Diamonds In The Dirt?

Consumers, growers, and corporations predicted imminent failure when organic
agriculture enjoyed an American renaissance in the 1970s. Nobody believed organic food was
important enough to carry its high retail price. Despite the misgivings, organics proved
their human and environmental health benefits to consumers and established a small but
successful market throughout the country. As with most alternative products and trends,
organic agriculture’s marketing potential has been sized up, packaged, and
commodified by corporate giants throughout the country: "organically grown" went
from farmers market buzzword to agribusiness shipping label.

The theory of organic agriculture lies in creating a healthy environment free from
synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; rather than growing in outdoor
laboratory conditions, plants reach fruition naturally. Yet by the nature of the wholesale
system, large-scale organic growers still rely on inherently unhealthy practices:
mono-cropping; underpaid, seasonal labor; soil-exhaustive continuous planting. While major
certified-organic producers don’t use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, they may
dump obscene amounts of quick-to-leach chicken manure on poor soil, carrying hazardous
nitrates directly to groundwater, or blast crops with the non-exclusive, plant-based
pesticide Pyrethrum, killing most (if not all) insects in range, including beneficial
ladybugs and lacewings. What was once a grassroots, environmental boon has become yet
another branch of corporate-run agribusiness, leaving small farmers in search of second
mortgages or alternative markets.

The mistakes of the last decade which lost organics to corporatization spawned a new
movement and, in turn, a market immune to co-opting. The more specific sustainable
agriculture movement not only nurtures the soil and its plants, but grows ecosystems and
communities. In terms of farming, sustainability indicates a stewardship (not ownership)
of the land. While there are no guidelines or certifications for sustainable agriculture,
general practice entails respecting and nurturing a farm as a mini ecosystem of plants,
insects, wildlife, air, water, and soil. On a larger scale, sustainable farms recognize
their place within the community and seek to establish an interdependence with their
non-farming neighbors. Growers concerned about the environment and the public are the new
farm revolutionaries, fighting quietly to reestablish local agriculture as a part of
modern society.

Yet even in communities with successful farmers markets, produce prices are dictated by
multi-thousand acre conglomerates like Cal-Organics and Cascadian Farms. Despite the
emotional power of direct marketing (U-pick, farm stands, and farmers markets), cheap
grocery store prices still win all but the most devoted consumers. To bypass this
predicament, in 1986 Indian Line and Temple Wilton Farms borrowed from the European and
Japanese models to establish the first two American Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
programs. Otherwise known as Subscription Farms, CSAs rearrange the daily food-buying
routine into an agreement between grower and purchaser: families and households pay a lump
sum at the beginning of the season in exchange for a weekly share of a farm’s
vegetables from (roughly) May through October. The response has been phenomenal: In the
late 1980s, 40 CSA farms dotted the country; in 1994 the number had soared to
approximately 400. CSA North America (founded by Indian Line Farm’s Robyn Van En)
predicts the number will rise to 1,000 by the turn of the century, ultimately branching
from a seasonal choice to a permanent alternative to grocery store shopping.

While a 1,000 percent growth over less than a decade warrants excitement, how can
supporters be sure the system is more than a flash in the pan? Of course it is in the
growers’ best interests to hope for CSA’s revolutionary effect:
shareholders’ financial investment insures the farms against crop failures and
natural disasters, while attachment to a specific piece of land lends members’ hearts
and hands to guard against hazardous zoning regulations and environmental threats. Growers
reap social benefits as well, as CSAs create a community accepting and supportive of the
sacrifices farming life entails. Most of all, CSAs build a relationship of care and trust
with their consumers. In this, small farmers have finally found true insulation against
agribusiness’s tendency to steal their markets. There’s no way a corporation can
do it better.

The root of this protection is at once a blessing and a possible curse, for CSA’s
success depends mainly on consumer commitment. While shareholders are rewarded with the
freshest, best tasting food available and a farm to visit and share with their children,
they must sacrifice a fair amount of the choice we cling to so feverishly as Americans.
After joining a CSA, many members relish the time they save by not shopping at the farmers
market or supermarket produce section. Yet many CSA members and most average consumers
continue to balk at being financially tied to one farm. After paying $400 for half a
year’s produce, most American families would be disappointed with a CSA box of less
interesting but seasonally correct vegetables such as kale, lettuce, and radishes.

Some consider giving up this freedom in hopes a CSA will be cheaper than regular
shopping. While membership prices and seasonal produce costs vary, CSAs are generally not
cheaper than shopping at a grocery store (especially considering the American attitude
toward vegetables as a supplement rather than a staple of their diet). The benefits of
belonging to a CSA are less quantifiable than Americans are used to. We are conditioned to
ask "How much does it cost? What will it do for me? What is its immediate
value?" Results must be in the present, even if they are forgotten as quickly as they
came. CSAs reward the community by building bridges between rural and urban sectors and
preserving precious open space. Investing money in local agriculture retains capital
within the community rather than exporting it to corporate offices in an unknown city.
CSA’s results don’t come quickly enough for many Americans.

Yet these direct exchanges we take for granted can be deceiving. Take, for instance,
buying a green pepper at an Oregon supermarket in January. That vegetable most likely came
from Southern California and had to be trucked up North. The maintenance for the highways
came directly from the taxpayers’ pockets, as did the funding for government
agricultural subsidies the producer may have received. When we pay for gas, we shell out
extra cash in taxes to support national petroleum dependency. The addiction is not just to
personal auto use, but to fueling the gas-guzzling trucks used in agricultural
transportation. Since outside the Pacific Northwest, the West Coast’s average annual
rainfall is six inches, there was undoubtedly intensive irrigation involved with the
pepper, likely a government (taxpayer) funded project.

Those are just some of the costs we will pay today; others we will be billed for in the
future. Excessive petroleum usage in transportation and fertilization and the necessary
pumping of that oil will eventually mandate a clean up to be paid for through increased
taxes. The impending nation-wide water shortage due to misuse may see us buying water
from places like Alaska at exorbitant prices, but we will not be able to buy
new soil to replace that which is steeped with chemicals or has eroded into the remaining
waterways. There will come a time when the dirt below us is so dry and contaminated we
will have no choice but to clean it up, perhaps importing all our food until we are able
to sustain ourselves. The supermarket pepper may seem like a good deal at 79 cents a
pound, but considering all the hidden costs, a lot of people might reconsider if they had
to pay the consequences at the checkout counter.

The social and community benefits of Community Supported Agriculture may be the only
way to save ourselves from the impending doom of agriculture’s mistakes. The
necessary commitment to farmers, the community, and the future an individual must make to
join a CSA seems a sacrifice, especially if no one else is doing it. But if we could all
look through the magnifying glass showing the real price of a green pepper, buying food
would become more than just spending money. Perhaps then CSAs could finally call their
revolution a success.

Lisa Hamilton, in addition to being a CSA member, grows her own food and flowers.