Photo courtesy of Daphne Hougard
Recently, I've been playing with a soapbox idea about the misunderstanding behind the meaning of CSA. And for good reason...Just the other day, I saw a poster where a farmer was promoting their CSA program but no where on the poster did it explain what CSA meant or stood for.

Why? Because most people associate CSA with meaning "the delivery of a weekly box of vegetables" where a person pays in advance to share in a farmer's risk and celebration of that season's harvest.

But...CSA stands for "Community Supported Agriculture" which is a lot richer and goes lot deeper than just a  vegetable subscription. I'm not knocking veggie box programs and farmers' markets. They are responsible for the sustainble, food movement in this country but its time to take it to the next level and truly support our local agriculture by providing small-scale farms with a variety of distribution models beyond direct-to-consumer but to wholesale markets like restaurants, grocery stores, schools and hospitals. The whole purpose of the food movement is to get regionally produced, ecologically grown food to more people. To do that we have to make it available. Veggie boxes don't work for everyone and farmers' markets are only one day a week. The answer is not more farmers' markets. Farmer's markets require a lot of a farmer's time and money. And only 5% of people shop at farmers' markets. We need to get good food in more places everyday! By opening up wholesale markets to farmers and ranchers, we start to build a regional food system and we  rely on what's available within 100-150 miles. Small farms can't compete on price and volume in a national food system but they can compete on a regional level. It creates new opportunity for them, more healthy food for us and money circulates locally for stronger, more resilient economies.

...That was meant to be an introduction for an article I wrote about how veggie box programs kick-started the food movement. It just hit newsstands in the recent issue of edible Reno-Tahoe. Read the article, "Behind the Box" by clicking here. When I was writing the article, it got me thinking about this misunderstanding of CSA's. I've developing this theory "behind CSA's" ever since. And I've realized that the essence of "Community Supported Agriculture" is building a regional food system. Similar to what we are doing at the Tahoe Food Hub. The introduction above is really the third development of this theory. The second draft appeared on the food blog Handpicked Nation on January 3rd.

I just had a series of articles come out in the most recent issue of "Edible Reno-Tahoe" magazine. Here is the first in that series! It is a profile that I did of an organic farm just west of Reno, in Fallon, NV. The entire article can be found online or in print if you live in the Reno-Tahoe area. Otherwise, click here!

“I’m worried we don’t have a good story,” Terri Marsh says modestly as we get acquainted and walk across the drive to meet the chickens. “Every farm has a story,” I say.  It quickly became evident that Rise and Shine Farms most certainly did have a story.

Driven by a changing economy and a desire to be self-sustaining, Terri and Mike Marsh decided to supplement their professional careers with a market farm on their property just west of Fallon. The Marshes started with a small, 14-person egg community-supported agriculture program (CSA) in 2006. By the next year, they had expanded to a 78-person egg and vegetable CSA. With that, Rise and Shine Farms was born...

Read the rest of the article in the Spring 2012 issue of Edible Reno-Tahoe, click here!

The last few weeks have been a crash course in Northern Nevada's growing food movement. I've had the great fortune to meet many of the people involved in helping to protect and facilitate the agricultural potential of the area.

I've interviewed local compost experts for an article in Edible Reno-Tahoe, got wind of the dirty business of Waste Management Inc., spoke at a town council meeting opposing the the rezoning of agricultural land to light-industrial and most recently, attended a one-day workshop to learn more about subscription farming for small farms, aka community supported agriculture (CSA). Here are a couple of those stories...

Craig Witt of Full Circle Compost checking the core temperature of the compost windrow.
For the magazine article, I interviewed two fascinating characters. Each own and operate their own regional, composting facility in Northern Nevada. With every master composter I meet, one thing is clear...they intoxicate others with their knowledge. Soil is their caffeine driving them to share the secret they hold, that compost can transform our depleted soils naturally. They understand the innumerable ecological benefits that compost can have not only on our soil but the environment. They root tirelessly in hopes that their theories become accepted and embraced by the mainstream. With my affinity for the stuff and aspirations to understand as much as I can, I'm like a disciple in their presence; listening to every word like a child hinged on the tale of a bedtime story. See Craig' vermicomposting video at the bottom of this post.

