November 16, 2009
At the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, we’ve been getting a lot of greens in our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. But as it turns out, our willingness to enjoy (or even just to tolerate) the unexpected results of the growing process helps keep small farms economically viable, particularly during agricultural disasters.
Our CSA is an arrangement where customers subscribe to a weekly share of produce from a local, organic farmer. Unlike shopping in a supermarket, customers receive whatever seasonal produce survives the myriad of environmental dangers that threaten a crop – insects, weeds, fungi or lousy weather. Because of the unpredictable contents of a CSA “shopping cart,” CSA members typically exhibit a great deal of culinary adaptation and flexibility. This season was no exception – when we were expecting winter squash, we instead received bundles of delicious leafy greens. For some this was a blessing, but others had exhausted their repertoire of kale recipes and began yearning for more variety.
I recently spoke with our partner-in-produce about the abundance of greens. Joan Norman operates Maryland’s One Straw Farm with her husband Drew. The farm is small (by modern standards), certified organic, family-owned and family operated.
“In 26 years, we’d never had such a tomato crop failure,” explained Joan, referring to the recent outbreak of tomato blight in the Northeast. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine losing so many tomatoes.” If Joan and Drew were wholesalers, the drop in sales would have spelled doom for their business.
Thanks to the flexibility afforded by a CSA, Joan was able to send her customers winter squash early, in place of the failed tomato harvest. When the winter season arrived, the winter squash had already been harvested, so greens became the dominant feature in CSA shares. Tapping into the cooperative spirit of local farmers, Joan supplemented the greens with some additional produce from a neighbor: “The potatoes and onions were from a friend. Mark Stanley, a local Mennonite farmer, also grows certified organic. Thankfully he had some extra produce.”
For next season, Joan and Drew continually plan ahead to better ensure a more varied harvest, even in the event of a crop failure. In the meantime, our kale, chard and collard greens perhaps taste even better, knowing they represent the unpredictable crests and valleys of sustainably-produced food. Contrast that to a supermarket, where the ever-presence of infinite variety feels artificial in comparison.
Finally, to her customers, Joan sends her thanks. “Because I have a CSA, I could continue farming. Having a consistent consumer base, willing to go with the flow, saved this family farm.”
– Brent Kim