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Around here, there are a couple of sure tipoffs that a new season is approaching. One is the growing pile of seed catalogs on our bedside table. There is something satisfying–no, better than that, there is a sense of momentum–in sending off the season’s first seed order. On the wall calendar it is still February and the weather forecast sometimes hints at snow, but that envelope has real promise that spring is just over the horizon.

early daffodils

A couple of other signs this week: The early daffodils have started blooming at the bottom of the drive and down in the greenhouse Rebecca is busy filling seed flats with spinach and leeks. Yesterday, we cranked up the BCS rototiller and started getting the garden ready for the first Walla Walla onions. Louisa, wasting no time, has already tilled and planted pea shoots down on the lower field

But the real indicator that the year is tilting into a new season is our swelling roll of CSA subscribers. CSA, for the uninitiated, stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Local Harvest, a web outfit that keeps a tally of CSAs around the country, estimates there are more than 2,500 CSA programs and there are probably almost as many ways they operate. In ours, you pay a lump sum up front–$650 for full subscribers, $500 for smaller split shares. Then, beginning in early June, you show up at the farm, or at our Bainbridge Island pickup spot, the Johnson Farm, and collect a weekly box of veggies and a flower bouquet.

Our CSA season lasts about 22 weeks, until the end of October, and it is a pretty good deal all around. The subscribers get 10% to 15% more produce for their money than they’d get at the local market; we, the farmers, harvest an early crop of cash to get us going on a solid footing.

This model has a couple of advantages. By rotating through a diverse spectrum of vegetables we enhance the soil, plus subscribers get a wider pallet of choices–it’s a big world out there, you never know whether you’ll like kohlrabi unless you try it. Of course, everybody has favorites, but if everyone just selected tomatoes and corn that would leave a lot of other veggies to be carted back home, uneaten, at the end of the market. We think our way minimizes leftover waste and spoilage and opens new gustatory vistas for our subscribers.

Rebecca is something of a CSA pioneer in this part of the country, having started her first program with 11 subscribers on Bainbridge Island, 19 years ago. Some of those early subscribers are still with us and the program has grown quite a bit since those early days and now includes quite a spectrum of subscribers. Last year, for instance, we delivered five weekly boxes of veggies to the Suquamish tribe’s Women, Infants and Children’s program and Rebecca taught a class in cooking them. We’ll be doing that again this year and Rebecca will be giving a workshop on CSAs March 5 at the West Sound Small Farms Expo at Olympic College in Bremerton WA. Drop by for the show.

Other farms use different CSA financial models–some, for example, let you choose your own vegetables at the farmers’ market each week, drawing against your deposit. Others deliver to your home or business. Some let you “subscribe” week-to-week. We chose our system because it regularly brings our subscribers to the farm for their food. “Farm to table” has become a bit of a cliche these days–and a not-quite-accurate one at that in many cases, unless, of course, you think that route includes side trips through a supermarket warehouse or a couple of delivery vans. 

In any event, “community” seems to be a critical element of the CSA model, but defining that word can be tricky. Can a community stretch across a thousand miles of delivery routes? Are you part of a community if your exposure to your tomatoes and chard never takes you near the farm where they are grown–or the farmer who grows them? Are you supporting community by picking up your produce at a supermarket?

Among other things, we plan to spend some time on this blog this year examining the concept of community–at least as we see it. We’d love to hear your comments as well.

Persephone

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We have several major benchmarks during the farm season and one of them is our CSA orientation. It marks the start of the CSA and gives subscribers a chance to spend some time with the farmers for an evening at Persephone Farm. And once again, on Wednesday evening, the weather goddess smiled and we oriented and managed to stay dry.

Over a dozen years of these gatherings we have never been rained out. Oh, it rained pretty much all day Wednesday, with predictions of more of the same into the night, but Rebecca refused to consider a Plan B if the heavens were still weeping when the orientation began.

And lo, the rain stopped and the clouds blew away two hours before it all began. The Irish are just lucky that way, I guess.

