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Raising a New Kind of ‘Eater’

CSA’s magic grows some food—and lots of community

March 7, 2008 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Marty Heller
  On pick-up day for the White Yarrow Farm CSA, near Kalamazoo, kids weigh out produce, including garlic plant tops, known as scapes, a delicacy that members learn to love.

LEELANAU COUNTY—I had breakfast with Marty Heller and Michelle Ferrarese at their farm on one of those early February mornings when most people want to go back to bed. It was gray and cold that day out on the southeast end of Lake Leelanau. And these 30-something farmers were cuddling their coffee cups just like the rest of us.

But like the groundhogs that every calendar says will come out of hibernation at that time of year, Marty and Michelle were full of the inner stirring that comes well before spring’s green, when the daytime starts growing and the birds start peeping even as the snow keeps flying.

For people who grow food, that pre-spring buzz means business. Michelle said she had hardly been able to sleep that night, after a day of finalizing the big seed order she was about to place for spring planting. She’d been poring over catalogs for days, preparing for her and Marty’s first year of growing food together for some 20 families.

"I had pictures of vegetables flying through my head like sheep, and I couldn’t count ‘em!" she said.

Any new businessperson is likely to have a few sleepless nights, trying to think of every last thing they should do. But unlike any other kind of business—or farm, for that matter—Marty and Michelle’s excitement for their venture goes well beyond how big or sweet their carrots will grow or how much money they might be able to put in the bank.

That is because, in addition to salad greens, tomatoes, eggplant and all those other vegetables crowding Michelle’s head, their farm will essentially grow a new kind of food eater. The pair is joining the swell of mostly young people, many not even from farming backgrounds, who are digging deep into their own desire to make a living close to the earth and, at the same time, offering people a new way to relate to their food and each other.

It is called "Community Supported Agriculture." On the surface, CSA involves customers paying a lump sum membership upfront in exchange for a season’s worth of fresh food. Every week members pick up their food at their farm or a convenient drop-off spot; the contents vary a bit week to week, based on the season andhow good or challenging growing conditions have been.

At its core, however, CSA involves taking all of us food eaters out of the retail sphere of cash registers and confusing labels and into the world of planting, tending, and harvesting, where we begin to appreciate rainy days because they help our radishes grow.

"CSA farmers are silent activists," said Marty. "They’re out there offering people the opportunity to experience their food in a different way. It’s really pretty profound."

It is this new food eater that is especially important about farms like Marty and Michelle’s.

A Leading Force for Local Food
One by one, CSA farms build an appreciation for nature and neighbors through direct connection to them. This awareness is essential if a community like the Grand Traverse area is to realize its desire—coming forth in the current regional Grand Vision project, for example—for a future of healthy people, communities, and land.

It comes down to this: The more we make the link between what we eat and who we are, the less likely we are to let preservative-packed patties pass for food in schools or the paving of more farmland pass for economic development.

"A great thing about CSA is that direct relationship among the farmers, the land, and the eaters," Michelle said. "When it’s your farm, you’re all of a sudden invested in it rather than having some intellectual concept about ‘open space.’"

It’s this simple, satisfying, and powerful relationship that has CSA growing locally and nationally as a way for people with food-growing skill and a little bit of ground—even a backyard will do—to make part or all of their living by feeding their neighbors. And while CSA could seem small in terms of actual tons of food produced, it is in fact a leading force in the broader fresh, healthy, local-food movement that is transforming our approach to food and agriculture from one of resource depletion to one of community renewal.

The number of CSA farms in the Grand Traverse area has nearly doubled since 2004. Last year’s regional Taste the Local Difference guide to farm foods listed 18; more, like Marty and Michelle’s, are on the way. Across the country, CSA farms have mushroomed from two East Coast pioneers in 1986 to the latest rough estimate of more than 3,500 such operations in this hard-to-count movement, each with anywhere from five to 1,500 members. The largest CSA farms in northwest Lower Michigan have 100 to 150 members.

