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Diamonds in the Dirt?

Consumers, growers, corporations predicted imminent failure when organic agriculture enjoyed the beginning of an American renaissance in the 1970s; nobody believed organic food was important enough to carry its high retail price. Despite the misgivings, organics proved their human and environmental health benefits to consumers and established a small but successful market throughout the United States. As with most alternative products and trends, organic agriculture's marketing potential has been sized up, packaged, and commodified by U.S. corporate giants: "organically grown" went from farmers market buzzword to agribusiness shipping label.

The theory of organic agriculture lies in creating a healthy environment free from synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; rather than growing in outdoor laboratory conditions, plants reach fruition naturally. Yet by the nature of the wholesale system, large-scale organic growers still rely on inherently unhealthy practices: monocropping, underpaid seasonal labor, and soil-exhaustive continuous planting. While major certified-organic producers don't use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, they may dump obscene amounts of quick-to-leach chicken manure on poor soil, carrying hazardous nitrates directly to groundwater, or blast crops with the nonexclusive, plant-based pesticide Pyrethrum, killing most (if not all) insects in range, including beneficial ladybugs and lacewings. What was once a grass-roots environmental boon has become yet another branch of corporate-run agribusiness, leaving small farmers in search of second mortgages or, more hopefully, alternative markets.

The mistakes of the last decade which lost organics to corporatization spawned a new movement and, in turn, a market immune to co-opting. The more specific sustainable agriculture movement not only nurtures the soil and its plants but grows ecosystems and communities. In terms of farming, sustainability indicates a stewardship (not simply ownership) of the land. While there are no guidelines or certifications for sustainable agriculture, general practice entails respecting and nurturing a farm as a mini-ecosystem of plants, insects, wildlife, air, water, and soil. On a larger scale, sustainable farms recognize their place within the community and seek to establish an interdependence with their nonfarming neighbors. Growers concerned about the environment and the public are the new farm revolutionaries, fighting quietly to reestablish local agriculture as a part of modern society.

Yet even in communities with successful farmers markets, produce prices are dictated by multi-thousand-acre conglomerates like Cal-Organics and Cascadian Farms. Despite the emotional power of direct marketing (U-pick, farm stands, and farmer markets), cheap grocery store prices still win all but the most devoted consumers. To bypass this predicament, Indian Line and Temple Wilton Farms borrowed from the European and Japanese models in 1986 to establish the first two American Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. Otherwise known as subscription farms, CSAs rearrange the daily food-buying routine into an agreement between grower and purchaser: families and households pay a lump sum at the beginning of the season in exchange for a weekly share of a farm's vegetables from (roughly) May through October. The response has been phenomenal: in the late 1980s, forty CSA farms dotted the country; in 1994, the number had soared to approximately 400. CSA North America (founded by Indian Line Farm's Robyn Van En) predicts the number will rise to 1,000 by the turn of the century, ultimately branching from a seasonal choice to a permanent alternative to grocery store shopping.

While a 1,000 percent growth over less than a decade warrants excitement, how can supporters be sure the system is more than a flash in the pan? It is in the growers' best interests to hope for CSA's revolutionary effect. Shareholders' financial investment ensures the farms against crop failures and natural disasters, while attachment to a specific piece of land lends members' hearts and hands to guard against hazardous zoning regulations and environmental threats. Growers reap social benefits as well, as CSAs create a community accepting and supportive of the sacrifices farming life entails. Most of all, CSAs build a relationship of care and trust with their consumers. In this, small farmers have finally found true insulation against agribusiness' tendency to steal their markets; there's no way a corporation can do it better.

The root of this protection is at once a blessing and a possible curse, for the success of CSAs depends mainly on consumer commitment. While shareholders are rewarded with the freshest, best-tasting food available and a farm to visit and share with their children, they must sacrifice a fair amount of the choice we cling to so feverishly as Americans. After joining a CSA, many members relish the time they save by not shopping at the farmers market or supermarket produce section. However, many CSA members and most average consumers continue to balk at the small but important loss of freedom in being financially tied to one farm. Thanks to massive irrigation, fleets of trailer trucks, and supermarket chains covering the country, Americans believe it is our right to enjoy any type of food at any time: ripe tomatoes in March, fresh strawberries in December--you name it, America wants it! After paying $400 for half a year's produce, most American families would be disappointed with a spring CSA box of less interesting but seasonally correct vegetables, such as kale, lettuce, and radishes. Even in the South's year-round growing conditions, joining a CSA relinquishes consumer nature and allows someone else to decide what will be eaten for dinner.

Some consider giving up this freedom in hopes a CSA will be cheaper than regular shopping. While membership prices and seasonal produce costs vary, CSAs are generally not less expensive than shopping at a grocery store (especially considering the American attitude toward vegetables as a supplement rather than a staple of their diet). The benefits of belonging to a CSA are less quantifiable than Americans are used to. We are conditioned to ask, "How much does it cost? What will it do for me? What is its immediate value?" Results must be in the present, even if they are forgotten as quickly as them come. CSAs reward the community by building bridges between rural and urban sectors and preserving precious open space. Investing money in local agriculture retains capital within the community rather than exporting it to corporate offices in an unknown city. But these results don't come quickly enough for Americans; if we put out a dollar, we want something in return immediately.

Yet these direct exchanges we take for granted can be deceiving. For instance, in order to buy a green pepper at an Oregon supermarket in January, that vegetable most likely had to be trucked from Southern California. The maintenance for the highways came directly from the taxpayers' pockets, as did the funding for government agricultural subsidies the producer may have received. Every time we pay for gas, we shell out extra cash in taxes to support national petroleum dependency. The addiction is not just to personal auto use but to the gas-guzzling trucks used in agricultural transportation. Since outside the Pacific Northwest the West Coast's average annual rainfall is six inches, there was undoubtedly intensive irrigation involved in the growing of the pepper--likely a government (taxpayer) funded project.

Those are just some of the costs we pay today; we'll be billed for others in the future. Excessive petroleum usage in transportation and fertilization and the necessary pumping of that oil will eventually mandate a cleanup to be paid for through increased taxes. The impending nationwide water shortage due to misuse may see us buying water from places like Alaska at exorbitant prices, but we will not be able to buy new soil to replace that which is steeped with chemicals or has eroded into the remaining waterways. While we can procrastinate in the present, there will come a time when the dirt below us is so dry and contaminated we will have no choice but to clean it up, perhaps importing all our food until we are able to sustain ourselves again. Now that supermarket pepper may seem like a good deal at seventy-nine cents a pound, but considering all the hidden costs, a lot of people might reconsider if they had to pay the consequences at the checkout stand.

CSAs cannot offer the instant gratification of supermarket shopping, but they also do not rely on trading the future for the present. In fact, the social and community benefits of Community Supported Agriculture may be the only way to save ourselves from the impending doom of agriculture's mistakes. The necessary commitment to farmers, the community, and the future an individual must make to join a CSA seems a sacrifice, especially if no one else is doing it. But if we could all look through the magnifying glass to see the real price of a green pepper, buying food would become more than just spending money. Perhaps then CSAs could finally call their revolution a success.

Lisa Hamilton is an artist and writer living in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to being a CSA member, she grows her own food and flowers.
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Title Annotation:Community Supported Agriculture programs
Author:Hamilton, Lisa
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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