Why We Need Community Supported Agriculture

InsideOut Wholeness is excited to announce our first ever Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) opportunity for 2022! Sign up here and read below to see why we decided to take this step!

Until this Spring, my notions of what farming looks like in 21st century America were fuzzy at best. I knew there were unthinkably huge tractors involved. And that Genetically Modified crops were ubiquitous, though maybe falling a little out of fashion. And that something called agri-business, which I couldn’t really imagine, had mostly replaced the small, family-run farms that my imagination easily conjured up.https://insideoutwholeness.net/product/csa-share/

A turning point came in April, while describing the heavy, clay soil on our newly acquired land in Berkeley Springs to Brynn of Fiddler’s Green Hemp Farm. “Have you read Dirt to Soil?” she asked me.

Now, you may or may not know that I spent the better part of the last 15 years teaching High School English and I’m kind of a bibliophile. I had been thinking of working the land as body-work, as distinct from mind-work, and had never really considered that there would be books about farming.

“Where do you get books like that?” I asked, trying to hide my enthusiasm.

“Chelsea Green,” was her casual reply. I guess I stared pretty blankly, because her eyes lit up, happy to be letting me in on a secret. “You don’t know Chelsea Green?”

“No! Who is she?” was my excited reply.”

Brynn laughed and explained that Chelsea Green is a small publishing house in Vermont that focuses on books about holistic wellness, environmental issues, and regenerative agriculture. This info was a godsend, since we were moving to a tent with no wifi and no idea what we were doing. I put together an order which included Dirt to Soil, The Compost Toilet Handbook, The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer, The Regenerative Grower’s Guide to Garden Amendments, and a series of small books on organic farming methods. We read them by flashlight in our sleeping bags on the dark evenings of those chilly April and May days at the field, filling our hearts and minds with a new vocabulary and a new way of understanding the land around us.

The Current State of “Conventional Agriculture”

We were dismayed to learn that what passes for farming these days is far worse than we thought. In nature, soil is an ecosystem teeming with life. Millions of micro-organisms take cues from chemicals released by the roots of plants and deliver exactly the nutrients those plants need to thrive. When plants die, their roots become food for these organisms, and they create structure within the soil, making pockets for air that are vital to the soil’s ability to hold water during dry times and also drain effectively during and after rains.

Soil health is an impossibly complex set of relationships, and I’ve only read a handful of books, so this is no where near a comprehensive explanation. But you get a little idea, anyway. The prevailing wisdom in the Regenerative Agriculture community is that soil health can be improved, top soil can be rebuilt, and that doing so is not only ecologically vital but extremely cost-effective. Growing cover crops to protect soil between growing seasons, adding compost regularly, so that the biome has plenty of vitamins and minerals to break down, and leaving as many roots intact (id est, not tilling the soil between growing seasons, but allowing soil structure to develop over time) are the basic steps.

Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture was our first introduction to these ideas. But before he got to them, author Gabe Brown explained what was expected of his family’s farm in North Dakota before he found so-called Regenerative Agriculture.

At the beginning of each growing season, he would drive his tractors all over their 1000 acre farm, tilling the beds to prepare for planting and compacting the crap out of the rest. For those of you who don’t get a mental image from the verb “to till” (like me, 9 months ago) it’s basically cutting through the top layer of soil with a combination knife-shovel, chopping and turning it so that the roots left behind from the last season can’t re-grow. The good that comes of this is that “weeds” can’t get established as easily. It provides a clean slate of sorts to plant into.

The problem is that it makes the soil pretty inhospitable to those micro-organisms we were talking about. You know, the ones that feed the plants? They need dark, damp conditions with lots of dead plant matter to eat and poop out. When the tiller comes through, it dries everything out, breaks up the air pockets, and kills off these hardest-working farm helpers.

And then the Spring rains come. And the top soil, no longer attached to the earth by the roots of plants, washes away. And what’s left is hard-packed clay, rich with minerals, but without the micro-organisms needed to make them bio-available to plants. Barren. Devoid of life. This is the planting medium for MOST of the food on grocery store shelves.

After the results of their soil tests came back, he and his wife would go down to the Farm Credit Bureau to apply for a loan. They would have the recommendations from the Agriculture Extension of the local Land Grant University, and would explain how many tens of thousands of dollars worth of synthetic Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorous they needed, not to mention how many thousands of dollars of herbicides, insecticides and tractor fuel. Oh, and seeds. Since the advent of Genetically Modified crops, seeds are intellectual property. So the ancient tradition of saving seeds from year to year is illegal, and farmers must purchase new seeds every Spring.

The bank would write them a check and they’d be on their way. Of course, they would be required to pay hefty interest on the loan, and their livelihoods were wrapped up with unthinkable debt, but at least they could get seeds in the ground and get growing.

