A Reverse CSA: Turning Unused Land Into Food

Reader Contribution by Kurt Jacobson
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Kurt and Bill laying ground cover material. Photo by Melissa Clemens

I love the idea of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where a farmer supplies subscribers a basket of produce each week. Throughout the growing season, subscribers get a surprise basket of tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, or whatever else the farmer can grow and harvest. This way of getting produce direct to consumers is an excellent model of food procurement, but since I already grow much of my own produce, it doesn’t work for me.

I have a tiny backyard garden and yearn for more land to plant with crops like watermelon, peppers, tomatoes, and corn. A farmer I know just up the road in Kingsville Maryland owns Wilbur’s Farm has more land than he can work each growing season. For the last five years I’ve got to know farmer Bill and have been buying his produce I’m not able to grow on my little plot. Back in late March I approached Bill and asked if we could do a “Reverse CSA” this year where I’d plant on a section of his farm and give him one-quarter of the crops.

I told Bill my responsibility would be to prep the two rows of approximately 100 feet long, plant seeds, starter plants, and do all weeding. Bill wouldn’t have to contribute anything except the land. It wouldn’t be just myself working the reverse CSA. I’d have two of my neighbors and their kids to help plant, weed, pick, and water. Each household would get one-quarter of the yield and pay 33% of the costs to buy seeds, tomato cages, and other supplies.

My neighbors were excited to be able to grow veggies and get the kids out on the farm to see where some of their food comes from. In this day and age, most kids have little or no idea of where vegetables and fruit are sourced. Many kids think this food comes from the grocery store. By introducing kids to farming, even on a small scale like this reverse CSA, it teaches them about nature and the environment. The benefits to the three families are, growing our produce organically, teaching their kids about vegetable gardening, helping a farmer, and possibly giving lots of excess bounty to local food banks.

My farmer friend Bill gets is to see some of his organic growing land turn out food for three families, possibly more. He will no doubt benefit from my neighbors telling their friends about Wilbur’s Farm which will hopefully lead to more customers for Bill. Plus I help Bill out when I have time to spare. Bill and I laid the ground-cover material, a job that’s easier if the farmer has a helper.

What I get out of this is an experience to share with the world, and a chance to grow more veggies than my backyard will tolerate. I suspect there are other farmers out there who would love to see this model of a reverse CSA on their land. North America has an abundance of farmland, and quite a bit of it isn’t used each year. I love the idea of turning this unused farmland into a ton of produce for other reverse CSAs.

Mind you this is not the easiest way to grow vegetables. I have to work around Bill’s schedule, so I’m not constricting his work. I also have to work around my travel writer schedule to plant, weed, and water. So far this year has been one of the wettest in my nine years of living in the area. Each time I was ready to plant, Mother Nature dumped more rain on already muddy fields. I missed three opportunities when planting conditions would have been perfect due to my travel schedule. The crops I started indoors with a new grow-light system were getting root-bound and needed to be in the ground soon.

The golden opportunity came on May 29th when I planted some 30 seedlings of green beans, tomatoes, delicata squash, and bell peppers in one of two rows Bill let me use. Then again on Saturday, June 2nd I was able to gather Erin, Dana, and two of their kids to head out to the farm and plant corn, peppers, watermelon, and tomatoes. It was great fun to see the kids taking turns to see who got to plant the seedlings. If they enjoy weeding and picking that much the future looks great.

Kurt and kids at the farm. Photo by Erin Parsons

Our first crop will probably be green beans or Brad’s Atomic grape tomatoes. I plan on writing an update when August rolls around to report our progress. The future of farming is unsure, but if you take a hand in growing your own vegetables, you can help yourself and a farmer with a reverse CSA. Why not start looking around your area and find a farmer that might want to help you start your own garden of paradise for next year’s growing season?

Kurt Jacobsohas been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fourth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening and is volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn real organic gardening. For this and other recipes using garden greens, and more fresh veggies check out his food blog. For tasty travel ideas check out Kurt’s travel blog, TasteofTravel2.com. Read all of Kurt’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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