In all of Michigan, CSA has jumped from about 10 farms a decade ago to nearly 80 today. Most of that growth has occurred in the last five years, according to Jim Sluyter and Jo Meller, who operate Five Springs Farm, near Bear Lake in Manistee County, and who help organize regional CSA conferences and training workshops.

"It’s a good time to be in CSA," Jim said.

Families are flocking to CSA; most every one in northwest Michigan has a waiting list. The challenge now is to help farmers clear startup hurdles and, at the same time, help ourselves grow a new crop of people who can provide for themselves and their communities by producing good food.

Figuring Out What Works
Access to affordable land, along with farm and business training, top the list of community supports that veteran and aspiring CSA farm operators say are needed.

Many—like Marty and Michelle and young Reid Johnson, who, at 23, has four years of farming under his belt—take the rental route.

"A few hundred thousand dollars to buy a piece of land, that’s the biggest obstacle for me," Reid said. Originally from Flint, he is building his base of CSA knowledge and realizes that owning his own place will take awhile in the Grand Traverse area, where farmland goes for vacationland prices.

In the meantime, he’s found a farm landlord in Leelanau County willing to help him get started by renting some ground and loaning some tools and a tractor. This year, Reid will grow vegetables for farmers markets and raise pigs and sheep for pork and lamb sales to a neighboring CSA farm’s members.

Reid has also put out word on the Internet about his farmland search at the new Get Farming! section of the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Taste the Local Difference Web site. The nerve center of the Get Farming! site is an online matching service for people who have farmland and for those who seek it. Get Farming! also organizes workshops and training opportunities for small farmers, including Latino farm workers in the area who bring extensive farm experience to their dream of operating their own place.

For CSA-specific training, many seek out the statewide organization, CSA-MI, that Jim Sluyter and Jo Meller helped organize. It can help out with both really basic and very sophisticated information.

Jillian Barnard, 21, of Benzonia said she was relieved to find some of the CSA-MI tools, including software that helps calculate how much growing ground is needed to produce desired amounts of different vegetables.

"I breathed a big sigh of relief," she said. "I’d been wondering how we were ever going to figure out how much to grow of this or that vegetable."

With her mother Diane, Jillian is planning to start a small CSA in a year or two. But first, they’ll put in a full practice season this year producing pretend CSA shares for pretend members.

"We’ll practice putting together three boxed CSA shares each week but then sell them at the farmers market instead," Jillian said. "We’ll learn what works and what doesn’t."

‘An Extended Family’
One of the best things CSA has going is how it shares not only food but also the growing and enjoying of it.

Karen Durham says the way her kids jump at the opportunity to visit Five Springs Farm on pickup days each week is one of the many reasons her family will be back with Jim and Jo this year.

"The kids get to help plant potatoes and then, when they come to the farm, they want to know how the potatoes are doing," she said.

Karen said they have a lot of fun: "My two-year-old got to get dirty picking carrots. And my 12-year-old son and his friends would have contests picking rutabagas. They’d yell ‘one-two-three’ and then see who picked the biggest one."

"We’ve been very impressed with how it has made our kids eat more vegetables," she said.

And it’s not just how fresh the food is, she explains, but how much more meaningful that food is and how attached her family has become to the other CSA members who also come to work and play at the farm. "It’s like an extended family."

The full food-and-community experience—from preparing the soil to sitting down with new friends to eat a fresh-picked feast—is the draw that brings new members, as well as new farmers to CSA.

"It’s the change in the food relationship that it creates with the eater," Michelle said that frosty morning as Marty cooked up an omelet from local eggs and kale still growing green in the ground.

"Everybody likes the CSA idea even if they’re not personally motivated by seasonal eating," Michelle said. "Something about CSA is accessible and interesting to people from all different social and political backgrounds. … Everybody eats."

Patty Cantrell directs the Entrepreneurial Agriculture Program at the Michigan Land Use Institute. A fellow with the Food and Society Policy Fellows program, she also works nationally to communicate the need and opportunity for building a new good-food system. Reach her at pattycatmlui.org.

This article will also appear in the inaugural, March 15 edition of Edible Grande Traverse, a new quarterly publication dedicated to transforming how northwest Michigan shops for, cooks, and thinks about food.

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