As the dirt turns (a pair of agricultural hope operas)

I grew up surrounded by farms. Though my family lived in a neighborhood on the very outskirts of our northern Ohio city, my school bus drove out into the country to pick up some of my farm-raised classmates. And in the summer, I spent the county fair week not only taking pride in my townie 4-H projects but also in looking around at the livestock and other projects displayed by my country peers.

I admit I'm a little slow to reach awareness sometimes, though. The farm crisis of the 1980s, with bankruptcies and foreclosures, never registered with me until years later. And though I'm much more aware now of how farms, withering under the aging stewardship of old farm families and losing a new generation who are unwilling to continue a losing prospect, continue to be sold and "developed" at an increasing cost to our society, I recognize that there's still a whole lot I don't know.

Though I'm sometimes well behind the curve on these issues, sometimes the timing turns out just right. Recently, I finally had the chance to see "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" -- I'm just the sort of person to think that watching a documentary on farming on my birthday constitutes one of the best presents ever –- and the message of hope in the movie coincided perfectly with what I'm learning from my CSA membership this year.

'Tis a farm, farm better thing I do...

The story of "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" -- written by the farmer, John Peterson, himself -- contains the familiar elements of a bucolic childhood on the family farm and repeated attempts to keep the farm afloat in times of crisis. Peterson lost most of the acreage and equipment from his grandfather's farm at the age of 30, unable to keep up with the spiral of debt in the 1970s. Following a deep depression, he attempted to make a go of the farm again with the help of some of his artist friends, became the subject of dark rumors and harassment in his community, retreated to Mexico to find his bearings, and returned to the farm in 1991, determined to try organic farming.

After a rough start, moving from four crops to thirty ("And I didn’t know how to do it," Peterson explains in describing his initial desperate scramble), he gradually made a small niche for Angelic Organics in Chicago supermarkets and gained the attention of a handful of organic consumers who encouraged him to develop a community-supported agriculture program for his farm's produce. "This is what farming should be," Peterson declares in retrospect, noting the need for a direct connection between the farm and its produce and the people who eat it.

Over the years, Peterson has expanded the farm on biodynamic principles, seeing the farm as a "living organism," and his customer base has expanded with it. His biggest supporter and his farm stand manager –- his mother, who died of cancer well before the film was finished –- tells the camera with blunt pride, "It has taken years to convince people that this is something worthwhile." But once convinced, the CSA shareholders came to support the farm fully, as twenty members pooled the money to buy neighboring acreage for Peterson to expand the farm and the CSA program even further.

The movie offers a compelling look –- sometimes funny, sometimes deeply painful and poignant –- at the trials and tribulations of family farming, but it reveals the truth about farming and its importance to all of us. For me, the essence of the film's message is crystallized in a discussion between mother and son. Mrs. Peterson asks John if he would have rather been a writer, making a career from his art. When he demurs, muttering "not like farming is lucrative," she chirps a sprightly, no-nonsense reply: "Oh, it doesn't bring in the money, but it's a way of life."

Do you see what I CSA?

Many people are now learning that while farming may be a financial struggle year after year, it's a way of life that is needed now more than ever, and I feel privileged to have learned more of the CSA story behind the scenes at Bakers' Fresh Produce and Honey in Wadsworth, Ohio. The Bakers –- Bob, Donna, their five children, and with help from both sets of parents –- have been farming for over fifteen years, starting with one acre of fields and a roadside stand and now raising crops on approximately 3.5 acres and selling their produce at a handful of nearby farmers markets and to local restaurants. And though the Bakers' farm is not certified organic, they make a conscious effort to work with what nature has given them and to avoid added chemicals wherever possible.

This year, they started a small CSA program to see if this would be a more effective way of selling their produce as well as to keep them from burning out going to four different farmers markets during the week. By putting more of their time and effort into preparing CSA shares each week, they hoped to have more time to spend both with the "garden" (in general maintenance, including planting succession crops) and with the whole family. Since all of the Baker children are involved in the day-to-day running of the farm and regularly help CSA customers at Wednesday pickups as well as help staff the farm's tents at Saturday farmers markets, that family time is easy to come by. While they may not all choose farming as their own "way of life" once they reach adulthood, I'd be very surprised to see them all turn away from the farm.

