The Great Leap Forward: Community-supported agriculture revolutionizes the way local farms do business

Every Wednesday and Saturday morning, Vicki Westerhoff drives out to the Green City Market in Lincoln Park from her farm, Genesis Growers, in St. Anne, Illinois, seventy miles south of Chicago. She arrives at the Green City Market just after the sun rises at 7am to sell her crops. In rain or shine, she brings a full truck of produce and dairy, and on a good day, drives back to St. Anne with an empty truck. On a bad day, though, Westerhoff might go back to her farm with nearly three-quarters of her load unsold. Even with bushels of leftover produce, fatigued from hours of standing out in the heat at the market, Westerhoff prepares for the next trip to the Green City Market in a few days. And what’s more, she has to figure out what to do with her surplus produce.

This market cycle, regulated by scheduled market days and unpredictable customer turnout, is what Westerhoff hopes to remove from her farm’s business structure. In a few years, she says, she hopes to “completely eliminate farmers’ markets” from the scope of her business. The exhausted efforts of participating in farmers’ markets rarely return as much capital as she puts in; an identifiable loss reappears even as Westerhoff tries and tries again, week after week.

But things are different on Thursday afternoon, when Westerhoff drives out to Hyde Park with designated community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes. These contain produce and dairy committed to shareholders who have already bought into Genesis Growers. She leaves her farm with a full truck, and returns later in the day with an empty one–every time. The business model of CSA, where the anxiety of needlessly predicting a day’s profit is relieved, is what Westerhoff looks forward to every week; and it appears that she isn’t the only one. Other local farms around Chicago, including Angelic Organics, Videnovich Farms, and Grass is Greener Gardens, revel in making these weekly deliveries of guaranteed purchases to Hyde Park.

CSA, as defined by Westerhoff, is an “individual decision between the customer and the farmer, a mutually beneficial relationship where the customer takes a portion of risk and oftentimes receives a blessing in return.” Popularized in the United States in the 1980s, but originally developed and implemented in Japan thirty years ago, CSA is a symbiotic business model where customers pay for a season’s worth of local produce and dairy up front, securing a “share” of a farm’s harvest or growing season. Further explained by Angelic Organic’s website, CSA provides “a secure market–a welcome measure of certainty in the fickle world of farming,” where in exchange for shared risk, everyone gains a shared reward. Vera Videnovich, a Hyde Park resident and farmer at Videnovich Farms in Bridgman, Michigan, also adds that the added value of creating community relationships provides a further incentive to grow produce for people who initiate a real investment in her labor.

CSA boxes, which may include up to three-quarters of a bushel of seasonal, local produce, exist as a convenient and realistic alternative for both farmers and customers interested in buying up local, organic, and sustainably-grown produce, dairy, and meat outside of the farmers’ market. CSA programs designate drop-off points where shareholders pick up their boxes once a week. In Hyde Park, shareholders of Angelic Organics pick up their boxes at the 57th Street Quaker Meeting House on Woodlawn Avenue, and shareholders of Genesis Growers pick up their boxes at another shareholder’s home in the neighborhood. What shareholders expect in their boxes varies from week to week and according to the season; in the fall, they can find more recognizable produce like beets, carrots, apples, and broccoli, or less recognizable produce like kohlrabi, sunchokes, or rutabagas. Often the challenge of receiving such varied produce lies in finding ways to use it. Elizabeth Lockwood, a four-year shareholder of Angelic Organics, Hyde Park resident, and Projects Manager at the University of Chicago Hospitals, uses her CSA box’s diversity to expand her children’s palates and expose them to new vegetables. Lockwood also explains that she appreciates her children’s clear understanding of eating seasonally as a result of participating in Angelic Organic’s CSA program: “They’re used to the idea that there are cycles of lives where you can’t get strawberries fifty-two weeks of the year.” And as a result, her children find it horrifying that a friend over for a playdate may refuse a seasonal meal and ask for a crust-less peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead.

