Community support of agriculture is an idea that makes sense to most of us. We agree to discount farmland tax rates in our towns in order to help farms stay afloat. And farms give the Catskills that Catskills Look that we like so much, not to mention the flavor advantages of fresh local food. In a recent survey in my town of Hamden, the residents who responded chose “working farms” as the thing they like most about the town. Overwhelmingly. The next most-liked feature of our town received only half the votes. Who could be against food, right?
And yet our food purchases overwhelmingly tell a different story. We don’t purchase much of our food from local farms. Most of our food travels many, many miles, and we have heard this so often lately that we’re tired of hearing it. Even so, those far-off farmers in California or Chile don’t get the most of our food dollar. Transporters, oil companies, and the distributors and handlers higher up the food chain get most of it. It is likely, in fact, that we waste more in the transportation of food than the food is worth. How does this make sense? And if we so love our local farms, why aren’t we putting our money where our mouths are?
The simplest answer is that the supply of local food just isn’t here to be bought. We might talk about the way the false economy of our industrial food system conspires against production of local food, or about how even the small farms of our area have been lured, over several generations, down the dead-end road of commodity agriculture. But let’s talk about those things another time. Much more interesting is a discussion of ways that it is possible to rebuild a local food system.
For ten years I have operated Lucky Dog Organic Farm in Hamden, and so I would seem to be part of the problem and maybe part of the solution to this local food dilemma. If you want to eat more local food, I have to grow more local food. And each year we do grow more at Lucky Dog. About half of our dollar sales are wholesale to downstate, and the other half is divided among sales in local farmers’ markets, sales in our own store, and sales through a Community Supported Agriculture program to which our neighbors subscribe in order to receive a weekly box of in-season vegetables.
This last program, called CSA for short, is a popular plan across the country and may be the most direct way a community can support local farms. At its best it provides a direct connection between farmer and eater; at its worst it provides these same things–a real community. Our farm gets operating money early in the season when we most need it, and our customers get local organic vegetables through the growing season at a wholesale price. When there is a flood (as in 2006) or a hailstorm (as in 2009), our CSA customers feel the loss directly, and in both cases this group was the block of our customers most supportive in getting our farm back to production. When there are too many collard greens and not enough tomatoes in the season’s shares, we hear about it from our CSA members. That’s community support.
Expansion of this part of our sales makes sense for our farm, and these sales have the potential to replace some of our wholesale sales to New York City. We also look forward to extending the season of this program with stored crops and with meat and dairy products grown by other local farms. There are, however, some challenges for a small farm operating a CSA. The buying members reasonably expect to have generous quantities of a broad variety of vegetables and they expect to have quite a bit of variety in the share from week to week. This means we must plant and tend moderate quantities of many crops. And this often means more labor, and more anxiety. What do we have for that sixth item in the CSA boxes this week? And in enough quantity to give to everyone? Another challenge for our farm is that the size of our CSA group changes more from year to year than do the sales through our other outlets. So we have to be light on our feet, which isn’t always easy when your boots are muddy.
While the CSA plan offers much hope for sustaining this farm in this community, it probably can’t solve the larger problem we are talking about. Rebuilding a local food system that has been deeply damaged and often abandoned, is a larger challenge, a community capital challenge. For most of us now farming in this community the urgent need is for money to continue operating from month to month. To imagine rebuilding a community food system is, on the other hand, to think hard about land, about efficient labor, about good machinery, about local movement of food and fertility, and about processing and storing what we grow and eat. And to talk about these things is to talk about long-term money. We might begin this conversation at any moment.