Craig Witt of Full Circle Compost in Minden has been composting professionally for over 20-years and farming since he was old enough to walk. He is the Joel Salatin of Soil. Energetic and evangelic in his passion for soil's biology. We easily blew six hours one afternoon talking about compost recipes, books on the subject, philosophies and more. When I left, he loaded me up with his homemade jalapeno jelly and zucchini relish. Yum! His composting site is located at the Carson City Correctional Facility where inmates on good behavior learn the trade and basically run the compost operation. I was equally impressed with the prison itself. I had never been to one before. As we checked in at the guard house, a prisoner who was in the yard just outside the building, came up to a drive-thru type window asking the guard about the "big dude" who had arrived the day before with seven others. Eegh! It was quite exciting.

Burlap coffee sacks from ALL the Starbucks in Northern Nevada. Whoa!
Alongside the compost site is the prison's organic dairy which feeds all the prisons in Northern Nevada and next to that is the Saddle Training Program. Here, 600 Wild Mustangs captured by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), wait to be gentled and later adopted by regular citizens. It serves as a rehabilitation program for the inmates who are assigned a mustang to break and make ready for adoption. Prison is sounding pretty good these days. Wonder if they are taking applications? Just kidding ;)

Tom Donovan with RT Donovan Landscape in Sparks on the other hand has only been composting for 2-years. Tom carries a Clint Eastwood-cowboy quality and speaks with a subtle, western drawl. His no-nonsense approach to composting wrangles all my loose-ends on the subject. He speaks compost in terms that a layman can understand and I appreciate.

In an effort to diversify their family's 50-year old sand and gravel company, they repurposed a portion of their property for collections and composting of organic material. Sand & gravel was a multi-million dollar business for RTD but it has whittled down significantly over the past few years due to the housing crash. Composting is proving to be promising business.

As I entered the conference room on the Western Nevada College campus in Fallon, I was delighted to see a packed room of 65-participants for the CSA workshop. Only a handful currently ran a CSA meaning the majority where there to learn the basic steps to incorporate a subscription program into their farming business. Phenomenal!! More farmers!

A subscription program, or CSA, is where people pay a farmer up-front for food grown and in return, receive a box of veggies every week from Spring to Fall. CSA's are happening all across the United States. They are the easiest way to become better connected to  where our food comes from while at the same time giving farmers a fair price for their hard work but cutting out the middleman.

All the speakers were fantastic but Wendy Baroli with Girl Farm really sent people home with something to think about. Unscripted, she commanded the room with a presentation from the heart. Whether one implemented her alternative CSA model or not, she provided excellent take-away's for everyone; namely, know your customer! Her customers are working owners meaning they are not just members and they are more than volunteers. Each pay $2500/year for 14-months to be part owner in Girl Farm. In return, they get loads of vegetables plus eggs, lamb, pork, chicken and turkey. As owners, they are required to work one day every two weeks. It may seem like a lot of time and money but it would cost a lot more to own your own farm. As Wendy puts it, "You don't have to own you own farm, you can get together with your neighbors and own a farm together." That is in essence what they are doing. In its purest form, a CSA member shares in the risk with his/her farmer. But until you are part owner, is that risk tangible. Their co-owners are invested!

Craig Witt with Full Circle Compost of Minden, NV explains Vermicomposting!
Brunty Farm Owners:Jeff Brunty and Melanie Schenk
I'm a farm tour junkie... I love visiting different farms, meeting the growers, hearing their story and learning new practices. I seriously get a natural high going from field to barn to field discovering new things. Yesterday, I toured Brunty Farms in Peninsula, OH. It is one of eleven farms in Cuyahoga Valley's Countryside Initiative.

The Initiative reestablishes old farmsteads once operated in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Farm houses are restored and land is prepared in anticipation of its new caretakers who lease the property and agree to farm it. Since the programs conception in 1999, one to two farms have come available each year. Applicants must demonstrate not only their financial commitment but their commitment to environmental stewardship. While not expected to be certified organic, every farm is expected to follow sustainable farming practices. At a time when farmland is being lost to development; people are looking to green their careers and get into farming; and communities are seeking local food sources, the Countryside Initiative is a program right for the times. Currently, it is the only lease-to-farm program operating in National Parks. The model, however, can be adapted by any land trust, municipality, land grant or landowner.

