Thursday, May 17, 2012

CSA Farming: It’s a Tricky Game By Hannah H.

        The name Lazy Parrot is not what one would expect of a fully operative, hard-working, and well run Community Supported Agriculture farm (CSA), but that is just one of the many things which makes that farm special. According to farm operator and head farmer Alix Eastman, the land owner, Rick Leatherman, came up with the name because they live on Parrot Mountain. There’s a sign hanging in the barn that says ‘Lazy Parrot Ranch’ and “We just kinda liked the name!” Eastman says with a laugh while driving us out to her garden in her golf cart.
         When I arrived at Lazy Parrot on one of the first cold mornings of the year, Eastman greeted me already fully submerged in the morning’s work. She was dressed in clothes that were meant to get dirty: tough brown pants, thick coats, and rubber boots. Eastman, who looks to be in her mid twenties to early thirties, only started farming her CSA this year, but says she has been gardening for “three years in one shape or another...” She attended Princeton University where she majored in psychology and minored in the study of women and gender. “It’s kind of funny for a Princetonian to end up farming, but I love it!” she says with a laugh. When she graduated from college she was interested in the wine industry. “I like wine, I like business...[but] I wanted to grow more than just grapes so I thought why not try [CSA] on for size?” Eastman is very positive and low key; she loves talking and enjoyed having company in her garden, and almost every conversation returned to her reemphasizing her love of farming. Her passion and care that she puts into her work show a commitment to her farm. “I never want to give it up,” she says...

