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Community Supported Agriculture may be key to new family farms

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 23, 2009 - For 10 years now, Rusty Lee and his wife, Teresa, have been farming on 80 acres in Truxton, Mo., 65 miles west of downtown St. Louis, just north of Interstate 70. Rusty hails from Georgia, but Teresa grew up a few miles from here. Her mother was raised in the same white house where the couple are raising William, 7, and Doralynn, 3, built by Teresa’s grandparents when they married.

“These guys will be the fourth generation, so that’s kind of cool,” Rusty drawls as the kids play on Lee Farms’ small loading dock in early morning fog.

Lee's crew of five is gathered on the dock, too, waiting for a refrigerated truck to arrive from Tricia and Scott Wagner’s Yellow Wood Farms, about 40 miles south in Hermann. Every week since June, the Lees and Wagners have combined their harvests to feed 203 St. Louis families, filling cardboard “share boxes” with zucchini, kale, banana peppers, onions, watermelon and more, and delivering them to four locations in the metro area.

It’s called Community Supported Agriculture, farmers working directly with individual consumers to provide a steady supply of locally grown food, paid for by “subscription” in advance. A full weekly share in the Family Harvest CSA includes 15-20 pounds of fresh-picked produce and costs $595 for the 20-week season. Half shares are $395.

The American CSA movement  began in 1986 with just two New England farms, and today boasts 2,920 operations in all 50 states, including 62 here in Missouri, according to online resource LocalHarvest.org .

Initial goals of the movement were to reinvigorate Americans’ connection to the land, support family farming and bring together rural and urban communities. Early CSAs were generally run by a core group of members who hired a farmer for the season and pitched in some of the labor themselves.

Today, though, 75 percent of CSAs follow a “subscription model” like Family Harvest’s, with operations organized and managed by the farmer.

No farm work is required of subscribers, though they’re encouraged to visit the farms and shake hands with the men and women who grow their food.

Lee takes his duty to subscribers very seriously. “I’ve got an excessive amount of vegetables for just the CSA, so if things fall off a bit, we’ve still got it covered,” he explains. “We also plant for all our commitments at a 1.2 factor. Just a little extra.”

Lee and Tricia Wagner choose to work together for yet more insurance. “We had people last year who told us they wouldn’t have known Tricia’s farm had flooded were it not for the pictures in the newsletter,” Lee says, referring to an email update they send out each week. “It really bothers me to think that I have someone’s money, and I won’t be able to come through.”

On Thursdays, the University City garage of Bill Chilton and Shelley Welsch becomes one of Family Harvest’s pick-up locations. “I think people love the idea behind [the CSA],” Shelley says, “that it’s good to get more vegetables into your diet, that it’s easy – but many people don’t understand what CSAs are and why they’re important.”

One reason is “food miles.” A 2003 report from the Leopold Center found that, on average, U.S.-grown produce distributed by conventional channels traveled 1,494 “food miles” to market. That’s 27 times farther than the same items distributed locally.

Then there’s the incentive to eat more fresh produce that comes along with a refrigerator full of summer squash and cantaloupe and cucumbers. There’s the exchange of recipes spurred by exposure to new flavors and ingredients.

But just as important, the CSA model provides a welcome option for growers who want to avoid the life of the commodity farmer. Another option is the farmers market, which is where Lee got his start, lobbying the Warren County commissioner in 1999 to open a market at the fairground.

“[It] became a mainstay of the community,” he says, but eventually, he wanted more volume, and began selling tomatoes wholesale to local grocery stores.

In the same way commodity farming requires a streamlining of operations, though, “when you’re wholesale,” even locally, “you don’t need the crop diversity. You can line up your efficiencies. We evolved to where we used a conveyor mounted on a tractor pulled behind a trailer, with the workers picking into small buckets. We had people riding doing packing, and once that function was performed, nobody every touched a box again.”

Today, Lee still sells about 20 percent of his harvest to St. Louis’ two Whole Foods locations, while another 40 percent ends up in area restaurants via a distributor. But in just the second year of operation for Family Harvest, the CSA accounts for 40 percent of Lee Farms’ business, allowing Lee to grow a wide variety of crops using eco-friendly practices, knowing from the start that they will end up in good homes.

And he’s liking it that way. “It slows things down a little bit for me,” he says, “just a dull steady everyday kind of thing. It’s nice to make a profit, but if you go crazy doing it, then what’s the point?

“It’s still farming,” he adds, “so they’re nice long days.”

CSA in the middle

Shermain Hardesty, director of the UC Small Farm Program, has studied the revenue generated by different direct marketing models for produce, concluding that wholesale provides the highest net revenue, farmers markets the lowest, with CSAs falling in between.

And the work is far from easy. “A CSA is not something an inexperienced farmer wants to pursue,” says Mary Hendrickson, director of the Food Circles Networking Project at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “There’s a learning curve. The spreadsheets are extremely complicated.”

Data from 1999’s National CSA Farm Survey , the first of its kind, performed by the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin, suggests that CSA operators aren’t your average farmers, younger by 10 years, more likely to be female and highly educated – 77 percent with college degrees and nearly 25 percent with graduate.

“If you look at a successful farmer today,” Lee says, “regardless of their crop, they’ve gotta be pretty sharp or they’re not in business anymore.” He and Teresa each have a master’s. “There’s a lot to keep up with. It’s not somebody selling out of the trunk of their car, going around the county with seed corn. I mean, it’s business.”

Which is why Lee maintains a miniature office in the pockets of his faded overalls: pen, notebook, cell phone. This morning, it rings often, sending him inside to check his email, prompting the packing of new boxes, the adaptation of plans.

The Yellow Wood truck runs late, held up by a random DOT inspection. When it finally pulls in, though, the crew swings into action, adding Lee Farms’ contribution to each share box by hand – 1 eggplant, 2 onions, 5 Jet Stars, 5 Romas – and 40 minutes later, as Lee puts it, “it’s on its way to town.”

Margaux Wexberg Sanchez is a free-lance writer.