Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Really, Real Food

About five years ago, I was stretched out on my couch late at night suffering with a bout of insomnia and dozing through several horrid old early 80's movies like they currently show on WGN. As I passed by PBS, I was caught by the image of an old man on tractor in Illinois plowing a flat, empty field. The narrator, son of the tractor-driver, spoke of the hardships of family farming in the midwest during the 70's and 80's. The show was called "The Real Dirt on Farmer John", the story of the Peterson family and their farm outside of Caledonia. I was riveted by this all-American family story and their struggle with independence and their passion for the land.
As the story turned into the 1990's, what happened next astounded me. Farmer John launched a new business model for his farm, the Community Supported Agriculture project (CSA). Basically, John turned his farm into an old-fashioned diversified organic farm, then sold shares of the crops to city folks in advance. Each week, "subscribers" received a bushel share of the crops that ripened during the growing season. Not only did the farm make out, by sharing the risk with the shareholders, but the consumers made out by getting fresh from the farm organic produce cheaper than they could get at the store. The whole idea excited me.

For more than two years following the airing of this show, I kept my eyes out for something similar in my area. Then, one day I saw the flier. Porter Farms had a CSA that delivered to my area. $350 for 22 weeks of fresh produce - usually around 10 lbs per week. Since then, I have found other types of CSAs including those that produce fruit and some even that provide meats and dairy. Now there is a whole website devoted to promoting CSAs nationwide.

Cheap, fresh produce alone sounds like a great deal, but it is more than that. We get more produce than our family typically eats in a week. So we make it our mission to work it into every meal. Only vegetables that are in season make it into the bag and we find ourselves feeling very connected to the growth cycles of our food in this way. Lettuces early on. Tomatoes in Augus. Squash and Cabbage in the fall. We get a newsletter every week with our food. I learned about the airborne fungus that wiped out cucumber crops across the northeast. I learned how the cold summer we had this year kept tomatoes from ripening and how most of their crop was lost.

We are connected to our food in a new way, and in some ways, we are more connected to our earth.

P.S. Earlier this year, I was given a book that really made me think about this idea of supporting local agriculture called Deep Economy by Bill McKibben. My recommendation is to skip the first chapter entirely. The rest reads like a man's earnest pursuit to find out more about his food chain. I just picked up the more recently released book, In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan and I am looking forward to checking in regarding this book as well.


  1. I'm pretty sure Farmer John has a book, or a cookbook out. I remember the head of our CSA mentioning it last year. I loved being in our CSA but didn't do it this year. Even splitting a share, it just worked out to too much for a family of four (two of them pretty young). I'll do it next year. I love that it's organic, that it's grown less than 10 miles away, and that I get to talk to those who grow it every week. With the CSA next year, and my garlic crop (provided it grows), and my tomatos (provided Colorado's summer is warmer than this year's), we'll be set for veggies. I LOVE the CSA. :)

  2. Jen, the CSA is always way too much for my family of three, but it still works out to be cheaper than buying organic at the store ($15 a week?) Plus, we are super cheap, so we make it our mission to eat as much as possible each week.