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Wednesday, 30 March 2011 19:27

Growing the connection between farms and consumers

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Friends of mine in the Jackson County farming community have launched a joint CSA, which is short for Community Sustained Agriculture, under the name Living Earth Farm Shares CSA.

Ron and Cathy Arps, Stephen Beltram and Becca Nestler, Laird and Penny O’Neill, and John Beckman teamed up over the winter, envisioned this venture, and are now making it happen. They’ve sold about 20 shares so far to folks in the local community who want organically grown vegetables, Ron told me while dropping off a pack of lettuce seed last week at the office here in Sylva.

The Arps pioneered the CSA concept in this corner of Western North Carolina. They’ve run a successful one for more than a decade, serving a small and select (and lucky) group of people in the Sylva area. A couple of years ago, William Shelton started another CSA down in the Whittier community, and we have at least two more in Jackson County, one by Vera Guise (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) and the other by Curt Collins (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ).

What’s a CSA, you ask? They vary in exact details, but essentially a CSA is simply a buy-in to the farm by customers. In the case of Living Earth Farm Shares CSA, you pay (or split with another family) $500 “per share,” plus give back four hours of farm work. In return, the farmers hand you a box of vegetables each week from May 1 through Sept. 14.

Steven and Becca will be selling shares in meat, too: chickens, pigs and Thanksgiving turkeys.

Ron was frank in our discussion about the challenges of a joint venture such as this — there’s not a clashing of personalities or anything like that, but a variety of timing issues to resolve. Vegetables have to be grown out and harvested on a more-or-less predictable schedule. Since farming is inherently unpredictable, that can create some interesting dilemmas.   

I steered clear of the CSA concept when I farmed for a living because of that very difficulty. I instead sold through farmers markets, or occasionally to a few customers who liked to buy directly at the farm. That’s easier because if you ain’t got it, you ain’t got it — no broken promises, no disappointed customers, no explaining that you simply didn’t get the beets planted in time because of the weather.

CSAs, particularly on this scale (Living Earth Farm Shares CSA is offering up to 72 shares), requires intensive planning, scheduling and communicating amongst the growers involved. I imagine, however, that there is much joy in return. You have the ability to share failures and successes, as well.

If you are interested in a subscription, email Ron at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . William can be reached through www.sheltonfamilyfarm.com.

•••

This seems like an excellent opportunity to clear up a few misconceptions about farming, local farms and farming practices. I don’t know why I feel compelled to venture here, because I’ll surely regret it. Every time I’ve written a version of what follows, it’s as if I took a stick and poked it into one of my beehives. But, being a slow learner, here I go again:  

A CSA (or vendor at a farmers market) isn’t necessarily organic — ask the grower(s) involved what methods they use. This is demonstrated in the two CSAs listed above: Living Earth Farm Shares CSA is selling vegetables grown without the use of synthetic chemicals; William uses chemicals.

This does not make William bad and Living Earth Farm Shares CSA good — in fact, William is one of the most responsible growers I know, and he’s very upfront about his farming practices. I’d eat (and have, in fact) the vegetables William grows any day over those grown by some ostensibly “organic” farmers — the world is made up of good people (such as the people listed in this column) and some others who, unfortunately, are liars and cheats.

Dirt under one’s fingernails from farming does not make a person inherently trustworthy. Ask about growing practices and visit the farms you patronize. The honest farmers will welcome your questions, and respect you for taking time to visit their farms. William and the folks who launched Living Earth Farm Shares CSA can be counted on for honesty, openness and transparency in their growing methods. You should look for those same qualities each time you go to the farmers markets, or buy directly from a farmer.

A quick word, too, about the word “organic.” Technically, if you make above a certain amount ($5,000, I believe), a farmer can’t call herself “organic” unless she is certified — so when I called Living Earth Farm Shares CSA organic, that was my word, not theirs. I have no idea what words they are using, because I didn’t ask. Any others seem so forced and bulky — “naturally grown” isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t really mean anything, either.

“Without the use of synthetic chemicals” is a favorite of mine, but it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it?

You can thank big business for co-opting the word organic and taking it out of the hands of, well, small organic farmers. Soon as there was money in it, “organic” became a brand instead of a method. That’s a load of bull, in my book, and I believe farmers (the organic ones, anyway) ought to push back and reclaim their word. What’s the worst that can happen? A lawsuit? Phooey — none of the organic farmers I know make enough money to be worth suing, frankly.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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