Jeff Brunty is a growing breed of "greenhorns" - passionate, young people finding a career and future in farming. He got his start with seven chickens ten years ago raising them in his great, great grandfather's barn. He managed the growing chicken business on the side till 2008 when he learned about the Countryside Initiative. He and his girlfriend, Melanie, applied and were accepted. Just four years out of high school and he was running his own farm. Melanie had a degree in international business but chose rubber boots over high heels to help make Brunty Farms a reality. She works the 2-acre vegetable garden and Jeff raises the chickens, lambs, ducks, turkeys and pigs. Together they make a dynamic team farming 17-acres servicing a 100-person CSA, one farmer's market and a robust farm stand.

They keep 350 egg-laying hens and raise 9,000 meat chickens annually (broilers). They process all their own broilers on-site making it the largest private operation in the state of Ohio with plans to expand to 20,000 over the next year. And that's just the chicken's. They raise 400 Broad-Breasted White Turkey's for the holidays as well. These poultry 'without borders' enjoy a plentiful supply of pasture foraging for bugs and eating grass. During our visit, brush piles smoldered in the fields where the turkeys roamed. They are a form of pest control for the turkeys. Watch this video to find out why, click here. The coolest fact of the day...was learning the difference between white eggs and brown eggs. White eggs actually come from white chickens. They are often used in conventional chicken operations because they are small and more can be crammed into a cage. But when allowed to forage, they will eat 40% of their diet on pasture requiring less feed. Brown eggs give the appearance of being more farmy and wholesome but actually these birds are a bit lazy and eat less than 20% of their diet on pasture thus eating more feed. Not only are the brown eggs more expense to raise but without a more natural diet aren't as nutritious as the white eggs. Go figure! Brunty has both white egg-laying hens and brown egg-laying hens, White Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds, respectively.

The highlight on any farm tour, for me at least, are the pigs. They are such showmen. Pigs have BIG personality!The Brunty pigs were no different rooting and trotting around their lavish 3-4 acre marshy estate with floppy ears.  Watch this video to see them at their piggyness.

Right to Left: Floyd the beekeeper, Me and my niece Allyson.
Haven't had enough video yet...watch Jeff call the lambs over for a snack break, click here. And we also had a chance encounter with the beekeeper. He was arriving just as we were leaving and invited me my niece, Allyson, who had joined me for the day if we wanted a closer look. They were getting the hives ready for winter helping the bees bulk up their stores by giving them a little sugar water. And ever wander what those oil-can looking things are that beekeepers use when opening the lid to a bee colony? They have a little fire inside and the smoke is used to confuse the bees so they don't press the panic button when the beekeeper is examining the hive. Take a peak through the zoom lens to learn more, click here.

It was just past 8am as we rumbled along country roads through the rolling hills of Amish country south of Oberlin. The humidity index was already pushing 80% as thunder clouds hovered above treetops. It was going to be a hot and muggy day. We would spend the better part of the morning visiting seven Amish farms and picking up vegetables for Northeast Ohio's progressive CSA program, City Fresh. And that's just for today. Four days a week, collections are made from a pool of 25 farms which supply shares to over 800 members throughout City Fresh's three counties. it progressive because...scaled pricing helps more privileged neighbors subsidize the cost of a share for low-income neighbors. Pick-up locations are called "Fresh Stops" which basically puts a farmers market where a farmer's market would not normally exist...in the inner city. It is just one way that NE Ohio is striving to improve access to healthy, quality, local food especially in economically deprived, urban areas where availability is the weakest..

Pictured here is the farm of Reuben and Mary, our first pick-up. Dogs barked and kids peaked around barn doors as we entered the yard. Never had I had cause or reason to enter the property of an Amish family. I felt honored and humbled. Honored to have the opportunity to visit and meet members of this private community at their home. And humbled by their sustainable lifestyle and the culture they have preserved amongst modern-day temptations.

