It’s the middle of the summer. It’s hot. The kind of hot that smacks you in the face and melts the soles of your shoes. Yet here we are, standing in the partial shade of a canopy, drenched with sweat, talking with dozens of people as they pick up their vegetables. Even if they don’t say it out loud, you can see it in their eyes. They think we’re crazy. And they kind of like it.
Craziness is, perhaps, the defining characteristic of a farmer. I’m not referring to the craziness of the farmer managing 4,000 acres of transgenic soybeans and corn with a GPS-guided million-dollar tractor (although that has its own level of craziness). Rather, I’m talking about the small-scale, hyper-local, toes-in-the-mud kind of farmer. The grandma who runs outside at 2 a.m. in her skivvies to swear at the raccoon that somehow found its way into the chicken coop again. The African refugee who grows two dozen varieties of ethnic greens and knows the best way to cook each one. The young father who stands at the farmers’ market stall, choking back a retort and somehow responding graciously when a customer says that $4 a pound is way too much for green beans. And if these farmers are crazy, then I’m not sure what our label is—our goal is to convince even more people to farm.
But do we really need more farmers? I ask myself that question every day. Farmers’ markets have never been busier, and it seems like new ones pop up faster than foxtail in a bed of carrots. It’s becoming easier and easier to find restaurants serving locally sourced food on their menus. Even big-box grocery stores purchase a token amount of local sweet corn, pumpkins and apples every year. The market for local food appears to be saturated, so why should we bother training more beginning farmers and increase competition for our established growers? Here are my top three reasons in reverse order.
Third, economics. Do you know how much money Nebraskans spend on food? In 2008 we spent $439 million on fruits and vegetables. That was just what we bought to eat at home, so it doesn’t include what we ate at school, restaurants or hospitals. Vegetable and fruit farmers only raised $63.8 million worth of produce, so even if every apple, watermelon and potato went into Nebraskan mouths, the state still lost $375 million dollars. Again, that’s only fruit and vegetables. According to a 2010 study by the Crossroads Resource Center, Nebraskans spend over $4 billion anually on food produced outside our state. That isn’t just cash flowing out of our state; it’s opportunities missed, jobs never created, rural communities continuing to decline.
Second, security. I call this my doomsday argument. What happens if California falls into the Pacific? Where will you buy your food? Those fields of inedible corn and soybeans aren’t going to seem as pretty when you’re hungry for real food. I don’t like to use fear tactics or dwell on hypothetical nightmares, but I do think that food security is a real issue that we need to address in Nebraska. We simply don’t grow enough food, much less have a local distribution network in place, to feed ourselves in the event of a supply disruption. As fossil fuels become more scarce and transportation costs increase, it behooves us to move toward a more decentralized, local and sustainable model of food distribution.
First, relationships. In all the talk about numbers and logistics, it’s easy to forget that we’re human. I believe that the most important and least acknowledged strength of the local food movement is the relationship built between farmer and consumer. As people purchase food directly from farmers, they begin to respect the work that goes into raising chickens, weeding beets and pruning orchards. A level of trust develops as consumers realize that food tastes better when it’s fresh, not doused in chemicals and raised humanely. The faceless farmer transforms into a steward of the earth, a provider of bounty and a real person.
We believe that the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model of farming best addresses each of these issues. CSA is different at every farm, but at its core, it is a seasonal subscription to a farm’s harvest. Consumers pay a fee to get a CSA share at the beginning of the season, and through the course of the year, they get a weekly portion of the produce grown by the farm. CSA is not for every consumer, nor is it for every farmer. Running a successful CSA takes skilled management to maintain diversity in the weekly harvest and achieve profitability on the farm. Farmers also need to be able to communicate well with their members and consistently provide a quality product. Eating a CSA is no small feat, either. Even small shares can quickly overwhelm a family who isn’t used to eating vegetables or doesn’t have a good recipe for kale.
Despite these obstacles, Community Supported Agriculture works. It puts money in farmers’ pockets at the beginning of the season, when it is needed most. It helps build a more resilient food distribution network. It also builds a much deeper relationship between farmer and eater than any other market can provide. We run a multifarm CSA at Community CROPS that purchases vegetables, fruit, cheese, eggs and honey from farmers in our area, most of whom are beginners. We kept $55,000 in our local economy in 2012, and we’re aiming for $100,000 next year. Over half of the money we take in goes to beginning farmers, which encourages them to stay in business and increase the amount of food grown locally. In the end, though, the relationships we build with our CSA members keep us going—those same CSA members who pick up their tomatoes, zucchini and peppers in the hottest part of the summer and smile knowingly at our sunburned shoulders and calloused hands.
Yes, we need more farmers, they seem to say. Especially the crazy kind.
You can find more information about Community CROPS, their CSA and their farm training program at www.communitycrops.org/farm.