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         Community supported agriculture, more commonly known as CSA farming, is an increasingly popular way of farming in which, upon signing up with a local farm, consumers will receive one basket every week which is full of in-season produce (typically vegetables, but every farm is unique and has different offerings). CSA farming is a way in which people can not only eat healthier, but feel good about supporting their local economy (LocalHarvest). Back when America was still a farming society, people always knew where there food came from, but now with the global market economy shipping food around the world, many people have become ignorant about how far their food has traveled and where it was grown. Local food is much healthier, both for the consumer and for the environment, because it hasn’t encountered preservatives or been shipped long distances. As people become aware of what they’re eating and where it’s from, they start to have better diets because they will tend to eat local, fresher foods that have more vitamins and nutrients than foods that have been shipped long distances; also the pollution from shipping foods will be reduced because the demand for foods from far away will go down as people chose to eat local foods (Brad’s Produce).
         Although the benefits of CSA farming which the consumer receives are fairly obvious, the farmer also has tremendous benefits in the process.  One such benefit, which almost seemed to be the most important to Eastman, was the community piece of the system. Eastman loves getting to know her clients and seeing how much they enjoy the fruits of her labor. Another benefit is that this type of farming isn’t just about farming. The farmers are running their own business and they need to market their produce in order to gain customers, so the farmers also get marketing and business experience along with the obvious farming experience (LocalHarvest). A third major benefit is that the customers pay for everything at the beginning of the season, so the farmer gets his or her pay early (LocalHarvest).
         Although CSA farming originated in Japan in the 1960’s and spread throughout Europe, it was only introduced to the United States in 1986 after a trip to Switzerland by Jan Vandertuin who brought the idea back with him (Brad’s Produce). CSA has become widely popular in the within the last twenty years due to an increase in the awareness of unsustainability in the shipping of food around the globe and the health benefits of eating local organic foods. CSA farming has had a huge impact, such a huge impact that in fact there is a greater demand for CSA farms than there are actual farms to meet that demand. Countless farms have sprouted up all around the US following the trend (LocalHarvest), but countless isn’t just a figure of speech here. The government does not track CSA farms but “Data collected in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that 12,549 farms in the United States reported marketing products through a community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangement” (United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Library).
         There are a few different models of CSA farming, but:
                  “Here are the basics: a farmer offers a certain number of "shares" to the public. Typically a share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share (aka a "membership" or a "subscription") and in return receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season” (“Community Supported Agriculture” LocalHarvest).
From those basic principles stem a few different styles of farms. One such style is the ‘mix-and-match’ or ‘market-style’ farm. In this model, instead of having one standard box that gets delivered to all the consumers each week, the consumers can choose from the farm’s weekly offerings to create their own individualized baskets. Some farmers allow total freedom on basket creation, while others put limitations on how many of each item consumers are able to take. “Although CSAs take many forms, all have at their center a shared commitment to building a more local and equitable agricultural system, one that allows growers to focus on land stewardship and still maintain productive and profitable small farms” (DeMuth).
         The ideal season for a CSA starts in late May/early June and goes through early November (20-22 weeks), but the past two years have had such a wet spring that farmers have had a lot of difficulty keeping the season going and many farmers have had to partner with other CSAs in order to get the most to their customers (Eastman). The morning I visited Eastman was the last harvest and delivery day of the season for her farm. She had planned on getting two more weeks out of the garden, but, “We’re at the mercy of mother nature” she explained, and mother nature has not been kind these past two years. The weather turned cold fairly early this year, which greatly slowed the growing process, causing Eastman to have to skip the previous week’s delivery due to lack of produce to fill the baskets. But the week I visited her farm had to be the last week, and even after skipping the previous week there wasn’t much to fill the baskets with: pumpkins (many still green), a few got a head of lettuce, some got leaks, mixed greens, a few got a cauliflower, red carrots, peppers, brussel sprouts, and parsley. This seems like a lot, but when split between all the shares, there was not much to go around.
         While the classic CSA farm is mainly vegetables, there are CSA farms that also sell a wide variety of other products such as fruits, meats, eggs, milk, cheeses, flowers, honey, breads, and other farmed products to go along with their veggies. If farms have these other offerings it may be an extra fee to subscribe to those extra products. Some farms have special offerings during the year, such as Eastman’s farm which sells eggs throughout the season but also has other specials such as chickens and pigs, preserves, and Eastman’s homemade zucchini salsa, which is one of the most popular things her farm offers (she gave me a jar when I visited her farm, and I can truthfully say that it was some of the best salsa I have ever tasted). Some people have started to operate non-vegetable and sometimes even non- produce CSAs where they just sell homemade goods and flowers. Some farms choose to team up with other farms in order to offer the widest variety of products to the consumers, especially when there are a number of small farms near each other each specializing in one area (i.e. one that sells vegetables, another that sells fruits, and another that sells eggs and meats). There are even businesses opening up that deliver the boxes to the consumers from the farmers each week, which interrupts the direct contact between the farmer and the consumer.
         When asked what her biggest concern was and what she liked the least about CSA farming, Eastman hastily responded, “the unpredictability.” She went on to explain how mother nature causes countless problems, but seeing her sparse garden covered in a layer of frost and watching her scrounge the plants for any piece of produce that might be acceptably ripe is explanation enough. Even knowing how much to plant and what will grow where causes problems. “There are formulas out there,” Eastman explained, referring to formulas for how many seeds to plant for X number of people in location Y, “But you never know.” And even those aren’t the end of her worries; Eastman explained how not too long ago a nearby strawberry farmer’s customers got really sick. They figured out that deer had gotten into his fields and pooped on the berries, which caused everyone to become sick. While many people were up in arms over the farmer not realizing what had happened, many local farmers were sending out emails and rallying up support for the farmer saying that he didn’t mean for this to happen and that he needs to be supported by his peers. “Something like that could put a small farm out of business,” Eastman says sadly. “Its a tricky game,” she admits. “You never know.”
         One of the key pieces that make CSAs so special is that they are small, local farms run and worked by the farmers. Some farms are solely run by one farmer, while others have workers who are hired to help. “I try to bribe other people to come down,” Eastman says. “It makes a big difference because it’s all on the clock.” Sometimes her sister comes and helps her, and during the summer her fiancé helps her while he isn’t working, but almost all the work that the farm requires is done by Eastman. “It’s all about making it easy for you,” she explained while laying out the plastic bins she uses for her baskets in a circle right outside the garden. “I have a less than ideal system, but it works for me!” As she lays out the bins, I read the names on each one and notice that she has her own bin with Eastman scrawled on the end. I ask her about this and if she and her fiancé only eat produce from the garden or if they still buy produce from the store. She laughs and momentarily pauses before grabbing her gloves and clippers and gesturing for me to follow her through the gate and into the garden. “We buy a lot from the store, actually.” She explained, “In a normal year we’d be able to get a lot out of here, but not this year.” Due to the bad weather, everything had to go to the customers and because she and her fiancé love veggies so much they have had to buy them from the store. As she started examining the few plants still left in the garden, I asked her what she would do if she had extra produce. She explained that she’d like to donate the extra food, but she couldn’t do that this year because there was barely enough for her customers.
         Although this was the first year of this farm, Eastman isn’t sure she will be able to do it again next year. She and her fiancé are getting married next summer and will be gone for three weeks in Sweden, and while having a pet sitter is one thing while you’re gone, asking someone to run your CSA is an entirely different matter. But even knowing all that, she still wants to do it again, because she now has the system down and the farm set up. She explained how it is almost impossible to make money in the first year that a CSA is running because there are a lot of big one-time costs (for example, the green house that she bought). With everything going on and all the expenses that a farm requires, “To make money in all this is sorta a hard task,” Eastman explained almost embarrassedly. “It’s definitely a numbers game.” To explain what she meant by the numbers game, she relayed all the expenses that the chickens alone require. Eastman spends $180 every week and a half on chicken feed. “There’s a fine line between overfeeding and the opposite,” she explained. Her farm charges $4 for a dozen eggs, but the eggs aren’t organic and she says that she is still “Barely breaking even.” If the eggs were organic she’d have to charge $6 at least to just cut it, and the expenses to have organic eggs add up too quickly and just aren’t worth it for her.
         Eastman loves where she lives now and would love to continue living there so that she would keep her garden, but the apartment is very small for two people and a few dogs. She explained how she and her fiancé almost bought a house down the road and how they had worked out a deal with the Leathermans that if they did buy the house she could continue to run her CSA off their property. But the house had too many problems and would have been a project instead of an investment, and as first time home buyers, Eastman and her fiancé just couldn’t justify it. But Eastman also can’t imagine moving away from here current location, and can’t believe how lucky she is to have been able to live here. Growing up in California, she never got to experience the tranquility of being fully surrounded by the peaceful whispering of the wind through the tall pine trees and the joyous bird calls that are omnipresent in the country. While we talked about growing up in a place like this, Eastman had stopped picking and had seemed to come to a conclusion. “I look at kids like Paxton [Leatherman], and he’ll always have this. He’s so grounded and mature. He’s such a lucky kid. I want my kids to have the same experience.”
         Even with all the demands and worries that CSA farms put upon their farmers, there are many things to love about them too. When asked what her favorite thing about CSA farming was, Eastman had to take a minute and think. “Lets see...” She pondered, smiling and turning her eyes upward, momentarily pausing from picking. “I really enjoy the people. The community part of community supported agriculture is huge.” Eastman explained how her share holders will write her, telling her how CSA has changed their perspectives on foods and how much they love being a part of it, and on the flip side Eastman sends out weekly emails to customers with recipe ideas for the produce that was in that week’s boxes. She says that she loves watching people exchange their recipe ideas and what they used the different produce for each week while they’re picking up their boxes. “We’re spoiled,” Eastman admits. “Everyone should eat this way.” And although Eastman had a hard time placing a finger on exactly what it was she loved so much about CSA farming, she admitted “There’s something very rewarding about it.”
         As our talking slowed and I began to run out of questions, Eastman asked me if I wanted a ride back to the barn to get my car. But I was loving spending time outside in her company and decided that I would try to help her finish off her work. Eastman gladly accepted my offer when she realized I was serious about helping her, and I traded in my pencil and paper for a pair of work gloves. As we worked in the garden, Eastman began to ask me some questions too, about where I wanted to go to college, what I wanted to end up doing after college, and about my own interests. Every once in awhile she would give me a few pointers about what I was doing, but then the conversation would pick back up again. We spent about another half an hour to 45 minutes picking, talking, and packing the bins. I was sad to see when we had finished the bins and loaded them into her golf cart that there was no more work to be done, because I honestly had really enjoyed working with her.
         I went into this project not just because I was fascinated with community supported agriculture, but also because I am interested in starting my own CSA. After talking and working with Eastman, and seeing her love and passion for what she does, the whole idea of starting my own CSA, even if on a very small scale, has turned from being just an idea to something I really want to do. 

