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CSAs: Organic Gardening Farmers Produce for You

If you’re one of the growing number of people worried about the taste, nutritional quality and safety of produce in your neighborhood supermarket, you may have been tempted to start your own organic vegetable garden, or buy your fruits and vegetables at the local farm stand.

The CSA Movement

Another alternative is quickly becoming popular among Puget Sound farms and fans of healthful food: Community Supported Agriculture. CSAs, as the participating farms are called, can bring you into much closer contact with the food you eat, providing a steady stream of high-quality produce throughout the growing season. Visit this site for more information on organic gardening.

It’s a movement that is being hailed as a win-win for customers who want to eat fresh, nutritious, organic foods and the small farms that grow it. It’s also touted as providing a community-oriented alternative to impersonal, big-business farming.

By buying a share in a CSA for $200 to $500, you can enjoy a bag or two of delicious, fresh-picked organic vegetables and herbs, and sometimes fruits, each week for the entire growing season. You can also play a vital role in supporting small farms that use environmentally friendly techniques.

"I think that people like knowing where their food is coming from, and how it is grown," says Seattle Tilth’s Lisa Taylor. "For many of them, the quality of the food is really important. They may be purchasing organic produce at PCC or one of the other markets, but they realize that there still really separated from their food."

Taylor maintains a list of local CSAs on the Internet. Right now, the list totals 30 farms. You can find it at: http://www.seattletilh.org, or call Seattle Tilth at 633-0451.

Nationally, there are more than 400 CSAs, primarily in the Northeast and Midwest, with a growing number on the West Coast. Developed in the 1960s in Japan and Europe, the CSA concept was first used in the United States in 1985 by Robyn Van En, a farmer in Massachusetts.

In the last several decades, farming has increasingly become the domain of huge agribusinesses that use unsustainable practices such as monoculture growing techniques (growing one crop repeatedly on the same piece of land) and the heavy use of chemicals to fight insects and other pests. Since the 1940s, the nutritional value of crops grown in the United States has declined as soil has become weaker.

CSAs have successfully marketed themselves to consumers who are worried about the heavy use of pesticides, sprays and waxes--and the lack of freshness--typically found in supermarket produce. CSAs also appeal to people who support sustainable, Earth-friendly farming techniques that protect, instead of deplete, the soil, and to those who want to support locally based farmers.

Early in the year, people sign up with a local CSA. They pay a subscription fee, which might range from about $150 to $500, depending on the farm and the size of the share. Each week, shareholders pick up produce at the farm, or at a designated pick-up location. This goes on for the entire growing season, which typically lasts five or six months. Produce varies according to the time of year.

Customers find many advantages to subscribing to a CSA

One of the most obvious benefits is getting fresh produce. Food First, an organization supporting CSAs in the San Francisco area, reports that the average produce in a supermarket is seven to 14 days old and has traveled 1,500 environmentally expensive miles, losing much of its nutrition and taste along the way. CSA produce, on the other hand, is usually picked no more than one day prior to customer pick-up or delivery--and often on the same day.

Members of a CSA often find they feel closer to their food and community. They may develop ties with their local farmer, stopping by to see the crops grow.

"As a subscriber, you can see exactly how the land is being treated," says Martha Goodlett, who runs Goodlett Farms, a CSA in Seattle. "You know the people. And you’re more in touch with the cycles of the seasons."

"A lot of farms have open houses or harvest fairs," adds Taylor. "They might have a big strawberry festival for a weekend, and have people come up and help pick the strawberries."

Farmers also find many advantages to Community Supported Agriculture

The money raised by subscriptions helps CSAs avoid taking out loans, which many small farms must do to pay for seeds, fertilizer and equipment. Shareholders also help some of the farmer’s risk. Since the members essentially own the produce in the farmer’s field, the farmer doesn’t need to purchase expensive crop insurance, because the loss is spread out among the subscribers.

Community Supported Agriculture also eliminates the need for a middleman, meaning more money goes to the farm. Food First reports that since 1981, more than 620,000 productive farms (20 percent of the total) have been forced to sell out, unable to compete with large-scale conventional farms. Under the conventional market system, only 25 cents of every food dollar goes to farmers. With CSAs, the entire dollar goes to the farmer.

Some CSAs across the country play additional roles in their communities by hiring homeless workers and providing skills training for underprivileged young people. (See below for one local example.)


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CSAs Spark Model for Community Activism

This summer, 14 Vietnamese people living in low-income housing in Seattle’s Rainier Valley neighborhood are putting CSA principles to work. In the process, the seven families hope to make a little money, build community and provide fresh, organic produce to as many as 30 subscribers in the Seattle area.

If successful, the program--now in its second year--will be offered to other low-income communities in Seattle.

The program, called Cultivating Communities, is sponsored by the Seattle Housing Authority, the City of Seattle P-Patch garden program and Earth Ministry. It’s directed by Martha Goodlett, who also operates Goodlett Farms, a Seattle CSA. Goodlett says there is a natural connection between the principles of CSA and local activism.

"Because CSAs have been so successful in the mainstream, this was seen as a way to help low-income people," she says.

Goodlett says she’s involved, in part, because the program helps participants build community pride. The farmers get to know each other well, and they learn how to run a successful business.

"The farmers are really happy to please their customers. That’s what they really talk about all the time," she says.

The Sunrise Gardens are located along the eastern edge of the Rainier Vista housing project. Families garden on four plots a piece, each about 30 or 40 feet long and a few feet wide.

One of the challenges for the Vietnamese gardeners is to learn how to grow plants and vegetables in a new climate. They have to learn to deal with novel things such as frost and with American tastebuds. Last year, they emphasized exotic Asian greens. But after finding out that Americans didn’t know what to do with the greens, they decided to grow more traditional American produce this season.

"This community consists of a very high percentage of Vietnamese people," Goodlett says. "A lot of families are in transition. They’ve arrived here, and now they must learn the language."

Loi Hoang is an especially active gardener. Retired, he has plenty of time to putter around the yard, and even built a makeshift greenhouse to protect his plants from the cold early in the season.

He spent 40 years as a commercial fisherman in North Vietnam; at one point, the 72-year-old owned three fishing boats. He has 10 children and more than 30 grandchildren, many of whom still live in Vietnam. He moved to the United States with several family members in 1984 seeking a better life.

These days, he spends much of his time tending to the garden outside the Rainier Vista Seattle Housing Authority house in which he, his wife and a 25-year-old relative live. He takes great pride in his work, and warmly offers a visitor a bag full of fresh mustard greens. His wife adds a bag of mint. His son says the work is great exercise for his father.

While families enjoy the extra income their work brings, that’s just an extra bonus, says Goodlett.

"Each family has its own challenges with work. This is strictly part-time work, and supplemental income," she says. Each family will strive to make more than $1,000 off their produce.

After the farmers have met the needs of their customers, they are free to use remaining produce for their families and friends.

"This project is helping people in this community connect with each other," says Goodlett. "That’s the most important thing."

Goodlett added that organizers are planning to start up a CSA at Holly Park, a Seattle low-income housing neighborhood. Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and East Africans are expected to participate.

By Cameron Woodworth