by Aaron Dykes
One way to fight the power of Big Agra and, in turn, fight for issues you care about — like, perhaps, promoting Organic food, avoiding pesticides and GMOs, or promoting the local economy — is to support your local farmer.
Just who is your local farmer, anyway?
Well, it could be you, it could be a neighbor or friend you know personally, or it could be a producer from nearby whether you know them or not.
Whoever that local farmer is, they surely need your support.
There’s a lot of uncertainty and risk in producing food. As anyone who scans the news knows, harsh weather and increasing prices for food commodities, soil inputs, land and equipment all challenge the affordability of food, making it harder for the farmer to stay in business and more expensive for the average person to afford healthy food.
This goes double for farmers who pay extra to raise organic food — especially if they pay further premiums to have their crops certified USDA Organic, meaning extra costs for meeting standards, having food inspected and keeping up with documentation.
Membership in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) sustains local farmers
That’s why Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) can be a useful model. This form of food production and distribution relies upon a voluntary network of community members who agree to buy into a particular farmer’s crop and, in turn, receive a weekly (or regular) share of the fruits of his labor, or in this case, fruits and vegetables.
Community shares are also a viable option for dairy producers — most notably raw milk producers — as well as meat, egg, honey and just about any other kind of producer.
Wikipedia defines Community Supported Agriculture (or Community-Shared Agriculture) as:
an alternative, locally-based economic model of agriculture and food distribution. A CSA also refers to a particular network or association of individuals who have pledged to support one or more local farms, with growers and consumers sharing the risks and benefits of food production. CSA members or subscribers pay at the onset of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest; once harvesting begins, they receive weekly shares of vegetables and fruit, in a vegetable box scheme. Often, CSAs also include herbs, honey, eggs, dairy products and meat, in addition to conventional produce offerings.In theory a CSA can provide any product to its members, although the majority of CSA operations tend to provide produce, fruits, and various edibles. Some CSA programs also include cut flowers and various ornamental plants as part of their weekly pickup arrangement. Some CSAs provide for contributions of labor in lieu of a portion of subscription costs.
The development of the concept is credited to Rudolf Steiner, who also heavily influenced the modern concept of “organic” farming and fostered what he termed “biodynamic agriculture.”
Fresh experiences in local produce
Melissa and I recently signed up for our first term of a CSA with Johnson’s Backyard Garden, a local Austin-based certified Organic farm that literally originated in the actual backyard of founder Brenton Johnson and grew rapidly in scale through the farmer’s market over the last couple of years.
For the second week in a row now, we picked up a box loaded with a variety of fresh veggies (see video above). Johnson’s Backyard is known in particularly for their intensely flavorful carrots (which taste way better than anything sold in stores, including Organic brands), but I think should be equally known for their spring onions — which has been introducing an entirely new sub-genre of onion flavor to stir fry dishes and salads in our home for the entire past week.
Thanks to support from the community and plenty of hard work, Johnson’s Backyard Garden boasts more than 1,000 CSA members (who pay for a share of veggies each week) and plenty more customers who buy individual bundles of the farm’s produce at Farmer’s Markets and in local grocery stores like Whole Foods and Wheatsville Co-op.
At any rate, JBG even has a section on the website dedicated to a veggie guide — particular to each week’s share — to give you fast facts on sometimes less recognizable vegetables lurking in your share — like Celeriac (celery root) or Kohlrabi — and provides tips on storage, preparation, cooking and even recipes.
Members of the community can support in a different way, too, by volunteering for a half day of backbreaking farm labor — pitching in help with harvesting or packing produce — in return for a weekly share of veggies and some experience with a highly successful organic gardening operation.
Volunteering labor is so popular, Johnson’s website claims, that members must RSVP days or even a week in advance just to work for free on the farm.
Of course, Brenton Johnson didn’t grow so rapidly into a $1 million per year plus operation just through community members and volunteers ALONE — he had loans through the Farm Credit program and USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) — but he DID also raise a great deal of the capitol he needed to expand to a bigger farm specifically through his CSA member-base — who willingly put up investment capital to support local agriculture they believed in.
According to a profile on Johnson’s Backyard Garden published in Landscapes in 2010:
Johnson gave farm members the opportunity to lend money to the farm. Members made loans for $5,000 to $10,000, and Johnson’s Backyard Garden offered a return of 4 percent, paid back monthly over seven years.
Johnson’s Backyard Garden grew into a major local business in just the span of few short years in large part due to revenue raise and generated by conscientious consumers — who choose to become CSA members and even backers in order to support a local, organic producer they believed in.
4% is not an investment worth writing home about, unless the money is really being invested in a value. After all, we are what we eat, and JBG has been growing better eats than most of the stuff found in grocery stores… the farm is also now bigger than most CSAs would be.
Support a viable alternative to Big Agra’s ‘Get Big or Get’ Out Mentality
But the point is that the model is worth supporting, and can provide a viable and growable alternative to Big Agra-based production, where farmers are reportedly often bullied into “getting big or getting out” (as Nixon-era USDA Secretary Earl Butz was known for uttering).
Instead, communities could support reputable local farmers by sustaining both their market and their crop, while reaping the benefits.
Whatever one thinks of Johnson’s quick success, it happened contingent upon the support of the local community — and that means something important in a modern world increasingly dominated by Monsanto and perhaps a dozen major food manufacturers.
And there are other Community Supported Agriculture operations with lower profiles and smaller operations than Johnson (among the larger CSA’s) — all perhaps closer to home than you think.
Try one of these resources, or use a search engine to find a CSA near you:
RESOURCE: Find a CSA Near You:
Whether it happens in your own backyard, down the street or in a nearby town, supporting your local farmer is a viable and important part of defunding Big Agra, diffusing the production of food and helping to (re)vitalize the availability of healthy and sustainable food (including Organic and other responsible systems of raising food).
To change the (food) system, we have to change our habits — including what we choose to eat, where we choose to buy it and what kind of standards we choose to uphold. Buy into whatever you believe in, but don’t just stand by idle.