A Piece of the Crop | Feature | Chicago Reader

A Piece of the Crop 

Subscription farming connects city dwellers to the land and to a supply of fresh, locally grown organic produce. Can it work on a large scale?

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It's no fun outdoors. The wind cuts deep. Even the sun seems cold. The driveway of the farm two hours northwest of the Loop is half mud and half ice.

But indoors, in a propagation room built onto an old corncrib, the digital thermometer reads 83.5. The fifth growing season at Angelic Organics farm has already begun. But this year, instead of customers, the farm will have shareholders who pay for their produce months before they'll get it.

In a plant tray labeled King Richard Summer Leeks tiny inverted Us--light green, thread-thin, infinitely fragile--are just peeking out of the soil mix. Later they'll be transplanted outside. Sometime around Labor Day they'll make their public appearance, grown-up and harvested, a symphony in green and white, in boxes of fresh produce delivered to shareholders in Evanston, Rogers Park, Lincoln Park, Ravenswood Manor, Hyde Park, and Oak Park.

"Some families tell me that getting their produce box is like having Christmas once a week," says Kim Snyder-Vine, who coordinates distribution for two of the three organic, biodynamic farms that will send produce directly to Chicago consumers this year. "They open up the box, and what's in it is from their share of their farm. And so beautiful! Children who wouldn't touch broccoli from Jewel were eating it raw out of the box! Last summer the house we rented was being appraised on the day we opened our box. The appraiser said, 'What is this?'--and wrote out a check to subscribe on the spot."

Buying a portion of a particular farm's harvest in advance is the essence of community-supported agriculture (CSA), also known as subscription farming. This year Chicago households can buy a "share" in a farm for $350 to $390. (Installment plans, subsidies, and half shares may be available.) In return, they get a bushel-size box of vegetables delivered every week for 16 to 25 weeks to a neighborhood drop-off spot, usually a fellow subscriber's garage or basement. In June the box might include lettuce, green onions, radishes, and peas; in September melons, kale, tomatoes, and peppers; in November carrots, potatoes, cabbage, and winter squash. Early-season boxes typically weigh a little under ten pounds (greens are lightweights) and late-season boxes a lot more (pumpkins are not).

These examples are hypothetical, of course. Unlike store customers, CSA subscribers get the rewards and the risks of farming. The farmer doesn't have to send them carrots if a dread northeastern Illinois carrot blight kills them all. Subscribers to Angelic Organics farm sign the following statement: "I understand that the farmers, John [Peterson] and Kimberely [Rector], will do their best to provide all they have promised, and I agree to excuse them for the curveball acts of God that might trip them up."

God's curveball acts tend to be selective; it's rare for every crop to fail. During last year's extremely wet growing season--which Peterson describes as the most challenging for farmers since 1974--Angelic Organics managed to raise a bumper crop of squash. "We got hurt on earlier crops," says Rector, "so we really needed the money." Unfortunately, the squashes were an exotic variety planted at the request of a particular wholesaler, who decided late in the season that he didn't want them after all. "No one else knew what they were," laments Rector. "And so our best yielding crop didn't help."

That little episode is one reason Rector and Peterson decided to market their produce to city subscribers for the first time last year. Community-supported agriculture means a guaranteed market and money up front. And it's tolerant: Rector told a Sierra Club food conference in February that only half of any given crop is pretty enough to be sold to wholesalers, but that CSA subscribers don't mind seconds.

CSA is also friendlier. "Instead of being on the phone [trying to sell crops] at harvest time," says Rector, "we get calls and letters from people saying, 'We love your produce.' You don't usually hear that from a store's wholesale manager." Peterson likes being community-supported, but sometimes wonders if the romance of the land has rendered skeptical Chicagoans naive. "It's remarkable that people have such trust. Not one person has called us and said, 'How do I know you even have a farm?'"

Why do city people buy in? Not to save money, though CSA vegetables can be cheaper than vegetables bought at a health-food store every week. Subscribers get food that's as fresh as possible, bred for taste and not shippability, and grown locally, without synthetic chemicals and in harmony with the "subtle natural energies" biodynamic adherents believe in.

And farmer and consumer get closer to each other. "I think this serves people in a way the current food system doesn't," says Rector. "In the city, people almost have a longing for a sense of community. There's a lot of integrity in building community around raising food, more than around bird-watching or politics."

Food issues tend to attract true believers: arrogant carnivores and militant vegetarians; those who abhor bugs and blemishes and those who abhor pesticides; gourmets who love exotic eats and radical environmentalists who disdain crops grown out of state or out of season. In its February-March issue the Chicago-based Neighborhood Works newsletter approvingly quoted a community-supported farmer in Missouri: "You don't need strawberries in January."

