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Seeds of Change

Our Farm
Robert Scheer

Salad Daze: Tomato seedlings are readied for the greenhouse at Our Farm, a Community Supported Agriculture farm in Woodside.

Community Supported Agriculture turns fields of dreams into seasonal neighborhoods, where urbanites and the horticulturally challenged can purchase a 'share' of the farm and consume the harvest

By Christina Waters

THE SUBTLETIES OF seasonal change are so easy to miss here in California, where six months of summer dryness seem to switch over to six months of rain without much in the way of climactic foreplay. The earth's annual cycles are even easier to miss in the Silicon Valley of the '90s, where pavement has replaced meadows, and chain supermarkets proudly proclaim that everything is "in season" at all times. Sort of like the old tippler's joke that it's always cocktail time somewhere in the world.

Standing in the very center of the UC­Santa Cruz Farm, whose orchards and fields incline ever so slightly toward the ocean at its feet and curve upward toward the redwoods at its back, one can feel deeply locked in the earth's embrace. It's like stepping into a Breughel landscape, where the ancient cycles of planting, harvesting, bending, sowing and reaping form the raison d'être for daily life.

I walk this land quite often, in all seasons. Its beauty takes my breath away as spring gathers its seductive strength and the soil warms up. Blossoms free-fall from apple trees, rows of herbs perfume the weathered buildings and for the 2,000th day in a row, farm manager Jim Leap rides his tractor, finessing some new miracle out of this incomparable five acres.

Last year, the Farm belonged to me in a new sense. I joined its Community Supported Agriculture program, purchasing a share that would enable Jim and his workers to buy equipment and seed in advance, and that would allow me to get freshly picked produce, herbs and flowers every week from May until the end of November.

It was the deal of the century. Each week my sweetie and I would go through the huge box I lugged home--so heavy by melon time that I could barely carry it to the car--oohing and aahing over what "our farmers" had produced. Strawberries still warm from the sun, curious little peppers, delicately colored potatoes, huge bouquets of basil with psychedelic aromas. There were golden beets and purple beets, pink beets and striped beets. Beets were big. But so were the famous dry-farmed tomatoes, round Japanese squashes that made killer pumpkin pies, amazing green beans, tart apples, lettuces and salad mixes of unearthly tenderness and flavor.

Each week there was something new, and as the summer deepened we could follow the cycles of the crops by what appeared and disappeared from each week's harvest. With each new meal we created--and believe me, vegetables became the staple of our summer menus--we literally tasted the garden, the changes of weather, temperature, length of daylight--and by picking up the crops on the land, we got a chance to wander around a bit, soak up the country atmosphere, gather a few herbs and cut a few more flowers, feeling as connected to it all as we'd been promised.

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Where to find local CSA farms.

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Green Genes

THE IDEA OF CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) came to this country in the mid-'80s from Japan and Europe, where Food Guilds incorporated the holistic, bio-dynamic principles of farming maestro Rudolph Steiner. Essentially, CSAs are contractual agreements between growers and shareholders who later get to partake of the profits, namely the foods grown.

At the beginning of a season, usually May, local community members pay for weekly installments of freshly harvested produce. Their advance payment allows growers to purchase supplies, equipment and seed. The grower, in turn, offers weekly "shares"--usually boxes filled with an allotment of produce enough to fill a small family's needs for a week--throughout the season. Prices range from $400 to $550 for a 24- to 28-week season, averaging about $14­$20 a week.

The benefits are obvious. Farmers can plan in advance and know how much money they have to work with, no matter what their harvest may bring. Shareholders are guaranteed fresh, hand-harvested organic produce, as well as an invitation to be part of the farm's outdoor, non-urban atmosphere.

This area boasts a pioneering crop of CSAs, thanks to climate, politics and a network fueled by the UCSC Center for Agroecology, among others. Small farmers opening up their harvests to members of the community are busy sowing the seeds of change that many in the sustainable movement have long awaited.

Our Farm Feeds the Bay

DAVID BLUME, eco-entrepreneur and gadfly of the green agriculture conference circuit, is a one-man guru of Community Supported Agriculture. Head of Woodside's celebrated Our Farm, Blume is proud of the impeccable standards of his enterprise. "We're one of only two pure CSAs," he points out. "We don't market our wares in any other way."

Furthermore, the produce he drops off to shareholders from Berkeley and San Francisco to the Peninsula isn't simply grown ecologically, it's intensely environment-friendly. "We not only don't use any synthetic pesticides, we don't use pesticides at all," he says provocatively. "In fact, we provide habitat for toads and lizards [which he likes to call 'allies'] and let them do most of the insect control."

Working in balance with nature, Blume's three-year-old, three-acre CSA provides shareholders with all the major and minor veggie groups, and some special things as well. "We give our shareholders salad mixes, made up of as many as 10 items, each week. And we do a stir-fry mix with lots of Oriental vegetables. These are real time-savers."