CSA Orientation

CSA orientation

We always urge our CSA subscribers to show up for this initial session, whatever the weather, and there are a couple of reasons why. Cohesion is a big one. Louisa gets to explain, in exacting detail, our pickup procedure–“Okay, Bainbridge subscribers over here, Indianola subscribers over there, I’m the Agate Pass bridge. When you pick up your box, do not cross this bridge…”

Try as we might, however, some folks just don’t quite get it and walk off with someone else’s bag of veggies. Inevitably, that leads to an anguished–or angry–call that night or the next day from the subscriber whose lettuce and radiccio went to the wrong home. Such mistakes are bound to happen over a long season, but it helps to walk the newbies through the process.

Just as important, we get to meet our new subscribers face-to-face, usually with their kids in tow. During the season, some of our subscribers pick up when we’re not around and we never do get to spend much time together. The orientation party at the farm gives everyone a chance to bond a bit. One of the attractive things about the CSA model is that it means we are all in the same boat, co-investors in the year’s crop, farmers and subscribers alike. That mutual ownership gets reinforced at the orientation, making the subscribers’ connection to the farm more than  just an annual check and a brief weekly dash from the car to the pickup box.

CSA Orientation

Rebecca greets this year's subscribers

We have written before about the beauty and the economics of the CSA model (take a look at April’s “The Real Farmville”.) Wednesday night, we saw it in action, with packs of kids racing from the chickens to the lambs to the turkeys, families roaming through the gardens inspecting the progress of the chard and everyone munching spanikopita made with spinach we picked a couple of hours earlier. Our friend and neighbor, Judith Weinstock, showed off her wonderful bread and cheese, which she makes right across the road from the farm. Hard to beat that for eating local.

CSA Orientation food table

Judith and her bread

Like our garlic harvest party in July, and the cider pressing in October, the CSA orientation has become a community event, with the farm as its nexis. Sometimes it seems that food, and the politics of food, have gotten tangled up in so much posturing, finger-pointing and anger that it is tough to sort out what really matters in the whole process. But events like the CSA gathering bring things back into focus. For a little while, we get to put aside the rest of it and just savor the taste of a freshly picked raw turnip. What could be more essential than that?

Rain or no, we would have held our annual convocation anyway, and if it did rain perhaps it would have given everyone who showed up this year a better sense of what farming is really like. Harvesting in shorts and tank tops in July is all well and good–lord are we ready for it–but the reality of the farm is that you take what is given to you. That means picking lettuce in a downpour or tasting turnips when turnips are what are getting harvested this week.

When your farmer’s name is Rebecca Slattery, at least you have the promise of that Irish luck to make sure it will all work out for the best.

(And many thanks to Leslie Newman, ace techie, photographer and subscriber, for the pictures.)

Persephone

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Small farms are built on dreams. You dream that you will figure out a way to coax enough produce out of a couple of acres to make the sweat and hard work worthwhile. You dream you can find customers for your arugula, blueberries, boc choy, whatever, and they will be so delighted they will come back for more, and bring their friends.

In short, you dream big, or at least bigger. No doubt, that was Howard Schultz’s game plan in 1992 when he started pushing Starbucks from a local Seattle coffeehouse to 16,000 outlets. And it is how Andy Stout says he dreamed of growing Full Circle Farm when he and his wife, Wendy Munroe, started farming three acres of land in Carnation in 1996.

“We began Full Circle Farm with a few acres, strong values, and expansive dreams,” Stout says on Full Circle’s website. All true, especially the expansive dreams part. Full Circle now boasts 400 acres, with subscribers across Washington and Alaska. Its subscriber-based CSA operation is a marketing juggernaut, pushing produce for 13 farming partners and seven other food businesses.

So we had mixed feelings when a sign went up recently in the window of the Indianola General Store announcing that Full Circle was soliciting CSA subscribers here in our backyard. That kind of sign leaves you feeling like a local bookstore owner after Barnes & Noble announces plans to build across the street. Out of the 3,229 CSAs around the U.S., tallied by Local Harvest, which tracks small farm statistics, most, like ours, have less than 100 subscribers. Sixty have 500 or more subscribers. Full Circle’s 9,400 subscribers makes it the Mega-Mart of CSAs.