No doubt community-supported agriculture has a stronger pull on vegetarians and environmentalists. But the nice thing about CSA is that you don't have to believe in anything except the farmer you write the check to. The stock-in-trade is fresh peas and peppers, not political manifestos. Food comes first; ideology is optional.

A New York publication, the Harvest Times, listed 207 CSA farms in the U.S. in 1993, more than half of them in the northeast (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and New England) and most less than five years old. Last summer marked their debut in Chicago. Roughly 150 households, recruited by word of mouth and chance, signed up--a group as microscopic in the metropolitan food-distribution system as a baby leek in a barn.

"I got into this purely out of my own worry about what my nine-year-old son was eating," says Kim Snyder-Vine, a native of Toledo whose sprightly English accent is a residue of years of teaching the language to Europeans with no use for a midwestern twang. "We moved to Chicago from England last year. He'd been eating biodynamically grown food since he was in the womb, but it's harder to find in the midwest.

"A number of us from the Waldorf school [where her husband's a teacher and her son's a student] got together, went to Wisconsin, and bought a cow so that we could legally bring the milk back here. Sometime around last March somebody said, 'Why don't we do the same thing with vegetables?'"

Through the Michael Fields Institute in East Troy, Wisconsin, she got in touch with a biodynamic farmer who agreed to grow for 18 people. But the word of mouth spread faster than the flu, and her telephone rang off the hook. One caller heard about the project eavesdropping on two women in an Evanston restaurant.

Snyder-Vine spent spring and summer scrambling, first to find more farmers, and then to set up more times and places for them to drop off food boxes. "By the end of the season I had 117 subscribers, and some of them were dividing their shares with others.

"I don't know anything about farming. I just wanted to eat good food. I was amazed--in a city this size, am I doing this for the first time?"

Not quite. Also last spring, a separate group centered on the Sierra Club discovered that a conservation-oriented housing development called Prairie Crossing, in central Lake County, had started a community-supported garden. "The quality was superb," reports subscriber Rob Salvino, who helped coordinate pickups for the 40 or so Chicago families who subscribed (Prairie Crossing didn't deliver last year). "Subscribing to Prairie Crossing was cheaper than buying at the farmers' market, more expensive than a typical supermarket. But when you bit into one of their carrots, it was sweet."

Other farms' shareholders give similar testimonials. "We got some of the most beautiful tomatoes I've ever seen," says Kelley Hazen, general manager of Cafe Voltaire, which bought five shares in Angelic Organics in 1993 and 1994. "One squash we got was so huge and wonderful, we brought it upstairs and made it an art object."

Not knowing exactly what you'll have to work with can challenge a chef, though adventurous eaters reap the rewards. "In Chicago you can get pretty much anything you want any day of the year," says the cafe's owner Mark Epstein. "But you can't get fresh-picked organic produce unless you have a relationship with farmers."

The three community-supported farms selling to Chicagoans this year are all north of town, small compared to the more-than-300-acre Illinois average, and run by people who are easy to talk to.

Closest is Prairie Crossing in Grayslake (708-548-4030), now starting its second season. The development of the same name will include 317 houses when it's completed; according to vice president and CSA enthusiast Victoria Ranney, the houses will occupy less than half of the development's 667 acres. The rest of the land will be permanently designated as open space--legally protected from suburban sprawl--including about 150 acres that can be farmed. So far the community-supported part occupies only about five acres. Ranney hired vegetable farmer Alvin Warren, a 1984 University of Illinois graduate in animal science, after a nationwide search; ironically, he grew up nearby, on the De Kalb County farm his family has worked for six generations. Without Prairie Crossing, he says, he would have had trouble finding a way into the vegetable business. "I was saying to Julie [his wife] before we heard of this, we could buy land in the boonies, but who would we sell to? What we needed was legally protected land in a densely populated area."

Farther out is Angelic Organics (815-389-2746), about two miles south of the Wisconsin state line in Boone County, near the tiny town of Caledonia. It's a 22-acre remnant of the Peterson family farm, complete with fencing, equipment, outbuildings, and a spectacular curved-rafter dairy barn, half of which has been converted to living quarters. Rector and Peterson specialize in growing old-fashioned "heirloom" vegetables--what they call "the vegetable equivalents of endangered species." Some varieties are so rare they have to be grown for seed for a year or two before any can be eaten or sold. The reward: Angelic subscribers can expect not one, but five kinds of purple potatoes.

