are connecting them to the food and where the food comes from,” said Alan Schreiber, owner of Schreiber & Sons.
Having been introduced to the CSA model has connected me to my food, my community, my farmer and my creativity.
But we were also connecting with each other as we sat on the lawn and ate the homemade food and swapped stories about what we were doing with the weekly radishes in our CSA boxes. These were people I had not known until the Farm Party, who were now inviting me over for their next pot luck dinner.
Though there is no official count of how many CSAs are currently in the U.S., Local Harvest has the most comprehensive directory of CSA farms, with more than 4,000 listed in its database. I am glad to hear they are on the rise. This new model of farming is redefining property ownership, creating new forms of cooperation and a new agricultural economy for farmers that want to go beyond the large scale agribusinesses our farmland has been turned into. It’s a model that connects us and allows mutual benefit to be the rule.
Opening my box each week is like a little adventure. And I know that all over town, my fellow CSA member are opening their boxes and figuring out how to turn that into dinner. We have had a lot of asparagus so far this season, so I’ve had to come up with new and interesting ways of eating it, branching out from grilled asparagus to asparagus soup and asparagus salad. But it is more than being overjoyed by the abundance of fresh and healthy produce. I already ate pretty well in D.C., doing my shopping at Whole Foods and the occasional stint at the overpriced farmers market, but I never felt any connection to my fellow Whole Foods shoppers, or the people I bumped into at the weekly farmers markets. Having been introduced to the CSA model has connected me to my food, my community, my farmer and my creativity. My newsletter said next week’s box will include strawberries and rhubarb, so I already know a pie is in my future.