On a gloomy, rainy day that conjured thoughts of blankets and hot cups of tea rather than digging in the dirt outside, a group of farmers assembled in Iowa City to sow the seeds of knowledge. The Ninth Annual Iowa City Area Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Fair was held on Feb. 10 at the Mercer Park Aquatic Center and served as the soapbox from which local farmers could spread the good word about who they are, what they do and how we can all help each other lead healthier, more connected lives.
The concept of community-supported agriculture first took root in Japan in the 1960s, where it was referred to as teikei. Literally translated, teikei means “partnership” (though it’s relevant to note that a more philosophical translation can also mean “food with the farmer’s face”). The movement gained popularity throughout Europe in the 1970s and early ‘80s and was eventually brought to North America in 1984 by Jan Vander Tuin, a community organizer and bicycle designer. Since then, the idea of the CSA has blossomed into an international movement centered around the ideals of education, good health and community.
The basic premise of a CSA is this: Patrons become members of a CSA by purchasing a share of a farm. In return for paid membership, they receive a weekly box of fresh food straight from their local farmer. The mutual advantages to this are countless but the most obvious benefit is, perhaps, reassurance. Not only does a CSA membership guarantee fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs, honey and occasionally meat and dairy products to the consumer, but it also insures that farmers are able to support both the community and themselves.
“CSAs create a stable market for the food that farmers produce,” said Pete Flynn and Shanti Sellz, both of Muddy Miss Farms. “For the farmer, this greatly reduces the pressure of having to sell food and provides the farmer with more time and energy to devote to growing the food.”
So, with piles of produce readily available at the local supermarket, why join a CSA? Pam Worden of Family Farm CSA puts it bluntly: “When you join a CSA, you know where your food is coming from and that it is fresh.” “This produce didn’t ripen while travelling 1,500 miles on a truck,” adds Rebekah Neuendorf of Bloomin’ Wooley Acres. “It hasn’t been handled by countless consumers’ hands in the produce aisle who are sifting through a carefully stacked pile to find the ‘least damaged’ tomato or pepper. This produce is grown with you in mind!” The freshness factor is huge. “Most of our vegetables are picked fresh and delivered the same day we pick them. Consequently, they taste great and have a longer shelf life,” said Susan Jutz, owner of ZJ Farm.
Another reason for joining a CSA, the farmers at Muddy Miss say, “You are likely to see variety in your CSA box that you would be hard pressed to encounter in a supermarket.”
The idea of dealing with exotic and unfamiliar items can be intimidating. What does one do with a giant Daikon radish? “View it as an eating adventure,” advises Jutz. “New members will be exposed to new varieties of vegetables.” Intimidation can eventually give way to excitement: “Many of my members have compared the weekly share of vegetables as a ‘present they look forward to each week,’” Jutz said.
Membership in a CSA can require a substantial upfront cost of anywhere from $250-$550, depending on the size of the share. This can seem like a large financial investment, but Twyla Hein of Earth Biscuit Farm says otherwise: “It’s easier if you break it down and understand that even though the upfront cost can be a lot, it comes out to approximately $15-$20 per week.”
Still not sure if a CSA is the right way to go? The farmers at Muddy Miss offer this simple, no-nonsense tip: “[Our] best advice—join!” Rebekah Neuendorf adds, “Look around to find a CSA that best suits your lifestyle needs-wants.” Other reasons to become a CSA memeber: “When joining a CSA, members get to know their farmer, learn about sustainable farming practices and support a small farm rather than a large chain supermarket,” says Hein.
Fresh food, the peace of mind that comes from knowing exactly where that bunch of spinach came from, sitting down to a meal that was sourced from the same zip code—these are the invaluable benefits of a CSA membership. While it remains true that farming is still a business, CSAs offer a way to connect with local community and local food. Membership provides sustenance while ensuring that farmers can continue their work sustainably. According to the farmers at Muddy Miss, along with that weekly box of produce comes “the good feelings of knowing that your money is supporting independent local business, strengthening a vibrant local food system and making the work of growing real food a viable occupation.” In other words, everybody wins.
Photos taken by Dawn Frary at Iowa City’s 9th Annual CSA Fair, Mercer Park Aquatic Center, Feb. 10, 2013
Dawn Frary is the photo editor of Little Village Magazine. She likes cats, cameras and coffee, and also really wants to be a farmer.