Farthest from Chicago is Peggy's Place, in Whitewater, Wisconsin (414-473-3865)--40 acres tended by Carrie Driver, a Milwaukee native who has gardened and grown bedding plants for 20 years and whose husband teaches school. She's the most ebullient talker of the bunch and the most outspoken about the communal ideals behind CSA. Peggy's Place, entering its third season as a community-supported farm, also has the widest selection, offering subscriptions for eggs and bread as well as veggies, and an extended-season subscription for root crops and greens; she even has plans to offer organic dairy products if she can find enough interest.

Community-supported agriculture is supposed to close the gap between these people and the rest of us. Eventually it may, but right now that gap is more like a canyon.

For one thing, urbanites have a very different sense of the seasons. Early in March--a few days after visiting Rector's baby leeks and four weeks after one farmer had already sent off an $1,800 seed order--I asked Chicagoan Rob Salvino how many of last year's Prairie Crossing subscribers would be signing up this year. He wasn't sure. "We haven't looked into 1994 yet. It's a little too early."

Most people don't farm, and their parents didn't either. They have no idea what it's like. For starters, hiring seasonal help is a recurring headache for farmers. "Generally people can't stand the work," says Angelic Organics' John Peterson, "especially people with a political or romantic idealism about it. Nine months of the year it's almost incomprehensibly hard--the long hours [60 to 80 a week], the repetition, the low tolerance for mistakes." He used to grow corn and soybeans in huge fields using chemicals--the conventional Illinois way--and he says vegetables are much harder. "Harvesting is infinitely more complex and demanding, the product is perishable, and the market is undependable."

Kimberely Rector says she was was an Art Institute student and "ignorant Chicagoan" when she met Peterson at the Heartland Cafe four and a half years ago. Now she says, "In farming you always have a crisis mentality. There's always something to be done, even if you don't see it. To do it well, you have to subjugate yourself to the crops' needs. That's what I encourage our seasonal helpers to do. The focus is very intense--it's like, I don't answer my mail for four months."

But the biggest gap between city and country is the cash gap. "Anyone who knows anything about agriculture knows that almost all farms are marginal these days," says Rector. And even though CSA channels consumers' money directly to farmers, it still doesn't provide enough for the long term--to cope with emergencies, replacing equipment, or old age. It pays the year's bills, but leaves little in reserve.

"I feel very lucky to start in a place with such good facilities," says Rector. If she and Peterson had had to start Angelic Organics from scratch, they couldn't have afforded all the equipment and buildings, let alone land within two hours of Chicago. For all the talk about environmentally sustainable agriculture, these farms are not yet economically sustainable. And it's hard to see how they can become so unless city people are willing to just plain pay more for food.

Carrie Driver of Peggy's Place would rather not talk about money. "We are not selling something. We're a way of life, not a vegetable farm. I could never charge for food; I feel it's everybody's right." She feels CSA subscribers "are not paying me for produce, but for stewardship of the land and social activism."

Driver isn't happy with the way community-supported farms have grown up around Chicago, because they're more like businesses than communes. Back east, community-supported agriculture has usually started with a "core group" whose members make plans together for financing, growing, and distributing food. But Chicagoans have hooked up with existing farm operations. The farmers set the share prices, and the consumers either bought in or didn't.

That may not seem so terrible, but Driver thinks CSA should be "a new way of looking at economics." And she is not alone. In its introductory pamphlet on CSA, the Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association (BDFGA) warns against the buy-and-sell mentality. "People must always remember that the money is needed to support the farm; it is not just a new way to buy vegetables. If the farm is properly supported, the vegetables, eggs, etc. are a natural result." Even more radical is Trauger Groh in the book Farms for Tomorrow, also published by the BDFGA: "For the farms of tomorrow, land cannot be used as a commodity for a tradeable good. . . . No one should possibly have more of the fruits of this earth than what grows on the amount of land that is arrived at when you divide the amount of usable land of a region by the number of people living there--and no one should have less."

Driver is trying to start a core group for Peggy's Place. "Without a core group, people may not want to pay for something they won't see for years [like fruit trees]." Prairie Crossing has a nine-member CSA steering committee, a more corporate way of doing the same thing.

However, Rector and Peterson hesitate to embrace the communal mindset. Angelic Organics is their only job; they can't pretend it's not a business. Their greatest misgiving about CSA has been that they would wind up "farming by committee." That fear was eased last year when they found out that, in Rector's words, "the average urbanite can hardly find time to make it out for a [once-a-year] field day. People want the food at their drop-off site and not to have to worry about it."

But whether CSA is a business or a movement or both, it often includes a curious spiritual dimension that's hard to overlook (though most subscribers seem willing to do so as long as the veggies are fresh). There's no official CSA group, but a lot of CSA literature comes from the BDFGA. And many of the key local players are biodynamic believers. Angelic Organics and Peggy's Place are biodynamic, and Alvin Warren says Prairie Crossing is moving in that direction.