Throughout the short, North Dakota Summer, he and his wife and children worked the land from dusk to dawn, fighting nature at every turn. Bugs and weeds were seen as enemy combatants, rivals for space and resources. They were systematically poisoned.

Poor Soil = Poor Nutrition

Just like with anti-biotic drugs, introducing chemicals designed to kill tends to have far-reaching consequences. In fact, the more I learned about contemporary agriculture, the more similarities I noticed to contemporary medicine and contemporary schooling. But that’s a subject for another blog post. For now, I think you get the idea that the poor crops were planted in mostly dead dirt, fed with petroleum by-products and routinely exposed to harsh chemicals.

I always worried about the chemical residues on conventional produce. I never thought to worry about the nutritional values of the foods. But it turns out that’s probably the biggest worry we have. Plants will grow in this sterile environment, just like animals will grow in feedlots. But without access to the rich variety of micro-nutrients in healthy, live soil, they can’t possibly contain the nutrition our bodies need. Ounce-for-ounce, broccoli or wheat or corn grown conventionally contains fewer vitamins and minerals than plants grown from the same seed stock in the natural micro-biome of healthy soil.

So why do farmers subject themselves to this? Why do they spend so much money ruining their soil only to have to spend more money putting synthetic nutrients back in? Partly it’s because that’s what The Science says. That’s what the Universities and the Extension Offices and the Growers’ Associations teach and expect.

Another reason, though, is the calendar. In October, the harvest has just come in and the farmer can hope to have some money from sales of her crops. But that money has to sustain her family through the Winter. Come Spring, when she needs her tractor tuned up, her cover crops mowed back, and her fields planted, there may not be enough money left to make the necessary investments.

That’s where Community Supported Agriculture comes in.

Saved by the People!

Rather than borrow money from banks or Farm Credit Bureaus, farmers borrow small sums directly from their customers by allowing people to pay up-front for a season worth of produce. In a standard vegetable CSA, customers pay a few hundred dollars up front and then pick up weekly, bi-weekly or monthly pre-packed “shares” of produce throughout the growing season.

This is win-win, as many Americans get a small windfall in the early Spring in the form of a tax return, while in the dog days of August, when an abundance of food is ripe and ready, people may not have as much disposable cash. Another benefit is that people get exposed to plants that grow well in their area, allowing them to eat more seasonally and rely on inter- and intra- national trucking and warehousing less. I’ve heard so many friends say they discovered their favorite veggie in their CSA share.

But it’s not just for veggies anymore! From fresh flowers to coffee to medicinal herbs, all sorts of small farms are offering this option. Now that we have more than two 10’x10’ raised beds and a handful of pots to plant in, we’re excited to jump on in!

For just $325 (until MayDay, $380 after that) community members will get monthly shares, May-December of 2022. These will consist of 2oz of tincture, 2oz of salve, oil, lotion or scrub, 2oz of dried herbs and a surprise gift every month! And, as a special thank you, you’ll get a tincture and a lip balm as soon as you sign up!

In order to have a successful growing season, we need:

  • seeds, seedlings and transplants from trusted organic and chemical free sources,
  • a pump for our newly-dug well;
  • significant repairs to our only piece of “farm equipment” thus far, a red 1992 pickup, whose Winter work, once he’s street legal,will largely consist of trips around town for loads of manure and cardboard (cheaper and much more sustainable than chemical fertilizers, but boy do we need that truck working!) to improve our heavy, clay soil; some new small tools, including shovels (because we went so hard this year we broke TWO shovel handles!) and a cordless drill for building and fixing structures;
  • greenhouse grade plastic sheeting for hoop houses – hopefully in time to start seedlings, but also for use drying herbs come Summer;

and surely lots of things we haven’t yet thought of.

The shares will be carefully curated herbs appropriate to the season and your household’s needs. You might get a 2oz bottle of one type of tincture, or two 1oz bottles of two types. Same with the salves and the dried herbs; you might get two ounces of one type, or smaller amounts of several types. This will depend in part on what grows well, as is the nature of CSAs. But we can promise they will be helpful, effective herbal allies for you to share with friends and family. By the end of the year, you’ll have a well-stocked herbal medicine chest (and/or a lot of awesome stocking stuffers)!

So here’s how it works: you sign up here, and answer some questions so we can understand your household’s needs. We’re happy to accept cash or checks, or you can pay by credit card on the website. Then, the last week in May, you pick up your first share, either from a location in Baltimore or our roadside stand in Berkeley Springs!

We may not be able to stop the unthinkably huge tractors, but with your help, we can keep our small corner of the soil healthy, whole and growing!

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