I approach modestly after climbing down from the truck making eye connect with a cheerful smile. While reserved, their reception is warm and genuine.The little ones stare wondering, "who is this person?" I wink back hoping to catch a closer glimpse of their beautifully, uncomplicated life. Reuben was rinsing and packing the last of the eggplant order with the help of his two eldest daughters. He lingered after by the truck talking with me and the driver, Roger. roger hands Reuben a letter from his brother, Joe, across town....mail delivery! He gives us something to take back. We go there next. Reuben and Joe look like brothers with their big, blue eyes and curls which roll up under their straw hats. Joe and Rachel are part of a certified organic, Amish co-op called Greenfield Farms. They've been organic pretty much from their start in 2005. And were one of City Fresh's first suppliers. They farm 11-acres testing their soil throughout the spring and summer for what organic fertilizers they need to input. But they plan to wean themselves off any applications and just go with straight manure and compost. Rachel nods and confirms, "yields are higher and the produce is bigger and tastier when we amend with manure in the fall and no organic fertilizers in the spring."

Our last stop is David' farm. He is a shrewd businessman. He keeps Roger on his toes as they discuss prices and next week's order. When appropriate, I introduce myself. He asks if I work for City Fresh. I tell him about my independent study and interest in helping local, organic food to move better through a regional, distribution system. I wasn't sure if he got what I was saying. But a little while later, he asks Roger and I if we would like a watermelon to take home. He had extra. He hands it to me and says, "that's how food moves."

Pictured to the left...A City Fresh Stop near a vacant lot in Cleveland. Love the mischievous grin of the little boy exiting the frame. I think he just ate a Sungold, cherry tomato :)

Phase three of my food journey began today…a 6-week internship on George Jones Memorial Farm in Northeast Ohio. I’ve landed in some pretty amazing places along the way starting in Boulder this past June on the Abbondonza Seed & Produce Farm then the agroecology course in July at UC Santa Cruz and now here. George Jones looks to be following in those same footsteps. As I’ve pieced together this learning experience, I’ve called it anything from my self-prescribed curriculum to my independent study or unaccredited PhD program. Call it what you will but I’m soaking in lots of information and refining my focus beyond just “sustainable” but to say “regional” food systems because localizing economies is the ticket to a sustainable food system.

Okay, more about George…In 2001, Oberlin College’s New Agrarian Center (NAC) acquired the 70-acre farmstead which had been used intensively for commodity crops throughout the later part of the 20th century. By 2003, five acres had been restored and was ready for organic production offering food not only for Oberlin College’s dining services but also a CSA program, local farmer’s market, area restaurants and an organic food distributor.

The farm is run pretty much entirely by students with the help of master gardener and farm manager, Evelyn Bryant. In the summer, four, student interns participate in a 10-week course learning everything about organic food production. “Our goal is to send the interns off with the confidence to farm a small plot of land,” Evelyn explains. “We want them to understand the basics of irrigation strategy, pest management and marketing which includes not only working with vendors but learning how to plant crops in succession so you can harvest food throughout the entire growing season.”

During the school year, students circulate through either as volunteers or to acquire food for one of the school’s many student-run dining co-ops. The co-ops are brilliant…instead of a campus meal plan, students can elect to participate in a co-op where they build menus, shop and prepare three meals a day. There are nine co-ops each with anywhere from 15-120 students in each. All strive to source as much local, organic food as possible and students can choose a co-op based on dietary concerns or cultural preferences, e.g. kosher, vegetarian, international, etc. UC Berkeley has the largest dining co-op of any university but Oberlin has the highest percentage of student participation in the United States with over 600 active students. Not only do students learn valuable life skills but learn the importance of community.

The New Agrarian Center
has been the ring leader of the local, food movement extending well past Oberlin into neighboring counties all across Northeast Ohio. They were instrumental in the construction of the Northeast Ohio Regional Food Congress. Based out of Cleveland State University, the 15-member collaborative led to the creation of City Fresh, an initiative to bring fresh local food into Cleveland food deserts (discussed earlier). In 2007, NAC co-founded the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition which continues this effort to cultivate a network of food projects and entrepreneurs with a common goal of increasing access to healthy, sustainably grown food.

I want to hand a blue ribbon to all the programs and initiatives I've been learning about this past week but my  favorite so far is where we visited today, ALBA! The ALBA growing and education center is in the fertile valley of Salinas, CA. Bottom line, we need more of these centers all over the country, the world in fact! ALBA stands for "Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association."