Blume likes to experiment with heirloom and rare varieties grown from saved seed, or seed provided by other growers and friends of his garden. "The longer a CSA is in business, the better the food becomes and the less the crop loss." Blume agrees that CSA is enjoying a big boom in our area, and he looks for a membership in Our Farm of 120 people this season. Technically, though, there is no "season" at Our Farm, which runs as a CSA year-round, and prices shares accordingly.

"People can start anytime," the affable farmer says. "We tend to break the year into two portions, from mid-May to end of September, and then from October to May." Shares are priced at $24 per week during the warm season, $23 per week during winter, and average a bushel of produce (or roughly two shopping bags full).

San Jose­area residents who join Our Farm can come up to the Woodside acreage on Thursdays to pick up their shares. Blume wants it known that he's looking for a San Jose CSA coordinator "to pick up shares, take them home and act as a distribution point, in exchange for a free share. We'd like to reach people who live in the city and can't come up and get their shares. Besides," he muses, "it's another way that people can be part of the farm."

Like every farmer I spoke with, Blume is dedicated to the idea of community participation. "People coming up here, cutting herbs and flowers, it gives them a chance to calm down and relax, to walk around the farm and to feel totally welcome."

David Blume
Robert Scheer

Digging It: David Blume of Woodside's Our Farm grows pesticide-free produce and offers shares at $24 a week.

Joyful Campers

NOT TOO FAR FROM Swanton as the crow flies, Boulder Creek's Camp Joy is continuing a seven-year tradition of offering shares in its showpiece organic garden. Of all the verdant gardens that encircle the Santa Cruz mountains, Camp Joy is the top contender for "Garden of Eden" designation. On five acres wedged between towering redwoods and the meandering San Lorenzo River, Jim Nelson (who first got his hands dirty as a student of Alan Chadwick's in the late '60s) and his interns nurture and harvest enough vegetables, flowers (flower shares are $140 for 20 weeks), herbs and fruit to provide 30 shares to neighbors in the San Lorenzo Valley and Santa Cruz.

Though also busy with beekeeping and selling organic produce to New Leaf stores, Nelson admits that "the seasonal CSA is the main focus of my year." CSA shareholders can join in a wide variety of special events, from candle-making to bread baking, all of which take place on this incomparable property, all of which create ties that bind the contractual community. Camp Joy growers encourage shareholders to come out and visit the garden on Thursdays, see what's going on and even dig in to the cultivating and harvest.

An Organized Garden

CSA PIONEER Mark Burnett, owner of An Organized Garden, launched one of the area's first CSA programs in 1992 in the Los Altos Hills. With recently acquired property in Watsonville bringing his cultivated land to a total of 80 acres, Burnett employs seven full-time workers to help him deliver his produce to farmers' markets and shareholders around the South Bay and Peninsula. "We're 100 percent organic and use sustainable growing methods on our land," says Burnett. "This year we're planning to support 250 shares with our CSA. We serve from San Jose to San Francisco, but my big area is the mid-Peninsula."

Burnett's CSA system involves some unique features. "We really offer two types of service," he explains. "We have CSA shareholders, who receive weekly installments of what we have fresh and growing in our farm at any given time. And we also have a subscription service." The latter allows Burnett to provide an even greater range of produce for customers, since he supplements his own crops with those he gathers from other top organic farmers in Central California. "Some people only want what's local," he contends. "Others need more variety."

Another unique feature of An Organized Garden is its delivery structure. CSA shareholders are free to tour the property, but weekly CSA shares are actually delivered to homes or businesses. "We actually take produce to them--it reduces the number of vehicles making trips," he points out. "We deliver right to their door."

Burnett's CSA shares run $7 a week for seven pounds of produce, $3 additional for out-of-area deliveries north of Redwood City and south of Blossom Hill. Clearly proud of his longevity in the CSA business, Burnett adds, "over 50 of my shareholders have been with me for four years." A tasty tribute, indeed.

CSA Fever

LONGTIME EAST BAY grower and environmental journalist Weyland Southon acts as program coordinator at the 2-year-old Center for Agroecology at UCSC. "CSA fever is in high gear," he says, "especially in areas like the Central Valley, Silicon Valley and Southern California." Southon believes that these areas have lagged behind smaller, rural communities like Marin and Santa Cruz because "urban sprawl makes more money than agriculture. Malls bring in more money--sales tax and property tax--than farming."

Southon also notes that in areas that were once hotbeds of traditional mega-agriculture, the CSA model was seen as an alternative to agribusiness, using few machines and organic methods with low impact on the environment. With education and more outreach, "a lot of it is changing, with more and more farmers getting involved."

Community gardens are trying to move into the realm of farmers' markets and CSAs. "Farmers' markets aren't serving their purpose like they used to because a lot of the organic movement is being co-opted by agribusiness." Southon cites examples of enormous farms specializing in vast harvests of a single item that can be sold at rock-bottom prices. "There are 3,000-acre organic carrot farms now," he says with a sigh. "The CSA makes small farms economically viable."

Southon, whose background includes having "come up through the community garden movement in the East Bay," sees gardening as "an act of revolution," in which the seeds of future communities are sown.

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From the April 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro

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