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The bounty of community supported agriculture

By Peter Simonson
Prairie Writers Circle

(Wednesday, July 23, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- I have just picked up my weekly bounty: a wooden crate packed with fresh spinach, mixed salad greens, zucchini and a bunch of other vegetables, plus a dozen farm-fresh eggs and a nice, whole chicken raised without hormones or antibiotics.

We joined a CSA this spring -- Community Supported Agriculture. Every Wednesday, we collect our crate at a drop-off house in the area and find it brimming with produce that ripened that week on the small family farm running my CSA here in western Pennsylvania .

It started with lots of greens and eggs and a loaf of fresh bread. Deeper into the growing season, weíve received ripe strawberries, rhubarb and green onions, a chicken every third week, plus less familiar things like arugula and fennel. The harvest changes, and each installment packs variety. The farm helps with recipes in a newsletter.

The number of CSAs is growing. The Robyn Van En Center for Community Supported Agriculture says there are now more than 1,000 across the United States .

They vary, but most follow the model of a small, organic farm or group of farms that sells yearly shares for a predetermined amount of produce to people like me. Full shares are typically more than enough to feed a family of four or five, and are $300 to $450 a year. Many CSAs also sell half-shares, for $200 to $300.

Like mine, many have drop-off points. Where it is practical, members pick up the produce on the farm, where they might also help with the gardens or harvest. Some CSAs deliver. Since CSA farmers sell directly to the consumer, there is no middleman. The shares method helps pay the operating costs and cover some of the risk that accompanies farming.

All CSAs provide fresh produce, and some also supply meat, eggs, cheese, milk, flowers, honey, bread and even fish. The taste of this food is reason enough to join. Everything is fresh, not picked a week or more earlier on the other side of the country -- or the world.

Produce at the supermarket has been engineered to look good through mass production and long travel, but compared with our local farmís produce, it tastes like colored cardboard. CSA farms are local, and they grow crops to provide delicious variety.

That variety has meant eating different things than my family once did, which has made meals and cooking much more interesting.

CSA subscriptions support farms that are human scale and more protective of rural land and water. CSAs typically donít grow genetically engineered crops, douse plants with synthetic herbicides and fertilizer, or raise livestock packed with antibiotics and growth hormones.

And when you buy food through a CSA, you put more of your consumer dollar back into your local economy.

Through newsletters and shareholder visits, these farmers show us that food is a bigger story than one finds in a corporate supermarket.

Sounding much like Big Tobacco of yesterday, Big Food today denies the environmental and health problems posed by its corporate mega-farms, genetically modified crops, huge meat factories, nuclear irradiation, and massive use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. There is a large and growing body of research showing the harms of industrialized agriculture and food production. Recent books like "Fatal Harvest" and "Fast Food Nation" have begun to tell this sorry tale.

CSAs can put America on a road to healthier food and a healthier countryside. Plus the food tastes great.

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Peter Simonson is assistant professor of communications at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina , Kan. To find a CSA in your area, see www.csacenter.org or call the Robyn Van En Center at Wilson College in Chambersburg , Pa. , 717-264-4141, ext. 3352.