Here's the skinny...ALBA not only trains people how to farm organically but helps them get started by leasing them subsidized land from their 110 acre property. The biggest risk in starting to farm is taking that financial leap of faith. Even if you can afford to buy land, you have a huge learning curve in developing best practices. ALBA's collaborative approach provides continued field education for all its graduates. At ALBA, you start with 6-months (150 hours) of training then lease .5 acre at 20% its market value. After five years, you are paying 100% of the market value but may have increased your capacity to 5 or 7 acres. It is an "incubator" for small farms. The model is brilliant! But that's not all...ALBA also has a distribution component, ALBA Organics, to help their farmers get their food to market since marketing can be the toughest hurdle of all - you may be a good farmer but not a very good sales person. ALBA Organics is the engine which funds the entire project first paying their growers for their harvest and returning profits back into the program.

Many of the graduates who lease land from ALBA opt out of ALBA Organics. With the help of ALBA staff, they develop their own economically, viable businesses with CSA's and farmer's markets...like Pablo Perez of J & P Organics . We had the fortune of meeting Pablo in the fields and hearing his story...Pablo had started out working in a chemically, dependent nursery years ago later leasing .5 acre and then 7 acres where he grew flowers conventionally. When his irrigation pump broke, the landowners refused to help fix it. $70K in lost income later and Pablo had also lost his lease and was back working in a nursery. His American dream crumbled. A couple years later, Pablo's son, Juan, was on field trip to ALBA and saw an opportunity for his family. He encouraged his dad to take the bi-lingual course offered at ALBA. Together five years ago, they formed J & P Organics. Juan handles the marketing and Pablo farms their now 5 acre plot which supports 500 CSA shareholders. It's enough to bring a tear to your eye. But not to Pablo. He is all smiles and full of stories. Including this story, or is it a parable...

A man asked Pablo, "Why are your strawberries $1 more than that guy's strawberries over there?" Pablo replied, "Because mine are organic and I don't use chemical fertilizers and pesticides." "I don't care about that," the man responded and proceeded to buy the cheaper, poison laced strawberries. A few days later, than man came back to ask Pablo why the strawberries he bought were dry and tasteless. Pablo explained, "because the chemicals take out all the nutrients and flavor." And with that, Pablo cut one of his strawberries open and handed it to the man. It was juicy and exploding with taste. The man never bought a conventionally grown strawberry again. The End!

Photo: Nathan Harkleroad, ALBA's Farm Incubator Program Manager, giving us a tour of ALBA's farmland and Pablo Perez of J & P Organics telling stories.

This weekend, fellow co-workers, Jared and Ben, took my open air classroom on the road to two, other organic farms. Both are located just a few miles from Abbondonza. Seeing the style, focus and size of other farms gave my whole project perspective. First stop...Oxford Farms. They have a small CSA program, attend a couple farmer's markets per week but primarily focus on supplying food to local restaurants. We were greeted by the owner, John Brown, who is an authority on soil science. For an hour, we stood amongst rows of popping veggies talking about soil ecology and his biological farming practice. I could take a semester long course on the subject and not learn as much as I did in that one hour. Here are a few nuggets for you to chew on...1) Want to get the sugars up in your vegetables to make them sweeter? Pay attention to the calcium and magnesium balance in the soil. 2) Want soil that holds more nutrients and retains water better? Add more clay. 3) Your veggies are only as good as your soil. Not just for how they grow but for how they taste and how nutritious they are. You can farm organically but if you don't remineralize your soil you'll have less wholesome, blander tasting vegetables. 4) Take the last three fun facts and consider what is in your daily vitamins. Most of what we take vitamins for are what nutrient dense farmers amend their soil with. Perhaps if we paid more attention to our soil which fed our vegetables, we wouldn't have to take vitamins. Hhmmm! I was in love with their processing center where vegetables come to get ready for market. Take the virtual tour of their streamlined process. Click here!

