|By Mary Karish
Chip Johnson stands in the field eying the clouds gathering on the horizon. Heavy rains and high winds are forecast for later in the day. The ground is still saturated from the showers the night before. He needs to finish harvesting vegetables for his Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), otherwise the radishes will taste like mush if they go through another round of showers. He kneels unfazed in the mud and picks the carrots along the first row of neatly planted fall vegetables in preparation for the weekly produce delivery.
Helotes Farm is a CSA located in the gently rolling hills near San Antonio. Chip has been farming it since 2011. In his previous life, he was an accountant for 15 years. He slowly had realized that the corporate world had failed to inspire him or give him a sense of purpose. He retired from his accounting career and pursued farming through on-the-job learning. He currently farms four acres of land. Members of his CSA share the produce his farm grows.
CSA farming made its way to North America in the mid-1980s as part of the Biodynamic Agricultural movement. It was started in Europe by Dr. Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian writer and philosopher, in response to farmers’ concerns over failing crops (see Texas Gardener, May/June 2015 for additional information on Biodynamic Gardening).
At the beginning of the growing season, farmers and members agree to support one another. The farmer works the land, planting and harvesting. Members share the cost of running the farm and the risk of variable harvests. Crops that do well will be abundant and those that don’t will be scarce. Membership cost is paid in advance of the season to allow the farmer to purchase seeds, equipment or water up front, reducing dependence on banks or loans.
Farmers make a detailed plan of what they intend to grow each season and estimate cost in order to develop a budget that is then equally divided among members. Shares are distributed on a weekly basis at specific drop locations within the city or collected at the farm. Most CSA programs provide a variety of vegetables, fruits or herbs. Some provide additional shares of eggs, meat, farm products and dairy through a collaboration of several farms.
According to the 2012 census of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, out of the 12,617 CSA programs, 590 operate in Texas. It is a reflection of the growing number of people who are concerned about where their food comes from, how it is grown and by whom.
Christine, a farmer with Plant It Forward, positions herself behind her produce table grinning with pride at the Katy Farmers Market. She is waiting for her CSA members to pick up their produce share for that week and is selling her abundant crops to customers who frequent the market on Saturdays.
Plant It Forward is a non-profit organization based in Houston. It offers refugees granted asylum in the United States an opportunity to earn a livelihood in farming. Christine and Elody are from Congo, and both were farmers in their home country, growing crops such as cassava, beans and cocoa. Refugees often flee their home country because of continuous violence and persecution. They may endure extreme hardship for several years before they manage to start a new life. Plant It Forward provides refugees (with prior farming experience in their home country) one year of training in farming and business assistance to set up their own CSA.
Each farmer is given three-quarter of an acre to farm. The land is often donated by churches or universities. Family members help in planting, harvesting and selling the produce. Plant It Forward currently has 250 customers who have signed up for the fall-growing season. Each member receives six to eight varieties of produce each week, which is sufficient to feed a family of four.
CSA is not about cheap food that has zero nutritional value or grown loaded with pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. CSA is about being responsible for one another and for the land that sustains all of us. The guiding question that Steven McFadden posed in Farms of Tomorrow is not “how do we increase profits?” but rather “what are the actual needs of the land and of the people involved in this enterprise?”
CSA gives the consumer the freedom to choose how the food is grown and to reconnect with the rhythms of nature by eating seasonally-grown produce. It encourages awareness of how our actions affect the quality of the soil and how what we place in it has a direct impact on our health. The soil is regarded as a living organism that requires nurturing. Although less than 1 percent of our population is engaged in farming, it remains our responsibility to safeguard how the land is treated.
Tony Koch, a fifth-generation farmer in Medina County, operates a family-run full CSA at Koch Ranches, an enterprise that has existed for seven generations. It started out as a cattle ranch and after several years progressed into providing not only grass-fed meat and chicken but also fruits, vegetables, local raw honey and dairy products.
Koch CSA grows more than 75 different types and varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs. Their CSA program runs over a 10-week period with a total of five seasons per year. Family members take off two weeks during the holiday season in December to spend time with one another. “I am blessed I live in this area,” said Tony. “Our soil is sandy loam and we have access to irrigation through the Edwards aquifer.”