Persephone Farm raises produce on about three acres in Indianola and our CSA subscriber list is small enough that our stack of weekly produce boxes would hardly fill a corner of one of Full Circle’s delivery trucks. Still Full Circle is the realization of Stout’s dream and the CSA model is one of the reasons local farms like ours are thriving. And as Full Circle’s subscriber list has grown mightily in the last decade, its reputation for integrity has been fairly high among western Washington’s farmers.

Them

Us

So Rebecca wrote to Dave Hughes, Full Circle’s Kitsap County Site Manager, noting that our farm, and other small CSAs in the county, are worried that Full Circle’s huge scale and marketing budget could roll over us. Our small farms, she said, underscore community values as well as provide fresh produce, something that giants like Full Circle can’t do.  She invited Hughes to reply with his thoughts–“Farmer to farmer.”

Back came a reply that sounded more like pr man-to-farmer. Full Circle, Hughes assured us,  isn’t “in the business of putting other farmers out of work or stealing CSA members.” He promised  that Full Circle’s entry into the local market would mean “collaboration, cooperation, shared enthusiasms and meaningful relationships.”

He signed the note: “peace and carrots”.

That was cute. But his assurances might have carried more weight if we had not just read the latest issue of Growing for Market, a newsletter that closely follows small-farm issues. “Super-CSAs” like Full Circle Farm are a growing trend around the U.S., the Lawrence, Kan., newsletter says, and marketing in many cases has replaced local relationships as their driving force.

Growing for Market singled out Full Circle’s push into Alaska, a campaign that sounded a lot like its current effort back here in Kitsap County. Several years ago, Full Circle began posting CSA flyers on local bulletin boards in Fairbanks, inviting new subscribers to join its program. After a ferocious marketing effort, 70% of Full Circle’s CSA subscribers are Alaskans and its CSA is ten times as big as the dozen combined local CSAs in Fairbanks. Its boxes of produce, flown in weekly from the Lower 48, include some of its own produce but mostly items grown by someone else around the U.S. and the world.

When a group of Fairbanks growers met with Andy Stout last spring to tell him his operation was crushing their own CSAs, they pointed out that the bulk of the produce in Full Circle’s CSA boxes wasn’t even from his farm and asked him to stop calling his operation a CSA.

“I understand your point,” Stout wrote back. “I totally get it. But the best working definition of what we do is CSA.” The CSA label, he assured the Alaskans, was not done with the intention to deceive or harm the locals.

Now one nice thing about the CSA model is its flexibility. You can be small or big, deliver honey or chard, collect in advance or on delivery, go to your subscribers or have them come to you. But as a rule, most farm CSAs offer produce they grow, or at least process, themselves.

Stout acknowledges that only 35% of Full Circle’s annual CSA delivery to its subscribers comes from his farm. But, he added in his note to the Alaskans, “I’ve yet to see the harm done. What I’ve seen is the ability to have a small farm become successful. All we’re doing is chipping away at the grocery industry that has done everything in its power to take away the viability of farms.”

If you have trouble parsing that message, Full Circle apparently did too. It has since dropped the CSA label from its program, replacing it with an even less specific marketing slogan: “Farm to You”. It now promotes its service as an “organic produce delivery program.”

Stout may certainly be excused for his pride in marketing Full Circle to a successful niche in a tough business. But along the way his farm has apparently lost most of its small-farm roots and its original agenda—tying consumers more closely to the food they eat and the farmer who grows it. It’s a long way from that goal to a “delivery program,” shipping thousands of boxes of California strawberries and Mexican mangos to Alaska.

“The first part of Community Supported Agriculture is ‘community’” says Brad Jaeckel, who teaches at Washington State University and runs the school’s organic farm and 110-member CSA.“You need some boundaries to define that—five miles, ten miles, some kind of foodshed. My CSA members bump into each other every day, share recipes, swap vegetables. There are all kinds of neat interactions that take place in that community.”

“I just can’t imagine how that kind of interaction could be accommodated in such a large CSA,” he says of Full Circle’s business.

