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Community Supported Ag taking root

March 30, 2011
Food is an important part of people's lives. The quality of the food people consume has a huge impact on the quality of life they live. And in the last few years, many Americans are coming to the conclusion that it makes little sense to truck tomatoes and vegetables from California, lettuce and celery from Mexico and apples from Washington state when those same foods are available locally.

Community Supported Agriculture programs are beginning to catch on in many communities. The programs offer not only clean, locally-grown food to consumers, but they also give many farmers and local vegetable growers a support system that encourages them to increase production and supplies of locally-grown food.

At a recent CSA conference at Bellarmine University in Louisville, hundreds of people turned out to hear how the program works, hear farmers talk about how the program helps support their operation and learned how to take part in a fresh and healthy food-supply system that many believe is a welcome alternative to food supplied by large corporate farms.

CSAs are a concept that began in Japan and Switzerland in the 1960s and spread across Europe, then to the United States, during the 1980s. With a renewed interest in healthy food and frustration and mistrust of corporate farming, Americans are once again embracing locally grown agriculture.

According to Suzanne DeMuth, who wrote a book on the subject for the USDA, "Community Supported Agriculture consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community's farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production."

Typically, DeMuth says, members, or "shareholders," of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation. In return, they receive shares in the farm's bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production. Members also share in the risks of farming, including poor harvests due to unfavorable weather or pests. By direct sales to community members who have provided the farmer with working capital in advance, growers receive better prices for their crops, gain some financial security and are relieved of much of the burden of marketing.

"It's a matter of farmers doing it and the community supporting it," said Mary Chlipala, who earned Master Gardener certification at the University of Illinois and is now, with Purdue University, helping with the farmer's market in English. "There's a lot of benefits in having locally-grown food, and we have to educate people why this is better for them.

"This is a program that has been going on for years, and there are already about 20,000 different CSAs in the country. With this, one farmer can support 50 people or more with a good product. Some have small greenhouses, or hoop houses (made with PVC pipe and plastic sheeting), and can get a four-week jump on starting vegetables in the spring and can keep produce going until late in the fall or early winter. This allows the farmers to give their customers the benefit of an extended growing season. When the first frost comes, us backyard gardeners are done. In Michigan, they get 50 weeks of produce with hoop houses," Chlipala continued.

"With CSAs, you have two groups of people coming together: one who grows and one who eats. Like some say, know your farmer, know your food."

The typical CSA is a system where produce is purchased in "shares." A full share is enough fresh produce for a family of four. A "half-share" is enough for a family of two. A person purchasing a share or half-share is called a "subscriber." A subscriber will receive 20-plus weeks of fresh produce.

Levi and Katie Stutzman, who live along Magnolia Road near English, are the only CSA farmers in Crawford County so far. As vegetable gardeners, they sell produce at area farmers' markets but wanted to expand their operation in a way that benefits the community, makes the best use of their land and, at the same time, helps support their family.

They became involved in CSA last year when relatives in Ohio tried the program and succeeded in providing produce to many in their community. The Stutzmans saw the potential of the arrangement, came back home and started "Little Country Gardens," a CSA program. This year, they hope to increase the number of subscribers and have expanded their gardening acreage. They already have a sizable greenhouse to start plants early and hope to have their spring harvests of broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, beets, spinach, rhubarb, green onions, peas, cabbage, turnips, radishes and strawberries ready as early as possible, possibly about the first week of May. They will then concentrate on producing summer and fall crops. If, during the season, crops run low due to uncooperative conditions, they may add other goodies to the offerings, including fresh, home-baked goods and even farm-fresh eggs.

Subscribers will receive their supply of vegetables weekly from the first week of May to the end of October. They can be picked up on Tuesdays and Fridays at 3970 Yoder Lane, just off Magnolia Road near English.

"I bought from them last year," Chlipala said. "There was always more than enough in my portion every week, and I usually shared some of the produce with friends. It's a great program for those who want good, wholesome, locally-grown food at competitive prices. You pay for your shares up-front, which it gives them money to work with and allows them to plan on what will be needed each season. And when you pick up your box of produce each week, it's already paid for."

There will be an informational meeting at the English Senior Citizens Building on Friday at 6:30 p.m., and both potential subscribers and farmers who are interested in becoming a CSA are encouraged to attend.

For more information, call the Stutzmans at 739-4203; leave your name and address and they will mail a brochure that will include a subscriber application.

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