Thursday, May 30, 2013

Food with a Face: Community Supported Agriculture by Hayley J.

What comes to mind upon hearing the word “vegetable”? Many people’s thoughts fly straight to the produce aisle, to one-serving packages of baby carrots, pre-washed bags of spring salad greens, and cartons of jumbo strawberries. They envision the clinical lights of the produce section, but never the hands that carefully transplanted the seedlings, weeded for days on end, and prayed for germination. Farms, and farmers, have slipped out of our lives and onto the pages of children’s storybooks, destroying the connection between consumers and their food. “As farming becomes more and more remote from the life of the average person,” Suzanne DeMuth writes, “it becomes less and less able to provide us with clean, healthy, life-giving food, or a clean, healthy, life-giving environment” (DeMuth).
In a world dominated by industrialized agribusinesses, many worry that small farms will capsize, and with them any hope of sustainable, seasonal produce making its way to the everyday consumer. For those who want to “create a direct relationship between the production and consumption of food” by partnering with local farms, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) might be the answer (“Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition”). Margot Roosevelt of TIME Magazine defines CSA as “farms that sell shares of their harvest in advance directly to the consumer” (Roosevelt). Subscribers essentially trade out their visits to the produce aisle for a weekly box of vegetables from a local farm.

CSA benefits the community in a variety of ways, from allowing farmers to sustainably grow a variety of crops to strengthening the producer-consumer relationship (“Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition”). Subscribers who support local agriculture become healthier, more knowledgeable, and most importantly, more invested in the people who produce their food. Since the 1980s, entrepreneurs like Lyn Jacobs and Juvencio Argueta have been reconnecting average citizens with seasonal, local produce, one beet at a time.
*   *   *
Thirty minutes outside Portland, the maze of big-box stores melts into a hazy patchwork of fields. Gravel roads meander across the countryside, bisecting the sea of crops that stretches into the distance. A few cows munch their cuds in a placid, sawing rhythm as they watch cars trundle through the mist. The occasional brick-red barn pops up on the horizon, its weathervane sputtering aimlessly in the breeze, but otherwise nothing mars the rolling hills of soil. It is not difficult to spot La Finquita del Buho, a three-acre plot of land anchored by a majestic marigold house, an ancient tractor, and a scattering of lawn chairs.

I tread hesitantly through the lettuce rows, searching for Lyn’s mop of brown and gray ringlets and her cheerful face. She hails me with a throaty shout from amongst the green beans, where she is busy securing fistfuls of the curly green pods to toss into a basket cradled at her waist. Her faded jeans, worn jacket, muddy boots, and blue work gloves serve not to impress, but to keep out the cold on this crisp October morning. Lyn looks as if she has recently been electrocuted. Her eyes spark with intelligence behind her wire-framed glasses, her hair frizzes in enthusiastic curls, and she imbues each movement with a lightning energy. She flashes an infectious smile and invites me to follow her as she harvests, batting away the attentions of a black-and-white, sway-hipped, bow-legged, entirely lovable dog named Pepito. Soon, two striped kittens, Rikki Tikki Timbo and Chang, slink out from under the pick-up truck. A perky tan-and-white dog called Ollie streaks out from behind the barn, and the regal ebony cat, Mulan, mewls her arrival. The animals trail behind Lyn like a furry entourage, whuffling and snuffling and purring their love.
How did a former medical student end up chest-deep in rows of green beans? Lyn met her husband Juvencio while serving in the Peace Corps in the Honduras, and the two eventually moved back to the states (Jacobs). She and Juvencio ultimately settled in Hillsboro, where Lyn started work at the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center in order to qualify for a National Health Service Corps scholarship. As for the origins of La Finquita del Buho, I had to ask her husband.
*   *   *
Juvencio pads across the field like one more friendly cat, wearing a navy blue Liberty High School sweatshirt and a pair of weathered gray rain boots. His hair remains glossy black, but crows’ feet perch at the corners of his eyes and mouth, etched into his skin by a lifetime of smiling. His face crinkles into a grin when he catches sight of us, and despite not having talked to me for twelve years, he envelops me in a gentle hug.
Juvencio leads me into the hulking barn, whose faded planks might have been red twenty years ago. Below the cavernous ceiling, vegetables tumble across a rough-hewn table like the aftermath of a cornucopia explosion. A basket loaded with leafy celery languishes next to scarlet bell peppers, barrels of small blushing apples, and several artfully arranged piles of gnarled, green-striped pumpkins. The musty scent of alliums drifts down from the loft, where braided ropes of garlic and onions have been laid out to dry. Straw crunches quietly beneath his boots as Juvencio settles himself onto an aged floral couch. As soon as he begins to talk, it is difficult not to close my eyes and simply let myself drift away in his lilting accent, still present after twenty-three years in the States.

