Community Supported Agriculture

or, the Next Best Thing to owning a farm

by Jack Innis
IVING ON A FARM ... a fantasy for many San Diegans. Imagine ...
It's a cool, crisp morning. You and your family are carefully picking tomatoes, cilantro, onions and peppers for fresh salsa. The rich smell of freshly-turned soil dances with the freshness of the produce. A big crow, watching from a fencepost, bobs his head up and down ...
While chucking it all to live on a farm is rarely practical, growing numbers of San Diegans are joining CSAs (short for community supported agriculture) as a way to find the spiritual and bodily nourishment they need.
CSAs consist of a community of individuals who pledge support of a small farm operation. The farmland becomes the community's farm, with the growers and consumers deciding which crops to grow and sharing the risks and rewards of food production.
Rather than showing up at the grocery store and buying produce with no idea of who grew it, CSA members know the farmer by name.
Rather than not knowing where the produce was grown, or even from which continent, CSA members are encouraged to drive down the dusty dirt road that leads to the farmhouse.
And rather than not knowing what chemicals were used on their produce, CSA members feel safe in knowing the produce in their "Harvest Day Box" is organically grown.

Harvesting the benefits

CSA members typically pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation. In return, they receive a year-round supply of fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts, usually at a cost below that of supermarket produce. Members also receive the satisfaction of being linked to the environment - right down to sharing the risks of farming such as loss of part of a crop due to weather or pests.
CSA farmers benefit by establishing a direct link to consumers. They receive working capital in advance, better prices for their crops, some financial security, and feedback from those who eat what they grow.
Bill Bramer, owner of Be Wise Ranch, in Rancho Bernardo, has been an organic, small-scale farm producer since 1977. "Last April, we decided to do a CSA," he said. "We started in June with about 40 people and wound up with about 175 by the end of November."
Bramer feels the climate in San Diego is ideal for CSAs. The 52 week-per-year growing season allows him to provide his CSA members with avocados, lemons, limes, tangerines, pecans, strawberries, navel oranges, salad mix, lettuce, carrots, beets, celery, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, herbs, turnips, kale, squash, peas, peaches, apricots, figs, pomegranates, cantaloupes, watermelons, tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers, and eggplant.
"The challenge," Bramer said, "is to have enough variety to make eating vegetables interesting all year-round. To support a CSA, you have to know how to grow a lot of different crops, how to stagger the crops and how to test-start the crops to determine the best taste and appearance."

A family affair

One of Bramer's CSA members, Dr. Fred Cagle, spoke of the change that has come over his family since joining the CSA. "My teenage daughter has adopted an attitude about nutrition that is entirely different from that of her friends," Cagel said at a recent CSA conference in Escondido. He feels that the change in his daughter's eating habits since joining the CSA has also changed her life-style. Cagel cites a recent tour of the Be Wise Ranch.
"Three months later, and she still talks about the hay ride," Cagel said. Considering the $30 million movie extravaganzas Hollywood dishes out each year, a down-to-earth hayride still rates pretty high in the mind of teenagers.
"My daughter has become a role model to her friends," he said. "See, the food you get is vitally important from a lot of standpoints that have nothing to do with medicine and science, but have more to do with philosophy and the quality of life."
Faustino Munoz, Farm Advisor from the University of California, San Diego, believes that one of the most rewarding parts of CSA is the involvement of families in farming.
"Kids are hungry to know how food is grown," Munoz said. "Kids love to see how carrot seeds are planted, how dirty carrots are when they come out of the ground and what you have to do to clean and bunch them."
"I love their questions," he said. "Kids want to know why we don't have tomatoes certain times of the year. They want to know what is local and what is in season."
Munoz maintains that despite the negative aspects we hear about family farming - such as urbanization, water rates, and land access - the positives greatly outweigh the negatives.
"San Diego has excellent weather that allows us to grow year round," he said. "San Diego County is in the top ten in gross sales nationwide, with over $400 million annual sales of fruits, vegetables, and nuts".
Complementing our terrific weather, Munoz said, is some of the most honored technology in use in the world. San Diego farmers are pioneers in the use of plastics, greenhouses and drip irrigation.
"One important aspect is that the consumers are right here," he said. "We need not be concerned with corporate interests trying to send food across the world. Other cultures, say in South America or Mexico, must export their crops."
John and Kathy Sullivan, owners of Kathy's Farm in Valley Center, are looking into forming a CSA as an offset to rising cost of irrigation water which, at $700 per acre-foot, is some of the most expensive in the United States.
"Unless all three of us work outside to support our water bills," Kathy said, "there's no way we can stay in business."
Kathy's Farm grows avocados, grapefruit and oranges, but are considering using some of their bottom land for row crops for a CSA. The Sullivans tried operating a fruit stand but found their property was too secluded. "Besides," Kathy said at the CSA conference, "a fruit stand is boring!"
Forming a CSA may be the right ticket to link up Kathy's Farm to local consumers. "I see a very open market for wholesomely grown, fresh produce marketed directly to consumers," Munoz said. "People are looking for an alternative to showing up at the supermarket and selecting produce not knowing where it came from or how it was harvested," he said.
And not that many people can chuck it all to live on a farm.

Jack Innis is a freelance writer from Oceanside, California, and a regular contributor to the Earth Times. He is an alumnus of San Jose State University with degrees in English and industrial design.