Tony attributes the fertile soil to his family’s stewardship of the land. Every season, the Koch farmers use manure their cattle provide to fertilize the soil. The composted manure not only helps grow the fields where their cattle graze, but also provides nutrients for the gardens. “The farm is a closed circle, nothing is wasted and nothing is added,” he said. His vision is to “pass the ranch to my kids and grandkids, just like my forefathers had done.”
CSA programs are not just about vegetables. They are about building communities, where members not only share the harvest but also responsibility for their environment and its impact on their social surroundings.
At Helotes Farm, for example, Chip sends out a weekly online newsletter to the members letting them know what is going on at the farm and what is being planned for the future. Members also use the newsletter to share recipes, communicate about common interests or concerns and organize social events.
A-day-at-the-farm event at Helotes Farm allows members to meet one another and provides an opportunity for children to learn about farming and how vegetables grow. “Children are amazed when they learn how long it takes for an onion to mature,” Chip said. “They come assuming vegetables grow overnight. When organizing farm visits, children learn what it takes to nurture an onion that you plant in October and harvest in April.”
The connection between a farmer and members is continuously strengthened. Members with Plant It Forward CSA are encouraged to visit their farmer and lend a hand during planting and harvesting. “Members not only volunteer, but also learn how to grow a garden,” said Kassy Rodriguez, farm share program manager at Plant It Forward.
Volunteering is also open to the public. According to Kassy, “Volunteers are provided with a brief orientation session before being paired up with a farmer. Organizations or companies frequently contact Plant It Forward to arrange for a volunteer day. A successful CSA relies on public support and involvement of its members.”
At Helotes Farm, volunteers get a portion of the harvest as compensation for their contributions. Chip believes that, “when a volunteer gets a share of the produce, the volunteer develops a sense of pride for being a part of the growing and harvesting process, and learns to appreciate the effort it takes to maintain a farm.” Sometimes, people passing by his farm are driven by curiosity and stop to find out what he is doing. Often, they sign up as apprentices.
CSA programs are not without their share of challenges. Farmers often confront situations that are out of their control. For example, one fall, after Chip planted 120 broccoli seedlings, he lost them after an unexpected cold snap. Although broccoli is a cool-season vegetable, it is a finicky plant that does not like sudden temperature drops.
The weather in Texas provides a narrow planting window. Overnight the weather can change from spring to summer. Rainstorms can push back the planting schedule, drought can stress plants, unexpected freezes can kill seedlings and deer can devour all the foliage. Despite these challenges, farmers continue to tend the land on behalf of CSA members, accepting the seasonal changes and understanding that the Earth is a living being to be respected and nurtured.
The other challenge facing farmers, is between-season harvests. Vegetables do not mature according to a set calendar. Growth is affected by several factors, such as soil temperature, number of sunny days and planting time. Some CSA programs manage to supplement the shortage with other products made by neighboring farms, such as fermented vegetables or honey. However, this resource is not available to many CSA, and members understand that nature makes its own schedule.
According to the Biodynamic Association, more than 1 million acres of farmland is lost each year to urban development in the United States, and the average age of the remaining farmers is over 50. Although weather and space availability play a role in shaping the growth rate of CSA programs, consumer awareness of seasonal produce remains a major determinant.
Watermelon may find its way in grocery stores in the middle of December after having travelled thousands of miles and grown using toxic methods. Aside from lacking any nutritional value, the bland taste is guaranteed to disappoint you. Contrast that with a watermelon picked at the peak of its season in the summer, with the juicy, sweet taste teasing your palate and quenching your thirst on a hot afternoon. Only then can you will know the distinct intoxicating deliciousness of seasonal produce.
Local farmers are small business owners. Using your money to support them is mindfully supporting their viability and protecting your environment. It is ensuring that you eat produce grown using sustainable methods, and guaranteeing that you and your children are getting the freshest, most nutritionally available produce. CSAs are also a great way to nurture communities, to build a direct connection with the farms and to appreciate seasonal availability. To find a CSA in your area or to volunteer, access the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) national farm database.