Consider a couple of tomatoes: One has been genetically altered not to spoil as it's trucked over thousands of miles of interstates; the other has been plucked fresh from the vine at your local farm. One is tainted with pesticides, the other doused with only rainfall and fortified by nutrients from the soil.
These key distinctions are compelling some Hill Country residents to turn to Community Supported Agriculture — a way of investing in organic produce, their health, and the environment.
Cathy Schultz, mother of four in Kyle, Texas, ticks off the reasons she prefers buying her produce directly from a farmer. "He comes right to our door. It definitely encourages us to eat healthier. In most cases he has picked it just that morning. I wanted to support a healthy, local business."
Sarah Farwell, a massage therapist also in Kyle, buys from the same farmer and adds that it's a bargain. And she says the flavor "is another dimension."
Both women are members of a Community Supported Agriculture farm, called a CSA. Every week "their" farmer, Tim Miller, delivers one grocery bag of fresh-picked organic produce and free-range eggs to their house for $15.
Miller, who has been a CSA farmer for more than 10 years, has a steady customer base for his produce, which assures a predictable income. He started the enterprise when he sold produce to people in his wife's exercise class in Austin. The exercisers soon became hooked and checked off on a slip of paper which vegetables they wanted to be delivered the following week.
Now Miller chooses his clientele. "I like to meet customers," Miller says, "I'm picky." Miller says he looks for families with children and people who are committed to the idea.
Although each CSA works differently, using a general model, CSA members buy a "share" in the farm, which returns its investment in fresh organic produce.
Some farms accept labor as either partial or full payment for a "share," the cost of which ranges from $300 to $600 a year. Some farmers accept monthly installments; others prefer an annual payment. Some farmers, like Miller, will deliver the produce to member's homes, and others will have a distribution point, such as an office building parking lot. Still others let members harvest their own produce.
The risk to the member is that there will be a shortage of produce due to a freeze, pests, or drought. Also, as Farwell explains, a family might have to change the way it plans meals; it's not like going to the grocery with a prepared weekly menu. "You don't really have a choice. You can't say 'I'd really like corn.'"
The CSA movement started in Japan, where "community supported agriculture" translates roughly to "food with the farmer's face on it." Japanese women had become worried about pesticides, imported foods, and the decline in the numbers of farmers. They began a buy-from-the-farmer program that would benefit both parties.
The idea hit the U.S. in 1984, when Robyn Van En started a pick-your-own apple orchard in the Massachusetts. Now there are about 1,000 CSA farms in the U.S., including 11 in Texas, four of them in the Hill Country.
Harold Miller, no relation to farmer Tim Miller, is a doctor from Austin who is starting the Hill Country's newest CSA. He grew interested in subsistence farming in the '70s when the back-to-the-land movement became popular. "It's been in my mind for years and years. I've gotten all my kids raised and out of the house. It's hard to do subsistence farming and put three kids through college."
Miller bought nine acres in Mountain Home, northwest of Kerrville, next to a 30-acre parcel owned by his daughter and son-in-law. He has one 10,000-square-foot plot ready for planting this spring, and has applied for organic certification from the state. This year, because he is just beginning the farm, Miller is accepting labor in lieu of payments as shares in his CSA.
"I've had a lot of interest from San Antonio," Miller says, and although he won't be able to deliver produce to San Antonians from Mountain Home, he's willing to make other arrangements.
Miller sees the organic movement, and CSAs, as a solution to the harmful effects of the agri-industry, including hooking commercial farms on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. When DDT was introduced, Miller recalls, it was billed as a miracle solution to insect problems. He can remember trucks spraying DDT around his neighborhood and reading Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, that pointed out the dangers of DDT. Carson warned that continued use of DDT would wipe out all the songbirds in America. "The California condor is still trying to recover," notes Miller, referring to the near-extinction of the bird because of DDT use. "The biggest problem is the law of unforeseen consequences."
Ultimately Miller is interested in building a community around his farm. He hopes to recruit members who will commit to the idea long-term, and who will come out to the farm to help grow their own food.
Miller draws a parallel between farming and medicine; in the era of managed care, the family doctor no longer is necessarily involved in every aspect of treatment for a patient. Some people don't know who their primary doctor is, says Miller. It's medicine without a face. "Maybe what we've lost in medicine we can regain in agriculture." When it is nutritious and personalized, food can be a great healer.
Community supported agriculture resources
Hill Country Organic Farms
P.O. Box 113
Mountain Home, TX 78058
737 Opal Lane
Kyle, TX 78640
Piggy Back Ridge Farms
968 County Road 439
Stockdale, TX 78160