Works Cited
Brad's Produce. "CSA" CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Program Hartford Couty Maryland. Brad, 2010. Web. 1 Dec. 2011. <>.

"Community Supported Agriculture." LocalHarvest. LocalHarvest, Inc., 2011. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. <>.

"Community Supported Agriculture." United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Library. N.p., 5 May 2011. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. < afsic/pubs/csa/csa.shtml>.

Costa, Temra. Farmer Jane. Layton: Gibbs Smith, 2010. Print.

DeMuth, Suzanne. "Defining Community Supported Agriculture." Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): An Annotated Bibliography and Resource Guide. 1993. United States Department of Agriculture National Agriculture Library. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. <>.

Eastman, Alix. Personal interview. 23 Oct. 2011

Henderson, Elizabeth, and Robyn Van En. Sharing The Harvest: A Citizen's Guide to Community Supported Agriculture. Ed. Ben Watson. 2nd ed. 1943. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2007. Print.

Martinez, Steve, et al. Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues, ERR 97, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, May 2010.

Trauger M. Groh and Steven S.H. McFadden, Farms of Tomorrow. Community Supported Farms, Farm Supported Communities. Kimberton, PA: Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association, 1990. p. 6

"What is CSA." Just Food: CSA in NYC. Just Food, n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2011. <http://>.

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