Juvencio spent his childhood on a farm in the Honduras. “We used to work the farm for subsistence,” he says. “Whatever we grew, that’s what we had to eat . . . back in those days, I hated it” (Argueta). Relocating to Hillsboro, however, helped him discover a passion for horticulture through classes at Clackamas Community College. After securing a small plot in Helvetia, Lyn and Juvencio started planting the seeds that would lead to their CSA, La Finquita del Buho.

“We always had a dream of having the space for a big garden, but then we had enough space for a smaller farm . . . five friends wanted to get some produce,” Juvencio remembers. Although originally the couple had no plans to start a Community Supported Agriculture business, a CSA seemed inevitable as their vegetables flourished and neighbors expressed interest. Juvencio and Lyn opened La Finquita del Buho for business in 2000, and twelve years later, their farm provides enough produce to feed five hundred people.

The term CSA encompasses a variety of businesses, each offering specific products, providing for a certain audience, and requiring different levels of shareholder commitment. Farms range from subscription CSAs, where farmers and consumers partner for economic benefits and rarely come into contact, to CSAs that run on member participation (Henderson & Van En 7). Produce can be picked up on site, at farmers markets, or at neighborhood drop-off spots, depending on the CSA.

Some farms, like the Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, serve over three hundred members, have twelve pick-up locations, and grow fifty different vegetable varieties on as many acres (Gathering Together Farm). As a smaller farm, La Finquita del Buho works with seventy or fewer families, only offers farm pick-up, and encourages members to help harvest its three acres (“La Finquita del Buho”). Many CSAs include eggs, flowers, fresh bread, meat, cheese, and fruit, and some advertise extras such as pistachios, pickles, alpaca fibers, molasses, and emus (LocalHarvest). La Finquita del Buho sells free-range eggs, fresh-cut flowers, and Christmas wreaths in addition to twenty-nine weeks of seasonal fruits and vegetables.
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La Finquita del Buho belongs to a venerable line of community-supported initiatives. CSA originated in the 1960s, when Japanese women concerned about pesticides, over-consumption of processed foods, and a dwindling rural population, formed Teikei groups, partnerships with local farms for an annual subscription of vegetables (Roosevelt). These Teikei, along with biodynamic farms in Germany and Switzerland, served as models for CSA in the U.S. (“Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition”). The pioneers of the CSA movement in North America, Temple Wilton Farm in New Hampshire and Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts, inspired CSAs across the country and still operate today. Portland’s earliest CSAs started in the early 1990s, and a 2008 survey found that eighteen farms each sold from three shares to four hundred shares within city limits (“Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition”).

Starting a CSA wasn’t a walk in the park for the couple, Juvencio explains. On top of figuring out crop cultivation in the clay-like Helvetian soil, establishing a healthy flock of goats, and deciphering the economics of a CSA, they had to care for three young children, Jacob, Diego, and Eva Luna. Lyn was working full time at Virginia Garcia, so Juvencio combined childcare with farm work, teaching the kids how to milk goats and pick green beans. “I exposed my kids to whatever I was doing . . . it was work but at the same time it was fun” (Argueta).

Everybody in the family pitches in to keep La Finquita del Buho’s cogs turning smoothly. Lyn practices as a full-time OBGYN for the Hillsboro Latino community, but when she’s not at the clinic, she can be found cutting lettuces, weaving flower wreaths, shuttling to and from the Farmers Market with her plant starts, or planning elaborate celebrations like the seasonal canning party. Eva Luna cares for the menagerie of cats, dogs, and goats. Fifteen-year-old Diego pauses in his garlic seeding to rescue the unfortunate goat whose horns tangled in a fence.
“It’s a lot of hard work, and if you don’t work every day putting something into it, then you won’t have it.” Every day Juvencio wakes up early to move the chicken tractor to a fresh patch of grass, feed the livestock, milk the goats, make cheese, till the vegetable beds, weed, fertilize, and harvest when necessary. He shakes his head with a wry laugh. “The whole day is too short to do all the things . . . no insomnia for me!” (Argueta).
*   *   *
Out in the field, Lyn elaborates on the challenges that CSA start-ups face. “Learning how to grow for twenty-nine weeks, when to plant things, not putting all your eggs in one basket.” She describes setbacks with barely-subdued excitement. “Pests of all shapes and sizes will knock out an entire crop – this year we had the worst infestation of cucumber beetles! One year all of our tomatoes died.” She pauses for emphasis, and, seeing that I don’t understand the gravity of the situation, presses, “Can you imagine a year without tomatoes?”

