Farming and the Return of the Local Economy

Discover how the rise of farmers markets and CSA programs are helping to bolster local economies and eliminate the inherent risks of farming.


| December 2015



farmer in field with sheep

Fed up with the industrial food system, people are turning to locally-produced food products more and more, whether via farmers markets and CSA programs or their own gardens.


Photo by Pam Kleppel

Farmer-ecologist Gary Kleppel argues that industrial food production is incompatible with the realities of nature, science and ethics in The Emergent Agriculture (New Society Publishers, 2014). Through a collection of lyrical essays Kleppel makes the case for a locally based food system. The following excerpt discusses how CSA programs can help enliven local economies and reduce some of the risks to farmers’ profit margins.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Emergent Agriculture.

On September 20, 2011, just after noon, I was sitting in a third floor conference room in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, as a member of New York State’s Agriculture Working Group. Richard Ball was explaining how row crop farmers make a living. “Every spring,” he began, “You take a loan and you buy your seeds and your fertilizer. You plant and tend and harvest your crop. You sell your harvest, pay off your loan, pay your help and your mortgage, and maybe put a little in the bank. That’s how agriculture works.” He continued, “When a natural disaster takes out your crop three days before the harvest, you have nothing left. You can’t pay your loan. You can’t pay your help, or your mortgage, or anything. You’re finished.” This was about three weeks after Hurricane Irene ravaged the agricultural landscapes of the Hudson, Mohawk, and Schoharie Valleys of New York State.

The members of the Agriculture Working Group had been listening to USDA representatives describe the various loan programs available to farmers to help them pick up the pieces. To my left sat a large, ruddy-faced fellow — an onion farmer from the “black dirt” region of the lower Hudson River Valley — with a stoic expression that concealed deep pain. “How the hell am I supposed to take another loan?” He whispered. “I already owe two hundred thousand. What…I’m supposed to ask my wife to go to the bank and borrow another hundred grand? Can’t do it.” I realized that he probably would not be back for next year’s working group meeting.

Enter Thomas Christenfeld. With his wife Liz, Thomas owns The Alleged Farm in Valley Falls, New York, in rural Washington County. Thomas grows excellent vegetables that he sells through a CSA — Community Supported Agriculture — program. Every April, each of the 350 or so members or member-families of The Alleged Farm’s CSA writes a check to Thomas for about 500 dollars. Thomas uses that money to buy his seeds, pay his help and the mortgage, and put a little in the bank (if the tractor doesn’t break down). Every week, from June through late October or early November, each “shareholder” gets a box of vegetables. Usually, the boxes start out pretty light — some greens and lettuces. By late June, however, the boxes are burgeoning with all manner of colorful, textural produce. And along with the produce comes Thomas’ weekly newsletter. Thomas was trained as a writer (with degrees from Harvard and Stanford) so the newsletters are well crafted and usually full of humor (Thomas’ writing style reminds me of Mark Twain). Embedded within the prose are subtle messages about the importance of family and farming, about how the unpredictability of the weather drives farmers crazy, and about the inevitability of weeds. There is always a description of the vegetables in the week’s share and some recipes (usually involving olive oil, garlic, and a skillet). All-in-all, shareholders come away with well over 500 dollars’ worth of vegetables, and some pretty inspiring reading.

A few years ago Thomas hurt his back. He had real trouble working and ultimately he needed surgery. The boxes of vegetables were light that season but, in the end, Thomas paid his bills. The following season the boxes were once again full. The Alleged Farm had come through the crisis — not without pain, but with farm and family intact. Thomas’ shareholders had shared more than vegetables that year. They had come to appreciate what the “community supported” part of CSA means. That is part of the reason why the Alleged Farm made it through. Thomas’ injury might have been devastating had The Alleged Farm functioned on the conventional model. As a CSA, however, the impact of the disaster was spread among the shareholders and, in the end, the Christenfelds and all of the families for whom they grow food still had a farm from which that food would continue to come. The CSA is a hallmark of the new approach to farming that recognizes, first and foremost, the importance of managing, and where possible, eliminating debt. Secondarily, the paradigm shift in agriculture is characterized by a focus on direct, retail markets. Wholesale and commodities are certainly components of many operations, particularly mid-sized and large operations, but direct marketing is a cornerstone of the emergent system. The CSA model addresses both elements — debt reduction and direct marketing.

roberte
3/9/2016 9:06:17 AM

I have been wrestling with this issue for some time now. Small towns are dying. Everyone says that it is the lack of jobs. That is certainly part of it but there is more and it is very complex. First, we can't look to the government for answers. Their only interest is the macroeconomic numbers. Only the local people can impact the microeconomic issues of an area. Second, within that context, we as individuals must make choices that might be difficult. We must keep more of our money locally and less nationally. I live fifty miles from the nearest bookstore and therefore usually order a book on-line. That is very convenient but 100% of the money I spend goes somewhere else to benefit another community, not mine! In short, we must support each other locally even if we can't get instant or next day satisfaction. The more money that goes elsewhere, the less money stays home to cover the local costs. Our nationwide attitude is nice for the big players but eventually hurts the local level.






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