Community Supported Agriculture—when organic is good, but not good enough
A small troop of women is sorting through boxes of organic vegetables in the garage of a home near Callahan Ranch. These farmers, foodies and volunteers are divvying up bags of lettuce, peas, bushy-stemmed carrots, radishes and curvy pickling cucumbers into slightly more than 100 brown paper grocery bags.
The owner of the house, Pauline Hamilton, wearing pigtail braids and free-flowing pants, comes out carrying the remains of a watermelon now bound for her chicken coop. Hamilton, 42, is the coordinator of Great Basin Basket—a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group in its first season of getting local food into local hands. The food comes from four certified organic growers, and with the exception of one nearby California farm, it’s all from Northern Nevada. From June to early October, the bags (the “baskets” in the group’s name) are taken each week to three pick-up points in Reno for CSA members.
Hamilton is also a member of the Great Basin Food Cooperative, which is expected to open a grocery store on Wells Avenue this month featuring locally grown food. It’s part of a multi-faceted local food movement that aims to have 20 percent of the food consumed locally grown locally within 20 years. CSAs are one way to do that; the co-op and urban and school gardens are others. “There’s no reason anybody should be hungry,” says Hamilton, “not even in Nevada.”
The concept of a CSA is pretty simple: Community members make a pre-paid commitment to buy produce from participating farmers. (In this case, about $20 per week for 18 weeks of “baskets,” or $360.) In return, the consumer gets a refrigerator full of local, usually organic, food picked fresh that morning. The process aims to create stronger connections between the grower, the consumer and the land, which in turn helps the local economy, health and environment.
As nature intended
Debra Shirk, who owns Sod-Buster Farms in Palomino Valley with her husband, Clifford, brought 53 pounds of peas and 18 dozen eggs to this mid-July pick-up. “We get up at 5:30 in the morning,” she says. “We’re in the field by 6 a.m., work ’til noon in 100-degree heat. We work until we can’t see. But we love it. I can pick peas and listen to my chickens, and I’m happy.” The CSA did as it intended for her, supporting her enough that she could quit her night job at International Game Technology and focus solely on farming. “If this continues, I won’t ever have to have another job,” she says, beaming.
Another CSA intention is to encourage sustainable agriculture. A working example of this is Great Basin Basket contributor Lattin Farms in Fallon. Conventionally farmed alfalfa and small grains have grown for decades on most of Lattin Farms’ 400 acres. But owner Rick Lattin recently converted four acres to become certified organic, and they now host things like Heart of Gold cantaloupes, sweet corn and watermelon. An additional 24 acres are expected to be certified organic by next year.
Lattin says there were a number of reasons he decided to go organic. Part of it was the chance to be more sustainable. “The other thing for farmers, of course, is market,” he says. “And the organic market is growing strongly. The public is becoming more aware of where their food comes from and how it’s grown.”
Buying certified organic food assures consumers that the product was held to sustainable farming standards, which include no use of chemicals, antibiotics or genetically modified organisms.
“We think if this [Great Basin] Basket company grows and direct marketing grows and this buy-local thing really kicks off, we’re going to slowly increase our organic production to meet the needs,” says Lattin.
Organics still make up only a small part of the national food market (2.5 percent), but its sales grow 15 to 21 percent every year, compared with 2 to 4 percent for total food sales. The Associated Press reported in July that popularity of organics is growing so fast that the nation’s farms aren’t keeping up with demand, and organic manufacturers are looking outside the United States to meet their needs. When the makers of Clif Bar needed 85,000 pounds of organic almonds, for example, America didn’t have enough—instead, the company found the almonds in Spain. While some say, “Well, at least it’s organic,” others say organic isn’t enough when sustainability is the goal.
“I think there’s some developing concern about everything traveling thousands of miles to your plate, of being grown and made overseas—is that really sustainable?” says Lattin. “Can we keep doing that as oil prices go up and the world gets to be a more complicated place? Maybe we ought to develop sustaining ways of growing where we live.”
In addition to Sod-Busters and Lattin Farms, Home Grown Nevada in Smith Valley and Sierra Valley Farms in Sierra Valley, Calif., contribute to the Great Basin Basket. CSA members have opportunities to buy free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, natural honeys, and other homemade specialties from the farms when they come to get their weekly bags.
The harvest tends to get a slow start. The pickin’s were so slim the first couple weeks that three of the 109 people signed up with the CSA quit because the pittance in their bag didn’t seem worth $20. The idea, however, is that as the growing season progresses, the bag gets heftier and more enticing, and by mid-season, it’s likely worth more than $20.
“This is community-supported agriculture,” says Hamilton. “It may not be the most ravishing radish or whatever, but it’s what our earth grows right here, and for better or worse, that’s what we have to offer from our land.”
The CSAs aren’t for everyone. “For the consumer interested in quality and supporting the local economy, in the long run, I think it is economical,” Lattin says. “On the other hand, if you’re just looking for cheap and inexpensive, a CSA is probably not where you’re going to find it.”
And just what does one do with a couple pounds of pickling cucumbers? A few recipes are usually thrown in each weekly “basket”—beets with orange vinaigrette and sweet and sour squash being recent examples— to help CSA members learn how to cook with local foods that may seem foreign after years of supermarket shopping. But seasonal eating can get old for some. One CSA member, picking up her weekly bag at the River School, complained of receiving two bags of lettuce and greens each week. “I’m so sick of salads,” she said.
But others, like Holly Hemming and Tom Dilts, think seasonal eating has made them better, more creative cooks. Hemming says joining a CSA was one of her “top priorities” when the couple moved to Reno this past fall from Fairbanks, Alaska.
“I think you lose something when you go to the store,” she says. “I always loved cooking, but when you go to the grocery store and buy the same stuff every time, you get stuck in a rut.”
Hemming says she doesn’t get bored with the CSA’s selection, and the couple splits their share with a friend to cut down on costs and not waste food. “It’s so good and so fresh, you hardly have to do anything to it.” She looks at the zucchini in her hand and says, “Like this, you just add a little oregano and olive oil, and it’s delicious.”
With people like these behind them, CSAs, which first came to the United States from Europe and Japan in the late 1980s, have grown to at least 1,300 nationwide, with estimates as high as 3,000.
“If we’re going to create a local market, and we’re going to leave our money here, and we’re going to support more farms and not agro business, it’s important for the farmers to know we’re here and we’re ready to support them,” says Hamilton. “It’s a win-win situation of creating community with our food.”