Second visit...Ollin Farms. They have a robust CSA program with over 140 shareholders, attend two farmer's markets each week but have also diversified by offering a variety of agritourism options including pick-your-own strawberries, road-side farm stand, summer veggie camp for kids and an outdoor banquet facility. But my favorite product offering is their family dinner. The typical cost of a barn dinner is over $100/person pricing most people out of consideration. Ollin's "family" dinners are just that, for the family and only cost $30/person. Pictured above in the red shirt is the farm manager, Chad, with two of his happy shareholders who do a work trade.My co-workers, Jared and Ben, are the ones wearing the fashionable fedora hat and the maroon shirt, respectfully. We caught Chad and team on break giving us a chance to learn more about what makes their farm one of the more profitable farms in the area...access to city water which enables them to plant earlier, be the first to market each season and as a result turn crops over faster. The winning feature of the day was their lettuce spinner. You've probably never considered doing this with your washing machine....Check it out, click here!

If you let your plants go, they will bolt or flower. Here is what spinach looks like when it has bolted. Let it bloom and dry up and you'll get seeds.

Want a salad of mixed greens? Just plant a variety of greens really tight together in one bed. When ready, just go through with some scissors. Leave enough at the base so the lettuce can regrow and enjoy garden, fresh greens all summer.

So there I was...at a stop light on Broadway Ave which cuts right through the heart of Boulder. I've got my left elbow out the truck window and tapping my right hand on the steering wheel as I listen to some groovy tunes on local radio, KBCO. I look to my left and take a double take. "Wait a second...I know those two. They're my farmers!!" Pasted to the outside of Alfafa's Market, is a billboard sized photo of Abbondonza owners, Rich Pecoraro and Shanan Olson. I was beaming with pride to know my farm, my farmers were being recognized so highly in their community. And it's true...there is a lot of respect for these two. They are the soul of the farmer's market and the growing community in Boulder. After missing the Wednesday market the week before last, a competing farm told Rich that the market is not the same without them and that it lacks a little energy and zing when Abbondonza is not present.

A big part of that respect is due to their knowledge about seeds...Over half of Abbondonza's business is dedicated to seed saving from locally adapted crops. Meaning, they test a variety of each vegetable they grow to determine which is best suited for the Front Range climate. The ones that thrive will later be given a whole crop. They'll let all the plants bolt (bloom) and go to seed. They package the seeds selling them to backyard and large-scale growers (you too can order them from their website). They see it as more than just a business opportunity but something all farmers should be incorporating into their practice. It's a whole other story for conventional farmers who are hog-tied to ag giants like Monsanto and Cargill for seeds. But organic farms can build self-reliance and security if they too saved seeds. Rich has been at it for close to 35 years getting his start on organic farms in the late 70's and later learning about seeds when he worked for Seeds of Change in New Mexico. Homework assignment...Find out your farmer's story!

p.s. Wondering what Abbondonza means? It means "abundance." But what makes that even cooler is, "Abbondonza" is Rich's grandmother's maiden name. Way!

Abbondonza is predominantly a veggie and seed producing farm but they do have a fair number of farm animals. The majority of that is taken up by the 230 chickens which compromise over 30 varieties. These are the happiest of chickens roaming free all over the farm in the pastures and around the barns. We are constantly shoeing them out of the nursery or greenhouse but take delight as they "express their chickeness" (term coined by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms). CSA members can get an egg share or folks can buy them  at the farmers market where upwards of 80 dozen eggs are for sale each week - one dozen for $7 or two for $10. Today, while watering starter plants in the nursery, I discovered it truly was a nursery because roosting behind some potted saplings, was a mother hen and her eight chics. Not all were even born yet as you could see the beak of a chic pecking through its shell, see picture below.We took just a moment to admire and let the mother get back to her babies. Then as we uncovered some compost, a mouse scurried away exposing a small nest with four baby mice curled up in a bed of chicken feathers. We put the nest in the shade near to where the compost mound had been and hoped the mother would return. We left it unattended and within an hour the the mother had come back to relocate her family.

In the barn, we have two goats named Mack and Ringo, two work horses named Kane and Pete and one donkey named Ellie. The goats help with mowing the grass and disposing of food scraps. But watch out for their horns. They have and aren't afraid to use them! Pete and Kane are in training to be work horses. Pete is five and Kane is three, see below. Pete is Kane's uncle. A couple times a week, husband and wife team - Ken and Becky, arrive for Pete & Kane's training exercises where they practice walking side-by-side around the farm perimeter with a plow on wheels. We're hoping to have Pete in the fields by fall. And then there is sweet Ellie who just loves a treat and a scratch on the nose.