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The Small Farm Comeback

Summer at its best. Tomato-basil crostini, heirloom-eggplant puree, Parmesan shortbread, wild field greens, and melon wrapped with prosciutto di Parma tempt guests at an afternoon party on Long Island, New York.

The wines flow as women in summer dresses and men in linen suits mill about, contentedly surveying the scene. Eventually, they find their way to a table set for 125 under a canopy of apple trees. It's a delightful party, but there's a twist: All the food is organic, less than 24 hours old, and originates from within 15 miles of the table. This feast, an annual fundraising event at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, New York, celebrates the bounty of late summer. But more specifically, it toasts the great eating and good living that comes from being a part of a growing movement known as Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA.

Sprawling on the eastern tip of Long Island, Quail Hill Farm is a glorious 25-acre paradigm of this revolutionary approach to organic farming and food distribution, where local folks and growers join forces for mutual benefit. Quail Hill ranks among the oldest CSA groups in the country -- and it's part of a movement whose numbers continue to rise. According to Guillermo Payet, founder and president of LocalHarvest, a Santa Cruz, California, organization that keeps tabs on American CSAs, about 1,500 groups exist around the country. While each operates a little differently, they all bring members of a community together with a local farmer to share the risks and rewards of small-scale farming.

Farms, usually organic or biodynamic (another nonchemical agricultural method), get a financial boost when they need it most -- at the beginning of the season -- and city folks get a huge variety of fresh, locally grown, seasonal organic food, often for less than the retail price they'd normally pay for organic produce. And if they're really lucky, they get heirloom and specialty items they can't get in stores. Vegetables are the staple of the movement, but farms will commonly sell flowers, fruits, and herbs, too -- and sometimes even bread, free-range chicken, dairy products, eggs, and other meat.

The programs' rewards extend far beyond the promise of good food. They guarantee farmers fair prices by having an established market, which enables them to steward the land they know and respect. CSA programs also support local economies by keeping money in the community and reducing gas use and pollution normally created by shipping food across the country. In fact, with so many positive aspects, the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, refers to the movement as "agriculture-supported community."

On the micro level, a CSA group operates under one of two basic setups: Members either harvest their own produce or fetch it from a drop-off point. Most groups follow the latter system (only about 70 CSA groups require fieldwork from members). The whole operation revolves around the farm and its members -- the length of the season, what's grown, how the harvest gets to members, the number of members -- and comes together in the winter or early spring before the growing season starts. Typically, members prepay their farm fee for the entire season and get their food once a week, from May or June through October or November.

How the members receive their produce varies as widely as what foods they find in their box each week. At Quail Hill, people come to the farm on Tuesday or Saturday and follow signs directing them to the right fields. At the 110-year-old Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California, a staff of 10 picks the produce while a few others create a large, artistic display; basket-toting members show up on Thursday to take their share. Glory Farms, in Troup, Texas, drops off food at points in town. And in New York City, where 42 different CSAs run with support from the nonprofit group Just Food, folks show up at farmers' markets, churches, and fellow members' homes for their boxed-up goodies.

The CSA program in America shares aspects found in other countries' systems -- notably Japan, which started its CSAs in the 1970s. Called teikei, the idea was initiated by civic groups concerned about food safety and the growing disconnection between consumers and their food sources. Literally translated as "cooperative," teikei has another, more lyrical meaning: "food with the farmer's face on it." Like the American CSA system, the Japanese program promotes organic farming and cooperation.

Japanese farmers would recognize their cherished qualities of cooperation at Quail Hill, which turns 17 this year. Founded by 10 families eager to eat fresh, clean, local food, the cooperative farm started with just four acres on the Peconic Land Trust. Today, it has a total of 25 acres on the now 220-acre trust. Scott Chaskey, chief farmer and son-in-law of one of the original families, participated from the start. "Twenty years ago, people were almost excluded from where their food was grown," he said. "Yet one generation before that, half of America lived on farms. We were so excited about getting the community involved again in raising food."

The establishment of Quail Hill also helped address the menace of sprawl. In fact, says Chaskey, saving and protecting the land were among the farm's main goals. "These are prime agricultural soils, and we're losing topsoil at a disturbing rate. It takes nature 700 years to make one inch of topsoil, so building up the land is key. Using good soil like this for foundations for houses is just silly."

In addition to the quality of the food and the preservation of precious soil, many CSAs offer the tangible advantage of savings. At Fairview Gardens, a full share costs $32.50 a week and provides enough roughage for a family of four. At Quail Hill, a family can get an entire summer and autumn's worth of vegetables (and herbs and some fruits) for roughly $700. A share at Indian Line Farm in South Egremont, Massachusetts, costs $475 and keeps two adults eating well from June to Thanksgiving. Depending on how much that family might normally pay for organic produce at the supermarket, CSAs can add up to significant savings, especially if members share the box with another family to ensure
that the food delivered each week never goes to waste.

And then there are intangibles.

"Nothing's more exciting than picking up your box and seeing what's inside," says Paula Lukats, program manager (and three-year member) of the nonprofit Just Food in New York City. "The variety has challenged me to try new foods and discover new ways of cooking. I've learned to like kohlrabi, and I now really love beets. I shred them with carrots and apples, and then toss them with a honey-lime dressing."

For those CSA members who gather their food in a field, the program offers an environment ripe for community building. As Chaskey explains, "The contact in the fields -- people directing each other, sharing recipes -- is an extremely important part of this. It's why we've always operated our program this way." The relationships among the 500 members -- and the larger community -- are a key aspect of Quail Hill's mission statement. In addition to the big summer fundraising dinner, the farm throws potluck suppers and an annual preseason breakfast at which new members get a chance to meet. They also host a tomato tasting in September for the public. Last year, more than 300 people showed up to sample 55 different varieties of tomatoes.

Given these and other benefits, it's no surprise that the concept of CSAs has grown more popular during the past 20 years. Based in Illinois, Angelic Organics is now arguably one of the most famous CSAs in the country, thanks in part to the award-winning documentary film The Real Dirt on Farmer John (airing on PBS in June). A third-generation farmer who grew up outside Chicago, founder and farmer John Peterson lost most of his once-prosperous family farm after a series of financial setbacks. But a group of locals convinced him to start a CSA -- helping to bring his farm back to life. Today Angelic Organics is one of the largest in the country, with 1,250 weekly deliveries feeding 5,000 people. Peterson, who now has a staff of 18 during growing season, is thrilled to be working on his farm again, even if he only owns 22 of the original 100 acres. "Ownership means nothing to me," he says. "But tenure does. The farm is set up so that hopefully in a few years, it won't be saleable. It will be held in perpetuity by people who have a relationship to it. That's all that matters."

Like many farmers across the country who have shaped their lives around the promise of CSA, Peterson sees a greater good in all this than keeping family farms afloat and feeding people healthy food. "Cheap vegetables are nice," he says, "but what I see is social renewal. There's something about having a relationship with a farm that gets into your
soul and your being."

This vision is nothing short of a new socioeconomic model -- one where people who care about their health and that of the soil come together in a way that benefits all. "CSAs offer people a new relationship with the land, a farm, and a farmer," adds Peterson, whose thriving CSA has transformed the way many in Chicago now eat. "They bring a new relationship to life itself."

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