Neither can we. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time such a shift in priorities has taken place in agriculture. The organic movement began with a bunch of renegade small farmers rejecting chemical herbicides and pesticides and setting high standards for their produce. These days, “organic” is a marketing tool, lobbied into near-meaninglessness by big agribusinesses, enabling them to reap fat profit margins while continuing their industrial farming practices. Can CSAs featuring “locally” grown produce raised a thousand miles away be far behind?

Maybe. Or maybe not. Last we checked, Full Circle had just one subscriber for its CSA here in Indianola. Ours is nearly full and we expect a waiting list.

Take that Big Guy.

Persephone

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The popularity of virtual farming websites never fails to amaze us. You know, those sites that allow visitors to select virtual seeds, plant virtual crops, gather virtual eggs, even sell their virtual produce at virtual farmers markets for a virtual profit. Farmville.com, is probably the biggest one, claiming a stunning 72 million visitors in a month.

And while we are all for the spreading interest in small farms and farming, even through websites like Farmville’s, there is something kind of odd about millions of wannabe farmers spending their time and cash constructing virtual farms on the web when the real thing is available right around the corner.

We’re talking about Community Supported Agriculture here folks. CSAs have been around for nearly 50 years, since the idea began in Germany. Several farms claim credit for the first one in this country, like New Hampshire’s Temple-Wilton Community Farm which started its CSA in 1986. We began Persephone Farm’s CSA in 1992, which makes us one of the oldest CSAs in the Pacific Northwest.

Each week, our subscribers show up at the pickup site—the Johnson Farm on Bainbridge or our own farm here in Indianola—and pick up a box loaded with whatever we are harvesting. Sometimes the boxes are jammed, sometimes things are a bit skimpy. In effect, by subscribing and paying in advance the CSA subscribers are joining our farmers in taking a stake in this year’s harvest.

our CSA pickup site

That model sounds pretty simple, but think about it. We try to have about nine different vegetables, fruits and flowers in each weekly box. That means calculating growing times, weather changes, insect damage, and a dozen other variables, to figure out in winter how to have an even supply of vegetables, fruits and flowers rolling out of the fields in the summer and fall. Rebecca, who masterminds this effort, has been making lists, working the calculator, ordering seeds, laying out beds, tending starts, and generally organizing this year’s CSA since January. Imagine plotting an ocean liner’s course through an ice field 50 miles ahead—you need to get each zig and zag right, before you even see the first iceberg on the horizon. 

There are other CSA models—some, for example, collect cash at the start of the season, like we do, then let subscribers pick out their produce at the farmers market as it becomes available, deducting the market price from their advance payment. Others simply deliver the produce to your door and charge you for it.

We like our model best for a couple of reasons. Everyone gets a share of the farm’s weekly bounty, which means that in addition to the usual favorites like corn and tomatoes subscribers get introduced to some vegetables they may never have heard of  before, like cardoon. (We usually put a recipe or two into the boxes for the uninitiated. This year, we’ll put them up on the farm’s website, www.persephonefarm.com)

cardoon

Plus, you get about 20% more veggies with our system than if you paid the market price for them. Different strokes for different folks. Ours seems to have its fans–a lot of our subscribers re-up every year and we usually have a waiting list by the start of the CSA in June.

But the best thing about our CSA is that you get to connect directly with the farm each week. Some subscribers, like Tom Posey, who we introduced  back in early March, stick around and get their fingernails dirty, helping out. (Perhaps we’ll get Tom to tell his own story with a guest slot on this blog a little later in the season.) We’ve watched our subscribers’ kids grow up knowing where their food comes from and bringing their friends to the pickups to show them around the place. Some folks just like communing with the turkeys each week.

The thing is, with a CSA the farm becomes a real place in your life and food is more than a disembodied, shrink-wrapped package you toss in a cart at the supermarket. You can sample the peas while they are still on the vine, sniff the basil out in the field and check to see how the spinach is coming along. In the fall, you get to press the juice out of the apples and you can reach into a nesting box to collect a just-laid egg that is still warm to the touch.

After you’ve done that, Farmville just doesn’t cut it.

Persephone

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