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Local Farming Changes Food Markets

July 3, 2002

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ In Japan, it’s called ``teikei″ and means ``putting the farmers’ face on food.″

In California, the moniker is Community Supported Agriculture, and Jeanne Byrne is the farmer whose boxes of fruits and vegetables are delivered each week to hundreds of customers who pay in advance for homegrown produce.

Byrne and her husband Stephen Pedersen are co-owners of Two Small Farms in Watsonville, which has grown in two years to more than 600 ``shareholders″ who ``invest″ $829 each for 36 weeks of fresh produce and flowers.

The business model is an alternative not only to large-scale farming, but also to farmer’s markets, another way that small family farms get by.

``The CSA has several advantages over farmer’s markets; for example you get the money up front,″ said Byrne. ``The big thing that’s different is that everything you pick is sold.″

Originating in Japan in the 1960s, subscription farming came to New England in 1986 and spread quickly. There are more than 70 programs in California, and more than 660 nationwide, according to localharvest.org, a not-for-profit networking venture that supports sustainable farming nationwide and maintains up-to-date listings of CSAs in each state.

``I see them popping up very often,″ said Karrie Stevens, Sacramento Valley Coordinator for The Community Alliance for Family Farms.

Byrne and Pedersen joined their farm, High Ground Organics, last year with Mariquita, also in Watsonville, to form Two Small Farms, a large operation by CSA standards, with more than 40 acres.

Farms run by one family and a few hired hands may find it hard to deal with large numbers of subscribers. Then again, most such operations grow gradually, and the consumer prepayments provide reliable funds for hiring more workers, or acquiring more land and equipment.

``Originally, people got excited about it and said, ’Hey, screw the middleman,‴ said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz.

Many soon learned that having subscribers alone aren’t enough for a small farm to survive. Other moneymakers include U-pick harvests, farm stands, farmers’ markets and agricultural tourism.

``I see CSA’s as part of a good diversification strategy,″ Scowcroft said.

Two Small Farms sells at a farmer’s market in San Francisco, among other places, to help make ends meet.

``We didn’t lose money last year, but we didn’t make as much as we need to pay our mortgage,″ Byrne said.

But there are other benefits _ advocates say smaller farms with diverse crops take less of a toll on the land than large corporate farms, which depend more on fertilizer and pesticides to grow single crops over hundreds of acres.

``You don’t need a huge amount of space to grow enough food for a community,″ said Aaron Hulme of the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association in San Francisco.

Many customers also like getting to know the farmers, and the trust that comes from knowing where their food comes from.

``In the market system there is a breakdown of awareness between the people consuming and the people creating. In a CSA that relationship is made whole again,″ said Steven Decater, whose Live Power Community Farm in Covelo, the oldest in California, has grown to 170 members since 1988.

The arrangements aren’t for everyone. Many customers find that they can’t use all the food they get, or tire of getting, say, another cabbage every week. Some don’t want to prepay for their food.

But many eventually find an operation that allows them to customize orders, or otherwise fit their needs.

``You can get a pretty small share for a fairly good price. There’s a share size for almost everybody,″ Stevens said.

Some customers see CSA programs as a novelty, as an incentive to cook more, or as a way to support their communities. Stevens says she joined for convenience.

``As a professional who doesn’t have the time to go to a grocery store it’s nice to have food delivered,″ Stevens said.

For people in New York City and other urban areas, these farms can provide a low-cost way of getting produce that’s fresher than what’s available at the corner store, especially in low-income areas.

``In many neighborhoods it is literally people’s only access to fresh vegetables,″ said Ruth Katz, executive director of Just Food, a nonprofit promoting community-supported farms delivering produce to New York City.

More than anything, CSA farmers and customers see the farms as a way for communities to support each other and better manage resources.

``I think that there is growing evidence that corporate agriculture has not taken care of our food resources,″ Decater said. ``I see the CSA as a way of creating an agriculture that can truly take care of the Earth.″


On the Net:

High Ground Organics: http://www.highgroundorganics.com

Local Harvest: http://www.localharvest.org

Center for CSA Resources: http://www.csacenter.org

New York CSA group: http://www.justfood.org

CSA resource list: http://www.umass.edu/umext/csa

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