The Bakers had modest goals for their CSA, seeing it as an experiment in how they do business, and early in the year Donna told me that they wanted no more than twenty members to sign up for shares. Though initially they had only six members sign up, more signed up as the Bakers talked to market customers, and they currently have seventeen full shares and two half shares. They have also decided to make season extensions available for those who had originally signed up to receive produce through the first week of October. In addition to the weekly share fee of $25, members are asked to provide three hours of labor at any one of the organized work days, where family and friends gather to pull and clean onions and garlic, sow seeds for late plantings of lettuce and beans, or otherwise make the larger farm tasks pass more quickly.

Share and share alike

Now that the season is three-quarters over (not counting those extra three weeks in October we can "buy" to add to our shares), it's clear that the program has become a success -- and a learning experience. In response to my questions about the difficulties and the joys of running a CSA, Donna allowed that she sometimes has difficulty judging the crops to be able to pull together "19 identical items to have at once... you just don't know until you get into the patch and start picking." They're also learning that they can't always save crops just for the CSA members: Donna admits that they lost a crop of cauliflower because they didn't take it to market, thinking it would keep until the next week's CSA pickup. But to counter these setbacks, she firmly declares that

The joy of CSA would be the people! Our members are great and it makes us want to provide them with the absolute best that we have to offer. They have made a commitment to us and in return we want to return that tenfold to them. Our number one goal is making our members happy, and it really isn't hard to do. We look forward to pick-up every week just as much as I would venture to say they do.

As one of her happy CSA members, I'd have to agree that every week's outing to the Bakers' farm is a treat for me (and for my parents, who share my share). It's a chance to talk with the other members, swap recipes, learn about what's been going on in the fields during the week, and simply enjoy being in a place where good food is grown by good people. I'm very happy to know that the Bakers plan on continuing their CSA next year, possibly with an added pickup day to allow more time for that community sharing between members and farmers.

Like Farmer John's story, the Bakers' farming saga offers inspiration and hope. On their modest acreage, they are making that deep connection between people and the food they eat, and they are doing so in ways that they hope will leave the land in better shape than when they found it. Their story is not so uncommon any more, but having the opportunity to learn more of their story this year has opened my eyes to the stories behind so many other farms –- and has helped me appreciate my food all the more.

3 Responsesto “As the dirt turns (a pair of agricultural hope operas)”

  1. Howling Hill says:

    I just watched this film the other night. I'd never heard of Farmer John before watching it. What I got most from the movie was "don't gossip." Gossiping destroys lives.
    The gossiping lesson aside, I thought it was a great film. And I love the "Bug Song" and the video which goes with it. Just too cute.

  2. I think one of the best things about a CSA or any program that better connects producers and buyers is that it creates a feedback loop.  Only when your customers can tell you what they do and don't like can you know how to please them.  This is true for farmers / ranchers but also for others a bit upstream.

    Will have to track down the movie, too, sounds interesting!

  3. Charlotte says:

    Turns out there's another Ethicurean/Farmer John connection -- I went to Beloit College in the 80s, when John Peterson had just lost the majority of his property. We were, of course, snotty teenagers who couldn't figure out why this older guy wanted to hang out with us, but that didn't stop us from going to the wild parties he threw on the farm (one night in particular stands out with bonfires, a front end loader full of drunk kids, and the white-painted bedroom with twinkle lights he made for Shannon, who moved out there after getting thrown out of the dorms for bottle feeding the baby goat she'd gotten from John). I knew about the farm crisis at the time, but it just never occurred to us the kind of bind John was in -- I feel bad that we were, well, snotty teenagers. I caught the movie on PBS by accident, called the three or four people I'm still in touch with, and I have to admit, I got kind of teary about how John managed to turn a really rotten situation around, and was more than amused to see he's kept that oddball artistic spirit alive in Angelic Organics family. (And the old farmer watching them pour concrete in that gorgeous Illinois topsoil always makes me cry.) Beloit College was a strange and wonderful place where our professors always told us we were going to be okay despite having not gotten into the Ivy League schools our parents had wanted us to attend -- and I have to say, they were right. Most of my friends wound up doing all sorts of interesting things, from farming to running movie studios to making art. It was such a pleasure to see, on PBS one night, that someone interesting I'd known a long time ago had done something so innovative and successful. Congrats John!