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.
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)
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.