Lockwood, a longtime Hyde Park resident, acknowledges that her participation in a CSA program communicates other socio-political ideals that only a person from a privileged background may have, saying, “Because I can afford organic, I buy organic.” She further explains, “It’s sort of a yuppie thing, as far as a lifestyle goes. I pay a premium for organic, so I can have it.” Here, Lockwood points to an important issue in light of access and scale. With her experience in urban planning, Lockwood keenly describes the pending urgency of looking to local options, however limited these resources may be to people: “It’s all about scale, these implications about lifestyles.” She explains that the cost of food produced by industrial farming “doesn’t capture the cost of living Joe the Plumber experiences going to Wal-Mart.” Instead, it distracts us from considering the logical approach to living in a neighborhood and urban environment where “walking to the corner to buy what you eat and creating better relationships with your immediate community” has more beneficial consequences. Like many other Hyde Park residents who participate in CSA programs, Lockwood appreciates that her buying effort may directly affect a farmer in a consistent and mutually beneficial manner.

But there are some disadvantages and barriers to becoming a shareholder, namely the commitment and money required up front at the beginning of the season. At Genesis Growers, a medium summer share from the months June to November costs $512 with a $100 down payment for the season. At Angelic Organics, a similar vegetable share during the same season will cost $630 in 2009. Fortunately, there are even other alternatives that also offer weekly deliveries of fresh, locally grown organic produce. Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks, a company started just a couple of years ago in Niles, Illinois, operates under the same principle as CSA, but with a middleman-like characteristic: Irv and Shelly Cernauskas aren’t farmers, but they do assemble boxes of seasonal produce and dairy from the area. In some ways, Fresh Picks gives customers a certain flexibility that other CSA programs cannot: a single “share” only costs $18 and may be customized by taking exclusions into consideration. Custom orders, which are fully customized and only filled with specified orders, are more costly, with a minimum order of $35, but the commitment is not as limited; customers may order as regularly as every week, or every other week. Shelly describes her business model as a comparable CSA program, where her company takes all of the shared risk with eighty farms, and provides a buffer for farmers’ surpluses for the week. Shelly also guarantees a similar relationship between farmer and customer, including notes that explain why there weren’t any raspberries one week: “the early frost before Easter really hit the crop!”

Michael Pollan, the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and author of the popular book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” wrote most recently on the commercial viability of CSA programs in his article in the New York Times Magazine’s Food Issue this month. He cited the new popularity of CSA as a social indicator of America’s “soaring demand for local and regional food,” where now nearly 1,500 community-supported farms “will continue to grow with no help from the government, especially as high fuel prices make distant and out-of-season food…more expensive.” Just as Lockwood emphasizes the importance of scale, Pollan argues that local food will become more necessary as the locality of capitalistic exchange will shrink smaller and smaller. Whether or not she attributes her recent 100 percent growth in CSA membership–from just 150 shares last year to 315 shares this year–to this social phenomenon, even Westerhoff is noticing an upward trend for Genesis Growers, jokingly explaining, “I think our new website has a lot to do with it.”

Westerhoff, whose goal is to eliminate her participation in farmers’ markets and to focus entirely on CSA and wholesale to restaurants in the Chicago area, has few aspirations to turn toward industrial-size farming. On forty-three acres of land, she only plans to refine and perfect her crops, limiting her harvests to what her land will give her rather than catering to commercial demands. As Videnovich explains, she too wants Videnovich Farms to get “better, not bigger. I’d like to maintain the customers I already have and produce high quality foods.” Here, it appears that both Westerhoff and Videnovich have a comprehensive approach to their farming, where decisions benefit all the elements involved: the land, the crops, the customers, and the farmers.

Wendell Berry, a poet, writer, and champion defender of agrarian values, argues in an essay titled “Six Agricultural Fallacies” that the “free market–the unbridled play of economic forces” cannot be married with agriculture primarily because “it gives values to agricultural products, but it cannot give a value to the sources of those products in the topsoil, the ecosystem, the farm, the farm family, or the farm community.” Berry finds that, just as Westerhoff, Videnovich, and Lockwood value their daily interactions with the food and people who are involved with producing it, agriculture may only thrive on a supreme value found in the interconnectedness of people and place, not simply the abstract currencies designated to them. CSA places value on the interaction and community formed by investing in a relationship that remains advantageous to everyone.

Photo by Samantha Wishnak