St. Matthews Episcopal is a modern, manicured church set in the heart of suburban Louisville’s East End. It contrasts somewhat with the dusty farm truck sitting in its parking lot.
Near the truck, half a dozen people say hello to a slender man in blue jeans and then mill around numerous apple crates filled with vegetables and melons. They chat among themselves and fill a bag with their share of produce. The amounts they can take are listed on cards attached to each crate: “8 large or 12 small” above the potatoes, “small handful” on the New Zealand spinach. It’s 7:30 on a Thursday night in August, delivery time for Steve Smith’s food guild.
Food guilds, subscription farming, community supported agriculture, or CSA—all are names for the kind of farming Steve does. A former market gardener who grew melons and tomatoes for stores and restaurants, Steve now sells a wide variety of vegetables, herbs, and some fruit directly to 79 families. His subscribers buy a share in a season’s crop and pay their money up front in the early spring. From late April to mid- December they receive an average of a half-bushel of vegetables per week, all organically grown on Steve’s farm in Bedford, Kentucky, about 40 minutes east of Louisville. Today his customers will take home cucumbers, a small watermelon, zucchini, potatoes, chard, corn, onions, basil, spinach, tomatoes, and either peppers or an eggplant.
Nancy Toole has been one of Steve’s subscribers for three of the four years he’s run his food guild. She indicates that someone looking for organically grown produce in Louisville would be hard put to find very much of it. (There is a food coop downtown, and a natural food store with two East End locations, but their produce selection is limited.) Besides, she says, she likes “having a connection with the person who grows your vegetables. You don’t feel that when you shop at a grocery store. And we all like Steve so much.”
An hour’s drive to the north, Lynne Dickey and her family live on a 106-acre farm near Salem, Indiana. Her place was once an Amish homestead and a you-pick blueberry farm. She still enjoys the blueberries, and Amish still live in the neighborhood—I pass two of their children on the road, who wave as I drive by.
This is Lynne’s second year of organic subscription farming. She started slowly with five customers in 1992—”people I knew and who were willing to support me,” she says—and grew to 16 families this summer, customers she found through word of mouth. Lynne delivers twice a week: to families in New Albany, Indiana, and Louisville on Tuesdays, and to others in Salem and nearby Madison on Fridays. She differs from Steve in that she offers home delivery of a 48-quart cooler’s worth of vegetables and fruit. Pointing to a row of white half-runner beans, she adds that she’ll grow to order any variety a customer requests.
Lynne charges half her money up front in the spring, and that buys her seeds, soil amendments, and supplies for the greenhouse. Her second payment in July is really “my pay,” she says, and it gives her a mid-season psychological boost. For Lynne, one of the biggest advantages of CSA is that she receives money up front, right when her costs are greatest. She likes not having to go into debt, growing a crop that’s already sold, and having personal contact with her customers. For her, CSA has no downside.
“I know how many people I’m growing for, and I know how much land I’ll need to grow for a certain amount of people, so there’s no waste,” Lynne says. In years past she grew market crops that may or may not have sold, just a few varieties that had to be picked all at once and had to be sold as soon as they were picked. “It’s security, being able to have people invest for the season. I really appreciate being able to grow for people like this.”
The concept of community supported farming in this country is generally credited to Jan Vander Tuin, a Vermonter who in the early 80’s came across community supported farms in Switzerland and who founded a cooperative of his own near Zurich soon thereafter. Back in the United States, Vander Tuin spread the word, and in 1985 a group including John Root, Jr., Robyn Van En, Charlotte Zanecchia, and Hugh Ratcliffe sold 30 shares in an apple orchard in western Massachusetts. That next spring they leased land from Van En and broke ground for vegetables, selling shares to 50 families in the area.
According to Van En, between 200 and 400 CSA farms exist today from New England to Texas to the West Coast. (Her estimate may be low; a Kentucky CSA conference held last winter drew 67 people.) Around the country these community farms are organized along various lines. Some share land among group members and offer produce on a take-as-you-need basis to the community, including poor families who can’t support the farm cooperative financially. Others offer a set range of share prices to shareholders and ask them to contribute based on their ability to pay. Many groups, like Steve’s, meet yearly to discuss the season and the budget. But they all share the same personal link between farmer and consumer, between locally grown food and its market, that is the core of the CSA idea.
Some see community supported agriculture as a potential saviour of the small farm. With its emphasis on organic soil enrichment, marketing without a middleman, and selling locally grown produce to a nearby market, CSA offers the small grower a simpler alternative to traditional agriculture, with its dependence on heavy machinery and chemicals. CSA farms require little land; Steve believes he could feed 100 families on the approximately four acres he cultivates for vegetables. Capital expenditures are low because large vegetable gardens do not require large pieces of equipment. Eliot Coleman, whose The New Organic Grower is a comprehensive guidebook for CSA farmers, estimates that a farmer initially needs about $6,000 for tools and a rototiller. Compare that to the $14,000 you can easily spend on a reconditioned tractor.
In this area at least, the cost to CSA shareholders is also low. This year Steve’s guild ran $385 for 35 weeks or $11 a week for a half-bushel of produce. Lynne Dickey charged $285 for 20 weeks, or $14.25 a week, for a large cooler delivered to the home. Both farmers offer varieties (of lettuce and corn especially) that you cannot buy in a grocery store, which makes it hard to compare prices. But even a rough comparison shows that week to week they are selling at or below supermarket prices—and their food is locally grown, fresh, and free of pesticides.
Steve bases his subscription fee not on market prices but on what it costs him to grow his vegetables. He actually publishes his budget, from seeds to insurance to manure. Last year his expenses ran to a little under $10,000, half of that for part-time help, leaving him an income for his own labor and land use of $19,000. That’s not a princely sum by city standards, but it’s a livable income, and Steve supplements it with tobacco and cattle.
As he spends 50-60 hours per week during the spring and summer on his vegetables alone, Steve works very hard for what he earns. But then farming has always been a low-paying job. Its benefits are not monetary, though they are no less important; independence, self-sufficiency, and for organic growers, the satisfaction that comes from improving the soil. Steve is the third generation of Smiths to farm this valley. Sure, he says, at times he’s thought of doing something else. “But I always wanted to farm,” he says and grins.
As the government reduces the amount of tobacco farmers are allowed to grow and sell, traditional farmers in Kentucky who depend on tobacco for a significant part of their livelihood will have to find a way to replace that income. Steve is encouraging them to consider some kind of community supported vegetable growing. Organic farming is not as foreign a concept as it used to be, and Steve says this year alone he’s had a number of traditional farmers drop by to see what he does. “I was a traditional farmer, as traditional as you can get,” he says, which leads him to believe others can be convinced to change. The best argument he has is his own success.