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Subscribe … to your local farm

South Boston News
Fifth generation grower Scott Williamson / March 07, 2012
Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA) and the Eat Fresh Eat Local Movement — what do these have in common? They are both part of a growing movement to deliver field-fresh and flavorful produce to area consumers while helping to grow the local economy.

Many who think about CSAs or the eat fresh/eat local movement envision farmers markets or city dwellers rolling up to urban farm stands in expensive cars, filling their organic cloth bags with field greens and free-range chicken.

A CSA is much more. It is as important, if not more important, to the rural farm community. The CSAs help farmers with their start-up costs for that growing season and fuels the local economy.

Here’s how it works: Customers purchase shares of a farm’s products in return for regular deliveries during the growing season. Matt Lohr, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, says, “A CSAs allows the [non-farmer] to experience life on the farm by sharing the risks of agriculture along with the rewards, a bounty of seasonal fresh-from-the-vine or tree produce.”

“It works just like a subscription to your favorite magazine,” said Scott Williamson of Henrico Farms. A subscription helps farmers with start-up costs for that growing season, and assures they are able to bring their customers fresh-picked local produce at low prices. It also assures them a ready market for their product.

How does a CSA fit in with the Eat Fresh Eat Local Movement? “Members know where all the food comes from, how it was grown, who harvested it and when. They learn to eat seasonally, enjoying foods that arrive according to nature’s timetable,” Lohr explained, adding “Deliveries usually take place weekly and the travel time and distance from farm to fork are kept to a minimum.”

Local grower takes the plunge

One local farmer who sees the benefit of the CSA-Eat Fresh Eat Local Movement is Williamson, the fifth generation of his family to farm. He is also a trained chef who, two years ago, returned to the family farm to connect his culinary artistry with passionately grown sustainable produce.

Depending on the season, customers could receive seven to 10 items weekly, including, strawberries, lettuce, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, cabbage, collards and beets. Each subscription will feed two people. There will be two subscription seasons, the first being spring/summer, which begins May 1 and ends Aug. 27. The fall/winter season begins Sept. 3 and ends Dec. 17.

Asked why he believes a CSA would succeed in a rural farming community in Southside Virginia, Williamson said, “Look around. Yes, we may be thought of as a farming community, but fewer and fewer people are farming. Those that did are aging, and the people moving in may not have come from farming backgrounds.”

He believes that these people, whether long-time residents or newcomers, expect to find a ready supply of fresh local produce in this area. “They don’t want to, or aren’t able to, farm themselves.”

His Henrico Farms CSA gives these people what they want: “The chance to eat fresh healthy farm foods harvested each week just for them.”

Michael Shuman, a business development analyst and author of the 2006 book “The Small Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition,” sees a second tangible benefit to the CSA/Eat Fresh Eat Local Movement. He believes “economic prosperity hinges on locally owned business serving local markets.” The CSA and the Eat Fresh Eat Local Movement are ways to help local communities with struggling economies.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services recently offered proof that the Eat Fresh Eat Local Movement, and by extension the CSA — which is the farmer’s market without the market — are viable economic tools. Last year, the state’s network of wholesale farmers markets had gross sales of $42.8 million, more than doubling the value of sales over the past five years. The number of farmers using farmers’ markets in 2011 increased by almost 35 percent, while produce acreage rose by nearly 20 percent.

Locally sourced food is a big deal in most major metropolitan areas around the country. More and more restaurants have made local ingredients both a guiding principle and a marketing tool. Foodies, in particular, flock to those restaurants where every ingredient in every dish comes from a nearby farm.

So why is farm fresh/table already an urban phenomenon? Why is it slower to take hold in Southside Virginia with its great farming tradition?

Where food comes from: some confusion

At a recent American Farm Bureau convention, comedian Dave Barry highlighted the indifference that most people, including those in farming communities, have to where and how their food originated. Barry told the audience: “Food does not come from the supermarket. That’s so stupid. It comes from the trucks parked behind the supermarket. Even I know that.”

Shuman argues the point a little differently: “Aided by improvements in distribution from interstate highways and overnight shipping, we started looking farther and farther away from home for our food. Or, rather, we weren’t looking at all. We’d walk into supermarkets or restaurants and choose from the bounty of products that the big trucks had dumped at our doorstep.

“Shopping locally inevitably cost more because small growers lacked the economy of scale that industrial farming enjoys. And, until recently, it stood without honor in its own land. Nothing intimated quality in a food item so much as calling it ‘imported.’”

Maybe the reason CSAs and Eat Fresh Eat Local are slow in coming to Southside Virginia is because farmers are thinking too small when they hear the word “local.” In an attempt to broaden their view, Lohr says, “When we say ‘locally grown,’ we mean ‘grown in Virginia.’”

Maybe it is because farmers have not seen the economic benefit of CSAs or Eat Fresh Eat Local. While Shuman does not have any rural studies to support his belief that CSAs help local economies, a study he did in blue-collar Cleveland is very telling.

Shuman and his two partners were asked what would happen if the Cleveland area — which includes several rural communities to the east and south — produced 25 percent more of the food it consumed. Such a shift would create more than 27,000 new jobs and grow tax revenue by more than $125 million.

It is that sense of opportunity that Lohr hopes to instill in entrepreneurs and the children of farmers. These young men and women might not have considered making a living with a rake and a hoe even a decade ago.

Over March 4-10, Virginia Agriculture Week, Lohr and his staff will take their message about the benefits of farm to table and CSAs to the children of Virginia.

“I know first-hand that if you want to reach the parents, reach the kids. Talk to students about our farms and our farmers. Tell them that agriculture includes fresh-from-the-field products.”

He will even encourage students and teachers to go to to find a farm near them where they can pick strawberries or pumpkins and experience life on a farm first-hand.

Locally, those who want to enjoy the benefits of farm fresh produce can contact Scott Williamson at 919-451-4356 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). For now, Williamson is the only Mecklenburg farmer with a CSA. He and Lohr hope to see that change over time.

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