Raising good food, harvesting strong relationships

Southwest Michigan farmers and fresh-food loving consumers are part of a green revolution that's growing out of a partnership that brings fruit, veggies and an array of specialty products from local farms to city tables in Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and across the region.
 
It's an evolution away from big box grocery stores and vegetables grown in warehouses under fluorescent lights toward the rolling, lush  fields of farms that are thriving thanks to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). 

Through a CSA, farmers and consumers become financial partners. The consumers, or subscribers, pay farmers prior to planting, giving farmers money to buy seeds, supplies and bring crops to harvest.

The financial aspect is just one of the novel arrangements of CSAs. They also return control of knowing where food comes from back to consumers, and in some cases allow subscribers to work on farms as a way to pay for their food. They create relationships that go beyond the business.

It's working so well in Southwest Michigan that farmers, who know how just much they can plant and raise, are turning away paying customers and more CSAs are springing up to meet the demand.

Although CSAs likely have been around since as far back as the 1930s in other countries, they gained popularity in the United States in the 1980s, starting in the New England states and gradually spreading nation-wide.

"The CSA movement began as a response to the agricultural trend toward factory farming and away from small farmers who were steadily losing their land and way of life," says Aliisa Lahti. She's co-coordinator of the Heron Homestead, a Kalamazoo CSA that offers mustard greens, spinach, kale, kohlrabi and at least 20 other vegetables to some the 20 to 40 members it has each year.
 
In one of Heron's eco-friendly policies, buyers interested in cutting down on oil consumption can pay a fee to have food delivered by bike.
 
The number of local CSA farms stretching from Battle Creek to Kalamazoo to Fennville and near the Indiana border hit 28 at last unofficial count on the Web site LocalHarvest. There are at least nine CSA farms in Kalamazoo County. Each has from five to 120 subscribers.
 
Farmers' markets work with CSAs and hospitals are joining in too.

Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo is hosting Scobey's Produce, of Wayland, and making shares available to hospital employees. Last year Borgess Health offered a farmers' market the fourth Friday of every month during growing season.

Customers typically find CSA farmers through word of mouth, at local farm markets and online at sites such as LocalHarvest or the Yahoo! group EatLocalSWMich.

Once farmers and customers have made a connection, farmers sell shares or half-shares each spring.  Sign-up already has begun for this year.

Share owners get a box of produce each week or every other week of the growing season starting in late May or early June and ending in October. It's delivered or picked up at various sites. A share can cost  $160 to $500 each, depending on what's in a box and which farm grew it.

"What you get in your box depends on what produces well during that time of year," Lahti says.

Some CSAs offer more than produce, including eggs or meat.
 
"Our family just concluded a winter CSA that offered organic produce from a farmer and cookies and breads from a local baker," says Paul Stermer, executive director of Fair Food Matters in Kalamazoo. "There are often shares available for items like baked goods, meat products, cheese, eggs, milk, fish, honey and even beer."  

Fair Food Matters is a local advocacy group that promotes eating food grown locally. Its community garden, food-business incubator and film festival are meant to shine a light on the benefits of eating local, particularly food found at farm markets and CSAs.
 
"Early CSAs were often initiated by the consumer out of a concern for organic and local food," says Dale Hasenick, owner of White Yarrow Farms in Marcellus. He works with about 65 households and has drop-off points for vegetables in Kalamazoo and Three Rivers.

"CSA farming is all about the relationship between the farmer and the eaters."

Relationships for many CSA farmers act as their sustaining life blood, allowing smaller farms to compete against industrial farming.
 
Many CSAs host seasonal events to foster those relationships. White Yarrow Farms puts on an annual potato planting potluck in April and a potluck in October.

"Subscribers know that they are invested in their CSA farm," says Ben Karle, a White Yarrow Farm subscriber. "Every CSA farmer I've ever known is incredibly passionate about his or her job and the relationships that come out of the process are great. My wife and I are into our second year working with our CSA and we've had nothing but wonderful experiences."
 
With an eye on increasing access to CSAs, some farmers accept food stamps and offer subsidies and payment plans. There are  also more back-to-the-earth approaches to purchasing.
 
"We offer work shares where people can work for their weekly boxes," Hasenick says.
 
The Karles, of Three Rivers, opted to work for their weekly share of the bounty. He's a therapist and case manager Community Mental Health of St. Joseph County. She teaches at Three River High School. Last year, they tended tomatoes, potatoes, egg plant, onions, beans, squash and more.

"At this point, if our CSA offered us a paid subscription we would still choose to work on the farm because of all of the things we have learned out there," Ben Karle says. "There's a sense of really being a part of it all, and the two-and-a-half hours of quiet time on the farm a week are great."

Stacie Carlson is a freelance writer, who lives and grows mostly flowers, but sometimes beans and squash, in Kalamazoo, andhas written locally and regionally for 12 years.

Photos by Erik Holladay

http://www.eholladay.com/

Aliisa Lahti, co-coordinator of Heron Homestead, prunes blueberry bushes.

Aliisa Lahti, co-coordinator of Heron Homestead, prunes blueberry bushes on the large plot of land that they grow fruits and vegetables on just north of Downtown Kalamazoo.

Aliisa Lahti, co-coordinator of Heron Homestead.

Red onion sprouts just start to grow in the green house at White Yarrow Farm.

Dale Hasenick, owner of White Yarrow Farm.

Dale Hasenick, owner of White Yarrow Farm, gets help digging up carrots from a group of Calvin College students on spring break.

A group of Calvin College students helps Dale Hasenick, owner of White Yarrow Farm in Marcellus, dig up carrots.

Dale Hasenick, owner of White Yarrow Farm, washes down a harvest of carrots from his CSA in Marcellus.

Winter carrots have the dirt washed off them at White Yarrow Farm in Marcellus.

Dale Hasenick, owner of White Yarrow Farm, stands in his muck-boots as he talks to a group of Calvin College students about what kinds of crops he plants for the CSA.

Pasture chicken eggs are another item Dale Hasenick, owner of White Yarrow Farm, offers as a part of his CSA weekly box.

Dale Hasenick, owner of White Yarrow Farm, collects chicken eggs.

Chickens gather at the feet of Dale Hasenick as he collects eggs at White Yarrow Farm in Marcellus.

A lettuce seedling bursts out of the dirt in one of the greenhouses on Dale Hasenick's farm in Marcellus.

Dale Hasenick, owner of White Yarrow Farm, fixes a row covering in one of the greenhouses he maintains.

Dale Hasenick, owner of White Yarrow Farm in Marcellus.