Whatever Happened to Grandpa’s Farm?

On certain Saturdays we’d drive to town with fresh veggies filling the trunk with their unmistakeable summer scent. My mother liked to share the bounty of our farm’s vegetable garden which, by July, was always lush, thanks to the liberal side dressing of barnyard fertilizer she’d cultivated in between the rows soon as the ground had thawed that spring. We’d make the rounds of family and friends in town, who clearly relished their occasional free deliveries of brown paper grocery bags full of carrots, lettuces, green beans, tomatoes, and pints of fresh-picked strawberries.

Our garden always produced too much for one small family to consume, hence the sharing. Mom raised chickens, too, but any eggs or friers we didn’t eat were sold to local grocers. Dad raised Angus beef and planted soy beans, corn and wheat which fed a broader market. His contribution to our vegetable sharing, however, came in late August – sweet corn time. The paper bags full of sugar-sweet ears would be snatched off friends’ doorsteps and hustled into a big pot of boiling water almost before you could say, “Hot enough for ya?”

Agriculture has changed radically over the 50+ years since Mom used to make those summer deliveries. Since then some farms have gotten much, much bigger. Now they utilize herbicides and chemical fertilizers, and the food is most often harvested still-green and shipped hundreds, even thousands of miles away for distribution and sale.

However, something new is happening with America’s small family farms, and it’s spreading across the country.

The last U.S. Census (2007) showed that a decades-long decline in small farms had reversed, with a surprising 4 percent jump over previous census figures and totaling over 2 million farms. Ninety-seven percent of those farms are operated by families, individuals, or family corporations and partnerships, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. Today’s small farms tend to have more diverse crops than the big farms do, lower sales and younger operators. And the fastest growth has been with farms of less than 50 acres. The surprising net result for the consumer is that there’s actually more locally produced food available now than in decades, including in urban areas.

Everything Old Is New Again

Big agricultural operations today focus on volume and an optimum cost/price ratio; however, a new breed of farm has emerged in their midst that’s small in the way of your grandpa’s or great grandpa’s farm, yet with a new modus operandi. Or rather an old/new one.

To illustrate: Every other Tuesday a Bainbridge Island working mother, Stephanie Dalton, finds a bushel-size plastic bin (called a “harvest box”) on her doorstep, packed with a colorful array of just-picked veggies. She’s a subscribing member of a CSA, Community Shared/Supported Agriculture operation. Being a holistic nutrition and wellness coach, she admits to being very picky when it comes to the food she feeds her family.

That in mind, Dalton subscribes to SPUD.com (Sustainable Produce, Urban Delivery), a thriving example of a CSA. It’s a Seattle based, organic farm co-op–a big one, but comprised of small local farms all up and down the Pacific Northwest coast from Vancouver to Los Angeles, and with a delivery system that puts those individualized harvest boxes on thousands of family doorsteps every day. SPUD.com delivers to homes in 128 zip codes in the Seattle area alone and nearly twice that number in L.A.

How It Works

The success of SPUD.com is a good indication of America’s increasing appetite for organic produce, “green” food production methods, and healthier eating in general–all of which are fueling the quiet explosion of CSAs all across the country. Dalton and other member/subscribers either make a set payment at the start of the growing season or else make smaller, regular payments in order to claim a share of the fresh harvest. Once harvesting begins, their share of the vegetables, fruit and other items start appearing with predictable regularity on their doorsteps.

While the farming is purely old school, the marketing and delivery is digital. A member can go online any time and shop the “aisles” of a virtual grocery store, selecting items and putting them in a virtual cart paid for by credit card during “checkout.” In this way home deliveries are customized. SPUD’s virtual market is supplied by local farmers in each area served; and besides vegetables, it offers dairy products, eggs, meat, breads, and also household items like paper towels and dish detergent, all certified “green” and organic.

Special dietary needs and preferences can be provided for, too. For instance, the kids may hate beets but love beans, mom may want gluten-free bakery goods, the family may be committed to keeping kosher, etc. And, as with supermarkets, there are also weekly specials posted on the SPUDweb site.

Among other “foodies,” Seattle resident Jill Lightner has been observing the CSA trend for years. She’s the editor of an award-winning e-zine, Edible Seattle, which offers articles, recipes and other food-related information. The popularity of Edible Seattle is also testament to the trend which emphasizes the importance of locally produced, wholesome foods.

“In CSAs local farmers and consumers have a synergistic relationship,” Lightner says. “They support each other.” While the foods provided by SPUD and similar programs are a bit more expensive, “People are willing to pay for them,” she adds, “because they know what they’re getting is healthy and sustainable… Everybody wins.”