Biodynamic farming follows the teachings of turn-of-the-century German thinker Rudolf Steiner, who was also responsible for Waldorf schooling. It goes well beyond organic farmers' refusal to use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Its adherents believe a farm should be viewed as an organism and should use as few off-farm inputs as possible. They believe plant growth is in part governed by subtle astronomical energies: radishes planted when the moon is in zodiacal constellations associated with earth are said to grow bigger-than-average roots; planted when the moon is in a fire sign, they grow more seeds. "About every three days the moon changes which constellation it's in," says Rector. "So many things in farming are unstructured. Whether it works or not, it sets up a convenient working structure for us." Peterson acknowledges that the two of them don't always follow the biodynamic rules. "Dogma is a kind of luxury," he says. "We just want things to work."

Yet Rector and Peterson do buy herbal sprays, or "preps," that are supposed to enhance the effects of these subtle forces. Last year, Peterson says, one prep helped two acres of flooded squash plants to root and grow instead of floating away to rot. The preps are analogous to homeopathic remedies for human ill health, and the way they're supposed to work seems equally implausible: the active ingredients are diluted to what, by a chemist's standards, are laughably small quantities. Peterson figures that by the time they're sprayed on a field, there may be as little as one atom of active ingredient left per square foot.

At first I was surprised to hear these scientifically dubious doctrines being advanced by experienced, practical farmers like Peterson and Rector. But on second thought, I wasn't. Their job is one of the few left where it's almost impossible to fudge. Like doctors, farmers make a living by getting clear-cut results from imponderable situations. They know better than anyone that nothing is as simple as it seems on paper. "We wouldn't have come to a lot of these concepts if we weren't farming," says Rector. "I've been more open to this because nature is very mysterious. University descriptions are so inadequate when you pick up those tools and try to grow something.

Is community-supported agriculture a gourmet delicacy for the enlightened few, or is it the Jewel of the future? "I think it has enormous potential," says distribution coordinator Kim Snyder-Vine (312-267-0534). "Just imagine every major city having this satellite of organic farms--not just feeding them, but bringing out a whole new consciousness."

"I don't see any reason we can't do [widespread CSA]," adds Nancy Melvin, whose Lincoln Square family last year munched their way through shares in three farms. "Farmers' markets have always existed. This is a more 20th-century version, for people who plan ahead. It's perfect for the busy urban person: the vegetables show up in my garage [an Angelic Organics drop-off spot], and I get to meet everyone when they come to get their box."

Other cities are ahead of Chicago. In Madison, Wisconsin, a coalition of community-supported farms and community organizers aims to reach 600 households this year, and may begin offering meat and dairy products in addition to vegetables.

The obvious limiting factor for big cities is land. A community-supported farm needs to be close enough to the city that urbanites and farmers can get acquainted. But land that close to Chicago is already prohibitively expensive--which may explain why smaller cities like Minneapolis and Madison had CSA years before Chicago did. Angelic Organics' Peterson conjectures that Illinois' flat, rich, expensive farmland isn't very conducive to small-scale CSA. But even in idyllic hilly regions, many community-supported farms depend on land trusts, nonprofit organizations, or indulgent landowners.

Another limiting factor is farmers. Or is it? "There's a whole movement of people who want to chuck their corporate jobs and do something closer to nature that they can feel good about," insists Jim Slama, Angelic Organics shareholder, CSA advocate, and publisher of the new-age-environmentalist bimonthly Conscious Choice. But if Peterson is right, most of these newcomers won't be able to hack it, and the rest will need years to learn.

Yet CSA may make it because the concept is so simple. In fact, if not in ideology, it's a private-enterprise solution. Nobody has to wait for Congress to ban trucked-in food from California. If enough people put their money where their mouths are, they can have all the community-supported farms they need.

Will they? Probably not right away. "To me, CSA is the wave of the future," says Slama. "I'm ecstatic that CSA has a foothold here. The realist in me is also ecstatic that Whole Foods is going to be seeking out local suppliers for their store.

"For a lot of people it was a big step just to shop there instead of a regular supermarket. Realistically, over the next ten years most of those people are not going to consider community-supported agriculture. But at least they're buying organic food."

Prairie Crossing subscriber Rob Salvino's day job is doing marketing for Metra. "I think CSA appeals to a niche market, people who are concerned about food and the environment. Hopefully that niche can be broadened. But when you get ten pounds of potatoes from the farm, you need to know how to cook them. And how many people these days cook?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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