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Healthy harvest.

Byline: Scott Maben The Register-Guard

It's harvest time at Groundwork Organics, a 40-acre farm north of Eugene owned by Sophie Bello and her husband, Gabe Cox.

Crops of new potatoes, lettuce and other greens are coming out of the fields. And thanks to cold-frame greenhouses, workers already are picking plump cucumbers and lush, leafy basil for sale at farmers markets in Eugene, Bend and Portland.

The organic farm also gets a financial jump on the season by collecting tens of thousands of dollars in produce subscriptions from local households. So far, more than 100 families have signed up for weekly boxes of produce from Groundwork Organics, and the farm can take another 50.

With each year, more consumers sign up to buy produce directly from farms. It's a nationwide movement known as community supported agriculture, or CSA. A dozen Lane County farms and scores more around Oregon now offer direct sales, bypassing distributors and grocers.

Operated like club memberships, CSAs usually require customers to pay several hundred dollars at the start of the season. By making that commitment, buyers assume some of the risk of farming; they may get more arugula and fewer strawberries than they'd like, depending on how the crops fare.

But they also share in the bounty, and in this temperate climate they are reasonably assured of a steady supply and variety of fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits. Some farms also offer eggs, milk, cheese, meat, nuts, mushrooms and fresh-cut flowers.

Each sets its own prices and schedule, and most deliver to central pickup spots. For an extra fee, some deliver to a subscriber's home.

For farmers, it takes some work to set up, market and keep track of all this. But it helps steady the books.

Having an infusion of cash at the start of the season helps buy seeds and fertilizers and pay labor costs, Bello said. The couple still relies on bank loans to get going, but less than they would otherwise.

"Every dollar that comes in from the CSA cuts back on what we need to borrow," she said. "So it cuts down the interest on loans, and it guarantees a percentage of what we're growing."

John Karlik, a strapping man who farms west of Creswell and runs a year-round CSA called Good Food Easy, said the program helps ensure a cash flow.

"I've got access to lines of credit," Karlik said. "I can go in debt to run this farm if I have to."

But he said he'd rather avoid that. His subscribers provide a reliable customer base.

"It's great to have a group you know will be there," he said. "You can plan ahead, and there's no waste. And you can harvest it at its ultimate nutritional bountifulness."

A growing force

At least 1,200 U.S. farms now offer direct-sale memberships, according to the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources in Chambersburg, Penn. The number doubled in the past six years, the organization reports.

The programs draw consumers who recognize the benefits of eating fresh food grown locally rather than on large farms hundreds or thousands of miles away, local participants say.

Farmers say they harvest produce at its peak time for ripeness, flavor, and vitamin and mineral content - often just days before delivery - rather than weeks ahead of time for mass processing, storage and long-distance shipping. And CSAs typically offer food grown using sustainable farming practices, including no pesticides.

Karlik said CSAs offer a ticket to better health. It's "the farm replacing the pharmacy," he said.

Many participants also like helping local farmers while keeping their dollars circulating locally, said John Pitney, associate pastor of First United Methodist Church of Eugene.

"It does offer us a way to really make an investment in local farms," Pitney said.

Pitney, who has worked on food issues for two decades, has helped promote CSA programs among 17 local faith communities that now encourage their congregations to sign up.

The movement, called That's My Farmer, hopes to persuade 500 families to sign up by 2007 and spend more than $100,000 a year on local farm food.

Pitney even performs songs he has written to celebrate community supported agriculture. One, titled "That's My Farmer," includes this verse:

Now it's always an adventure to see what's in our share

The corn and beans and broccoli I know how to prepare

But burdock root and eggplant would surely baffle me

Except here comes my farmer and she's got a recipe!

Bucking the multinationals

It's a rebellion, of sorts, against the multinational corporations that increasingly have taken control of food production and distribution, from owning patents on plants and animals to running vast shipping networks, Pitney said. Such domination of the food supply is why American farmers struggle so much, he said, and why consumers pay too much for overprocessed, under-nutritious food.

"Agriculturists all over the world are more and more at the whim of entities that own the system, from the grain traders to the ... supermarket corporations," he said.

For the most part, CSA farms are small operations owned and operated by younger, highly educated farmers using organic methods, according to a report by the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems in Madison, Wis. Nearly 40 percent of primary CSA farmers are women, surveys have shown.

Pitney hopes CSAs will start catching on with medium-sized family farms, which he sees as most endangered.

"The CSA model in most cases is not supporting the medium-sized, family-owned farm," he said.

He also envisions community-supported food processing, which exists to a small degree but could spread to supply a greater share of products consumed locally.

Pitney also hopes to see hospitals, nursing homes, schools and colleges sign up for the CSA produce, feeding far larger numbers of people.

Some people hope the weekly boxes of salad greens, squash, garlic, eggplant, beans, blueberries and other provisions will compel them to prepare healthier meals. That's a goal for Noy Rathakette of Eugene, whose family signed up this year with CSA producer Winter Green Farm of Noti.

"Maybe this will force me to eat more vegetables," said Rathakette, a nutritional anthropologist at the University of Oregon.

She and her husband, John Moser, a Red Cross volunteer, typically shop for lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, Chinese bok choy, cilantro and sometimes asparagus. They have a 17-year-old son and a daughter, 20, in college who often comes home to eat.

Once the CSA starts in June, Rathakette expects she'll see some specialty items, such as kale or leeks, that may challenge her culinary skills. But she said she is eager to learn how to cook new foods. Many farms include cooking tips and recipes with the weekly boxes.

Rathakette also expects she will save time by not needing to shop for produce.

"Each week I'll just go and pick up the box," she said.

She also suspects it will be less expensive than buying small portions of organic produce at grocery stores.

"Usually organic produce is more expensive in the store, so I really don't look for it," she said.

Rathakette said she especially likes the idea of knowing where her food comes from. Few people can say that these days, she said.

"We just feel good about it," she said. "If everyone started doing this, our economy would be stronger and there would be more jobs available here, too."


Sophie Bello harvests lettuce for Groundwork Organics' community-supported agriculture clients, with more than 100 households now receiving weekly boxes of produce.
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Title Annotation:Agriculture; Community has a growing stake in keeping valley's organic farms up and running
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 15, 2005
Previous Article:Cobras, Irish remain tied.
Next Article:Farmers move to food that is `healing to people'.

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