When community members sign up for a share, they accept the risk that the butternut squash might rot or that the asparagus might not germinate properly. Their money allows farmers to buy seeds, fuel, replacement parts, and irrigation materials so as to be well prepared for the growing season ahead, but there is always the possibility that the crops will fail (Roosevelt).  “The biggest risk is not being able to provide what you said you would,” Juvencio says.

Family upheaval, poor budgeting, and crop failure can bring a CSA to its knees (McFadden). Erin Barnett, the direct of the CSA-promoting organization, warns that, “to plant in succession the right amount of food in the right variety to be harvestable on a schedule that provides a weekly basket that’s not too little or too much requires a high level of skill” (Sturrock). Many operations, such as Singer Hill, buckle under the stress. The Milwaukee-based CSA shut down abruptly in 2011 after predators devoured half their hens, an owner entered the hospital, and the farm exceeded its tight budget (Sturrock). Their closing left 120 subscribers with no squash, no communication, and no refund. As Carrie Sturrock of Willamette Week writes, “investors face greater risk when they pay for a season’s worth of food up front” (Sturrock).
Despite the risks, many believe that CSA’s benefits are worth the gamble. When shareholders subscribe to a CSA, they gain exposure to fresh, diverse vegetables and forge a strong relationship with local farmers (Alternative Farming Systems Information Center). They learn to eat seasonally, locally, organically, and healthfully, planning their menus according to the week’s selection (Argueta). This drastic change from a grocery store list can throw first-time subscribers for a loop.

While many people were eager to join La Finquita del Buho, a few couldn’t handle the mountains of produce provided. “Some people had twenty-seven weeks of beets that were rotting in their fridge!” Lyn stops for a moment to mourn the waste of vegetables, popping a green bean in her mouth as she does so. “It’s a learning process – it’s very different from going to the market and buying what you want and planning your meals from there – you get this basket of vegetables, and you plan your week from there.”

Shareholders must adjust to seasonal offerings, whether it be an onslaught of fennel or Swiss chard. “People want variety, and that’s what they have to get used to . . . they get tired of tomatoes, and I’m like, ‘What? You cannot get tired of a tomato! Next week you won’t have them again until July!’” Many families develop a taste for their bok choy and brussels sprouts and learn how to wrangle their weekly boxes.  “They love to eat locally, they love to eat seasonally, they love to eat the variety . . . People say, ‘I never would have bought that radish in the market, but I tried it and it was delicious’” (Jacobs).  Exploring each box packed with seasonal produce has become a celebration for some. “A lot of people view it like Easter every week” (Jacobs).

The relationship between consumers and farmers is mutually beneficial. With community support, small farmers like Juvencio can afford to cultivate multiple heirloom varieties that might otherwise go extinct due to the demand for attractive, bruise-resistant produce (Roosevelt). They also don’t have to expend as much energy on direct marketing or grooming vegetables to meet stringent supermarket appearance standards. Up-front cash from subscriptions allows Juvencio to pay for seeds, farm equipment, property taxes, and insurance, helping him to start the growing season (Argueta). To provide further support, small CSAs frequently band together to create a more diverse weekly box and fill in for each other in case the brussels sprouts don’t germinate (McFadden).
*   *   *
From an environmental standpoint, CSA conserves resources and allows for higher-quality produce. U.S.-grown food, on average, travels about 1500 miles to its ultimate destination and doesn’t reach the grocery store for four to seven days after it has been harvested (Roosevelt). This system not only consumes vast quantities of fossil fuels, but also leads to flavorless, nutrient-leached fruits and vegetables commonly grown with pesticides (Roosevelt). CSA saves energy by selling crops locally to preserve the vegetables’ integrity, and, unlike vast industrial farms, the majority of CSAs are pesticide-free (DeMuth).

