July 11, 2008
Money Where Their Mouths Want to Be Local Investors Give Farmers Their Support
By Susan Saulny
Catrin Einhorn contributed reporting from Chicago.*
In an environmentally conscious tweak on the typical way of getting food to the table, growing numbers of Americans are skipping out on grocery stores and even farmers' markets and instead going right to the source by buying shares of farms.
On one of the farms here, about 35 miles, or about 55 kilometers, west of Chicago, Steve Trisko was weeding beets the other day and cutting back a shade tree so that baby tomatoes could get sunlight. Trisko is a retired computer consultant who owns shares in the four- acre, or 1.6-hectare, Erehwon Farm.
"We decided that it's in our interest to have a small farm succeed and have them be able to have a sustainable farm producing good food," Trisko said.
Part of a loose but growing network mostly mobilized on the Internet, Erehwon is participating in what is known as community- supported agriculture. About 150 people have bought shares in Erehwon - in essence, hiring personal farmers and turning the old notion of sharecropping on its head.
The concept was imported from Europe and Asia in the 1980s as an alternative marketing and financing arrangement to help combat the often prohibitive costs of small-scale farming. But until recently, it was slow to take root. There were fewer than 100 such farms in the early 1990s, but in the past several years the number has grown to close to 1,500, according to academic experts who have followed the trend.
"I think people are becoming more local-minded, and this fits right into that," said Nichole Nazelrod, program coordinator at the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a national clearinghouse for community- supported farms. "People are seeing ways to come together and work together to make this successful."
The shareholders of Erehwon Farm have open access to the land and a guaranteed percentage of the season's harvest of fruit and vegetables for packages that range from about $300 to $900. Arrangements of fresh-cut blossoms twice a month can be included for an extra $120 - or for the deluxe package, $220 will "feed the soul" with weekly bouquets of lilies and sunflowers and other local blooms.
Shareholders are not required to work the fields, but they can if they want, and many do.
Trisko said his family knows that without his volunteer labor and agreement to share in the financial risk of raising crops, the small organic farm might not survive.
"It's very hard for them to make ends meet," he said, "so I decided to go out and help. We harvest, water, pull weeds, whatever they need doing."
Under the sponsored system, farmers are paid an agreed-upon fee before the growing season, making their survival less dependent on the vicissitudes of the market and the cooperation of the elements.
The arrangement involves real farms and real farmers and is distinct from community gardens and other forms of urban farming, where vacant or public land is typically put to agricultural use by residents.
The average share price is $500 to $800 a season across the country, Nazelrod said, though community-supported agriculture seems most popular on the coasts and around the Great Lakes region. The states with the most farms, she said, include New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and California.
"The CSA provides a base that's certain, and we get the money when we need to spend the money," said Beth Propst, who farms the fields at Erehwon, using the abbreviation for community-supported agriculture. "Having the money upfront and guaranteed, that gets us through at least the beginning of the season."
The operations are as diverse as they are numerous.
Erehwon - the word "nowhere" spelled backward - started with two shareholders, reached its goal of 140 last year and now has raised its target to about 200 members. Another farm in the Chicago area where the community sponsors the crops, Angelic Organics, makes weekly deliveries to more than 1,400 families in Illinois and Wisconsin.
At least 24 vegetable farmers serve an estimated 6,500 members throughout the five boroughs of New York City, said Paula Lukats of Just Food, which connects farmers with residents there. In 2005, there were 37 CSA groups in the city; today, there are 61.
The Golden Earthworm Organic Farm, on 80 acres on the North Fork of Long Island, New York, grew from 10 members in 2000 to about 1,300 this year, according to Matthew Kurek, one of the owners. About half of the members live in Queens, he said, and the farm delivers their weekly shares to six different sites there, mainly churches and community centers, 26 weeks a year. The farm grows arugula (also known as rocket), strawberries and sugar-snap peas in the spring; watermelon, eggplant and tomatoes in the summer; and broccoli, potatoes and carrots in the autumn.
At the Cattleana Ranch in Omro, Wisconsin, Thomas and Susan Wrchota offer grass-fed meat and organic produce through a community- supported arrangement. They have 55 members, and a seven-month meat membership costs $715.
Thomas Wrchota developed a taste for grass-fed beef while working for the Peace Corps in Costa Rica in the 1970s. When he returned home, he said, he was at a loss for that particular flavor and eventually decided to raise animals himself, starting with just one cow.
"We don't do millions in revenue, but we make a living, which is rare," he said. "Our goal is to provide a full portfolio of products for folks who want sustainable products. Up until about five years ago, we had to do a tremendous amount of guerrilla marketing. The consumer who is interested now, they're doing their homework. They know the health and taste benefits."
Teresa Crisco is one such consumer in Little Rock, Arkansas. She is a member of the community-supported agriculture program at the Heifer Ranch, an international humanitarian relief organization that is experimenting with how to make such arrangements more popular and profitable for farmers around the world.
"You feel like you're doing more than one thing: You're helping the project and you're helping yourself," said Crisco, a document specialist at a mortgage company who heard about the program from a friend. "The whole premise is really neat."
Here in Illinois, Erehwon sold out of shares last year and had to turn people away.
Tim Fuller, Propst's longtime companion and business partner in running the farm, said: "People are coming to us. We do very little marketing except for explaining what we do. It's amazing."
With a wry smile, Fuller said he considers himself both personal farmer and personal trainer, because shareholders under his direction are going to break a sweat.
"There's always pressure on," he said. "This is a complicated business, growing so many crops. We do everything by hand for more than 100 different crops."
The farm expects to gross between $80,000 and $90,000 this year.
Some shareholders said they found the arrangement a bargain compared with grocery shopping, while others considered it a worthwhile indulgence. Most agreed that the urge to buy and spend locally - to avoid the costs and environmental degradation that come with shipping and storage - was behind the decision to join. Shareholders can pick up their goods at the farm or at a store across the street.
"From a 'going green' standpoint, it's an appropriate thing to do," said Gerard Brill, a musician who bought a share of Erehwon.
"Like everything organic, it's not a bargain," he said. "But what price do you put on being healthy? Considering all things, it's actually a very good deal."
The downside for people who are used to grocery shopping comes when they want fresh blueberries in January or, as was the case at Erehwon last week, the tomato plants needed more time in the ground because of a cold spring.
"We eat with the seasons, and there's no guarantee that Mother Nature will cooperate," Propst said. "That's all part of the deal."
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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