Fresh Off the Farm


    TEAMWORK: Lisa Wallender, left, invests seed money, and the Skinners raise the crop

    Nestled in the oak-dappled hills along California's central coast, the Skinner family's Huasna Valley Farm has weathered its share of calamities. There was the time that deer got into the sweet corn and nibbled through three-quarters of the fruit trees. And the year that early frost killed off much of the lettuce. And the 22 nights in one month that farmer Ron Skinner was up tending sprinklers. Last May, when the weeds got out of hand, the Skinners e-mailed their customers that "heat, lack of sleep and exhaustion" had made them wonder, "How do we sustain ourselves and our love for farming and each other?"

    That's hardly a question most American farmers would ask of the grocery chains or corporate middlemen that purchase their crops. But the Skinners are among a growing breed of producers dedicated to "community-supported agriculture." These CSAs, also known as subscription farms, sell shares of their harvest in advance directly to the consumer. They involve shareholder families through regular newsletters, potluck parties and even farm work. The lure is not just fresher, cheaper veggies but also a sense of belonging. Thus the Skinners' dismay didn't last. A score of shareholders showed up to weed. "When you help the people who grow your food, it is spiritually as well as physically nourishing," says Lisa Wallender, one of the volunteers.

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    From Alaska's Arctic Organics to West Virginia's Flying Ewe Farm, CSAs have sprouted across the nation. Call the trend antiglobalization writ small, a way to connect with neighbors, help small farms and combat the energy waste and pollution of hauling food long-distance. Also, CSAs tap into concerns over homeland security. Says Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington think tank: "Knowing your farmer brings peace of mind, especially in the face of terrorist threats to the infrastructure, and food-contamination recalls."

    The CSA movement began in Japan some 30 years ago with a group of women alarmed by pesticides, the increase in processed food and their country's dwindling rural population. Their teikei — partnerships with local farmers through annual subscriptions — spread to Europe and the U.S. From a single Massachusetts CSA in 1986, subscription farms in the U.S. have boomed to about 1,200, some of them serving more than 1,000 families.

    Although most American CSAs grow pesticide-free crops, many are not certified organic under federal standards; the paperwork is too cumbersome. Certified organics are increasingly produced by large industrial farms and shipped to U.S. supermarkets from as far away as China and New Zealand. Instead, "locally grown" is the new cachet — so much so that Whole Foods grocery stores now label their food by origin — California tomatoes vs. Mexican tomatoes. "People are taking the next step toward a wholesome ideal," says Guillermo Payet, founder of , a CSA website.

    CSA shareholders are also motivated by their palates. Thanks to refrigeration trucks and subsidized highways, U.S.-grown produce travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to plate, 25% farther than in 1980. Picked four to seven days before reaching supermarket shelves, fruits and vegetables lose nutrients and flavor along the way. Worse, the economics of big agribusiness demand fewer, hardier crops, thus driving many varieties to virtual extinction. At Huasna Valley Farm, founded six years ago outside the city of Arroyo Grande, the Skinners grow 38 types of lettuce. They educate the 230 members of their CSA to the pleasures of daikon radishes, tomatillos and pluots — a cross between plums and apricots — by including recipes in their newsletters. "I find myself loving weird things like kohlrabi," says subscriber Eric Dudley.

    On a fall Friday, in a tin-roofed shed, Skinner and his wife Jenn helped pack reusable 34-qt. ice chests with corn, edamame, heirloom tomatoes, squash, sunflowers and other goodies — all picked less than 24 hours earlier. Shareholders pay $817 for 40 weeks of home-delivered produce — less if they collect it from a drop site in their town. In spring and winter, the chests may be only two-thirds full. In summer, they brim over. The system varies with each CSA. At the Watershed Organic Farm outside Princeton, N.J., one of the country's largest CSAs, most of the 2,600 shareholders drive to the farm once a week, some from as far away as Manhattan and Philadelphia. For the produce of a shorter — May-to-November — season, they pay $475, about $19 a week for 5 to 40 lbs., depending on the month. That's half what they would pay retail, says Watershed manager Jim Kinsel. But it is twice what he would earn if he sold his produce wholesale.

    The drawback to CSAs is that customers must adjust their appetites to the seasons and the vagaries of the harvest. Most CSAs do send out annual surveys asking what they should grow. At Huasna, members voted out Brussels sprouts and okra; at Watershed, they added fingerling potatoes. But the farmers make the final selection, and at the heart of the CSA concept is a take-what-you-get sharing of risk. Without up-front money from subscribers to pay for seed, property taxes and insurance, Huasna's Skinner says he would be overwhelmed with debt. And since he sells all his harvest directly to his shareholders, he avoids supermarkets' grading standards and can grow crops more for flavor than for appearance.

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