Juvencio and his family are willing to put in the effort required to show that small, local farms are better for the community than industrial agribusinesses. “The only way they know how to farm is using a lot of chemicals and a giant piece of land,” he points out. “I see myself like an example of what you can do on a small scale, and how to produce good-quality food without using chemicals.” The livestock’s manure fertilizes the crops, the crops feed the shareholders, and the leftover vegetable peelings go straight back to the goats or to the food bank. In order to reduce waste, a chicken tractor shuttles to a different patch of grass every day, letting the poultry devour insects and enrich the surrounding soil. Over the years, Juvencio says, “We learned we needed to have a circle of life.”
Despite Lyn and Juvencio’s sustainable practices, La Finquita del Buho, like countless other small farms, is not certified organic (Jacobs). Lyn bristles at the current certification procedures and the steep price. “I think it’s ridiculous to have to fill out all the paperwork … I am not going to spend $600 a year just to have them come out here and certify us organic!” Unlike large organic companies, which, as Lyn maintains, “are no better in a lot of ways than a lot of big industrial farms,” Lyn can hand members a bell pepper and show them where it was grown, how it was fertilized, and when it was harvested, often down to the hour.
*   *   *
Donna, a neighbor swaddled in an orange fleece and funky red, white, and blue-patterned rain boots, wanders up the road to help pick green beans. Her eight-year relationship with La Finquita del Buho began with an appetizer. “Someone brought a salad to our house made of only vegetables from here,” she gestures at the greenhouses. “You could taste them, instead of just water that was crunchy.” Donna walks down to the farm every weekend to sift through the rainbow of available vegetables and compile her weekly box, usually accompanied by her children. “I love bringing the kids out here, letting them run around with the goats and the cows.” Donna goes home with a heap of fresh green beans, cauliflower, sweet peppers, broccoli, kale, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, onions, pineapple tomatillos, and a bonus pumpkin.

Educating the community, especially children, about farming is Lyn’s favorite part of the job. “It’s an opportunity for young people to harvest, to transplant, to see that radishes don’t grow in bunches” (Jacobs). A local preschool owns a weekly share and brings the students out every week to help collect eggs and admire goats, whereas other CSAs conduct field trips, site visits, and summer camps. Families often take their children when they come to collect their boxes, and the kids learn that vegetables don’t just come waxed and plastic-wrapped in big-box stores. Jeremy N. Smith writes that, “Seeing how food is grown firsthand give students a direct connection between agriculture and their everyday lives, and gets kids excited about healthy, nutritious food” (Smith). In a way, La Finquita’s value lies less in its carrots and more in its capacity to educate the next generation. The farm strives not only to provide local vegetables, but also to revolutionize the way people connect with their food. “I love hearing stories of people and how it changes their lives,” Lyn says.

Juvencio sums up his farm’s effect on the surrounding area in a few words. “The community is more aware of good food, fresh food, local food . . . it makes people more conscious about eating healthy.” La Finquita del Buho motivates Oregonians to embrace local, seasonal eating with its welcoming atmosphere and brilliant vegetables. While Lyn might worry about “young people starting farming, how they think it’s too much work,” Juvencio believes that CSA will inspire kids and teens. “We have a lot of kids that come, a lot of kids that are curious and interested” (Jacobs). The couple have introduced many to the joys of fresh produce, and in doing so have developed a relationship with their shareholders. Over the past thirteen years, Lyn says, “A lot of people have become our friends . . . we’ve built a community.” At the last harvest party, over three hundred people enjoyed a tour of the farm, along with traditional Mexican dancing, wood-fired pizza, cider pressing, Salvadoran pupusas, and Swiss alp horns. Such a friendly, eclectic group would never congregate at the local Safeway.
Juvencio solemnly presents me with his parting gift, a bulbous cauliflower harvested that morning. Its creamy, tightly packed florets glisten with dew, a world away from the platters of lifeless crudités to which I am accustomed. Later, while savoring forkfuls of roasted cauliflower, I close my eyes and recall the inquisitive goats, the tangles of curly green beans, Lyn’s electric eyes, and Juvencio’s smile. Their devotion and passion translate directly to my plate, and I finally understand the meaning of “food with the farmer’s face on it” (Smith). While life’s breakneck speed demands cheap, low-hassle, frozen peas and carrots, food means more to me than its price tag or its five-minute prep time. Food is not simply a source of fuel, to be wolfed down and forgotten, but a divine convergence of farmer, consumer, and flavor. I will not deny myself this experience by relegating myself to pre-shredded carrots produced by a faceless corporation. From now on, I will pause for a moment to savor the crunch of a juicy bell pepper, the caramelized crust of a roasted sweet potato, and the tender, plump stalks of spring asparagus. I will appreciate each meal as a gift from the people who poured their souls into its creation.

Works Cited
Argueta, Juvencio. Personal Interview. 27 Oct. 2012.
“Community Supported Agriculture.” LocalHarvest. LocalHarvest, Inc., 2011. Web. 27 Oct.

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