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Community Supported Agriculture Puts Its Roots Down in Whatcom County

August 2003

Cover Story

Community Supported Agriculture Puts Its Roots Down in Whatcom County

by Tara Nelson

Tara Nelson studies environmental journalism at Western Washington University. She has been published in The Planet, the Huxley College of the Environment magazine, Anacortes American and Anacortes Online newspapers as well as other publications.

Long before the first summer harvest of organic fruits and vegetables, Mike Neuroth and Kristen Maring of K&M Red River Farm are out in the cool spring air, plowing soil and weeding rows of delicate lettuce sprouts. This year, the two Lummi Island farmers will not have to worry about securing funds to help with the costs of production, because they already sold several subscriptions of produce shares months before the season started.

Maring said she and Neuroth have been farming organically for six years, but this is their first year offering produce shares as part of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

This program, a direct marketing approach to selling produce, is growing rapidly in the United States, said Leslie Zenz from the Washington State Department of Agriculture. K&M is just one of several small farms in Whatcom County offering produce subscriptions.

Farmers estimate a total budget for seeds, equipment and labor, and then seek out local subscribers to pay a portion of the total costs before the crops are harvested— usually $300. In return, subscribers receive a box of locally grown organic produce every week for nearly 20 weeks once the season is underway.

Return Worth the Cost

Local customer Janet Bergstrom, of Everson, said the return is well worth the cost. “I like organic produce and supporting local farmers,” she said. “The quality is excellent, and the quantity is incredible.” She and her husband have been involved with CSA programs for two years.

Last year they subscribed to Growing Garden, an organic farm in Bellingham. Bergstrom said she enjoys the convenience of avoiding trips to the grocery store, as well as the quality of organically grown produce. “So many of us don’t question where our food comes from,” she said. “We’re pretty well removed from our food. I’d rather support my friends and community any day than go to Costco.”

Some CSA farmers have also experimented with selling shares of meat. Former Bellingham resident Jim Hutson, of Whispering Springs Farm in Rochester, Wash., said he began offering shares of organic, pastured (grown outdoors) meat for the first time in March.

Hutson has already filled 40 subscriptions. “Certified organic meats have been real well received,” he said. “We basically said, ‘If people will do it for vegetables, they’ll do it for meat.’ ” Hutson and his wife and their five kids operate the 20-acre farm approximately 30 minutes south of Olympia. Direct marketing gives his family the stability of knowing they have an income.

Community Agriculture Doesn’t Solve Every Problem

Vivian Small, of Small’s Garden in Bellingham, said she and her husband sell conventionally grown produce to local supermarkets and operate a roadside stand. She said they attempted to directly market their produce at the Bellingham Farmers Market, but it left them disillusioned.

With an already heavy workload, it was too labor intensive and time consuming. Small said, “We only went in about three times because it just didn’t sit well in our schedule. We just said, ‘It’s not worth it.’ ” Small also mentioned, however, that she enjoys the idea of farmers interacting with the consumers. “Customers get to be like family,” she said. “It’s like meeting an old friend all over again.”

Charles Antholt, professor of agricultural economics at Western Washington University (WWU), is owner and operator of Three Pheasants Farm, a small organic farm on Lummi Island. He said that while buying local helps support small local farmers, trying to halt imported produce would be like “throwing consumer interest out the window.”

Antholt said, “People talk about supporting local products, and I think it’s a good idea. But I can’t sell people rice, pineapple or mango. If you wanted a pineapple or a mango, you’re not going to get it from Whatcom County—it’s too damn cold!”

He said a global marketplace is also important because it provides opportunities for small farmers around the world. “There are a lot of small farmers who grow bananas or rice around the world. I think these global connections are important because they give consumers a lot of choices.”

Rabel Burdge, professor of rural sociology at WWU, said agriculture productivity in the United States and in Whatcom County has increased dramatically since 1960. He said this trend has resulted in a concentration in agriculture, which means fewer farmers and more specialization. “The trend is interesting,” Burdge said. “It’s sort of like a dumbbell. We have one end where we have a lot of big farms, and on the other end we have small farms, but nothing in the middle.”

Burdge said this trend has resulted in agricultural practices becoming more concentrated and specialized, which contributes to the “internationalization of agriculture.”

Climate Advantage

He went on to explain that certain climates tend to grow some produce better, meaning they have a comparative advantage. “For example, New Zealand exports apples. They have a comparative advantage, and that’s the same notion that the World Trade Organization is built on. Different parts of the world have different advantages, and they should produce what it is they do best.”

Burdge said, however, that one of the problems associated with concentration of agriculture is the closing of local farm businesses, such as farm equipment dealers, due to a lack of demand. “You have to have a certain number of farmers to support local business. As agriculture becomes consolidated, many of these businesses are closing. This is a particular problem in Skagit County.”

Direct marketing is an attempt to bypass the problems associated with the conventional food distribution system, Burdge said. Other examples of direct marketing in agriculture include farmer’s markets and roadside stands. He said he thinks CSA programs will be successful as long as the population exists to support it.

Leslie Zenz, program manager for the Small Farm and Direct Marketing program of the state Department of Agriculture, said many people want to see a change in America’s food system. “A lot of people wish to decentralize the food system,” she said. “It is becoming clear that people are interested in more than just the way the food is processed.”

Although community supported agriculture programs do not address all the issues in our food system, they benefit Bellingham by bringing local farmers and consumers together.

Reprinted from The Western Front.

Sample of Produce Available by Month
AprilSalad mix, radishes, winter greens
MaySalad mix, lettuce, radishes, winter greens
JuneBeets, carrots, peas, spinach, salad mix, strawberries, potatoes
JulyFlowers, sweet onions, raspberries, cherries, zucchini, basil, potatoes, salad mix, nectarines
AugustTomatoes, potatoes, garlic, green beans, cucumbers, dill, summer squash, peaches, salad mix
SeptemberCelery, onions, garlic, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage
OctoberCauliflower, cabbage, winter squash, potatoes, broccoli, kale
NovemberCauliflower, cabbage, winter squash, potatoes, broccoli, kale

Source: Kristen Maring of K&M Red River Farm

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