God willing and the creek don't rise, I'll be picking up my first CSA delivery of the year in late April. When I do, it will be the 16th consecutive spring that the Rolling Prairie farmers have unloaded their goods and distributed them to subscribers in Lawrence, Kansas.
Those facts — the 16th year and the multifarm aspect of the Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance — hint at Rolling Prairie's groundbreaking (ha ha) nature. The first CSA farms in the United States began selling in 1986 in the northeast, and Rolling Prairie sold its first subscriptions in 1994, when the acronym "CSA" was more widely known as the Confederate States of America than as community supported agriculture. Now, 25 years later, some 12,549 farms are marketing through some CSA arrangement, according the 2007 farm census (USDA, PDF). Just eight years earlier a 1999 survey, reported "over 1,000" CSA enterprises (U. of Wisconsin).
I couldn't find data on how many of those CSAs involve multiple farms, but maybe this is an indication: I found 23 multiple-farm CSAs on the Localharvest.org web site, versus 1,692 total CSA listings. Although multifarm operations make sense — scattered farm fields reduce the odds that an entire crop will be wiped out by, say, a hail storm — farmers are an independent lot, and such cooperative arrangements can be challenging. Nevertheless, Rolling Prairie has endured. The Kansas Rural Center in fact used it as the basis for a guide on how to operate a multifarm CSA a few years ago (large PDF).
When I recently spoke to one of the original (and current) farmers, Bob Lominska of Hoyland Farm, about the coming season, he indicated that the six farmers have gotten good enough at what they do that planning isn't a big headache. It may not hurt that their weekly in-season information exchanges have shifted from phone to fax to email.
Other things have changed too. The group now has four drop-off sites, two in Lawrence (the central point for most of the farmers), and two in the Kansas City area about 40 miles away. And this year, Rolling Prairie will provide practical direct-marketing experience to students in the new sustainable agriculture certificate program at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, a Kansas City suburb.
Growing and learning
Stu Shafer is a professor of sociology at JCCC, teacher of the introductory course in the school's new sustainable agriculture program and, not incidentally, a Rolling Prairie grower on his family's farm. He recognized that the students "really wanted to learn how to do everything, but they weren't really learning much about marketing."
Shafer put his two careers together and came up with an arrangement wherein students would do it all: plan their crops, grow them, and market them. Ted Carey, who oversees the JCCC students' horticulture practicum at the Kansas State Research & Extension Center in nearby Olathe, endorsed the idea. This spring will see the students growing for Rolling Prairie and participating in the distribution at JCCC. (One of the KC area drop-off sites is at the college.)
One or two students will be the contact people with Rolling Prairie. Just as the other growers do, they will notify Mark Lumpe (Craig Elevitch photo) of Wakarusa Valley Farm, the production coordinator, of what crops they have ready and in what amounts. And then they'll bundle and deliver the items and quantities that Lumpe specifies.
"It's going to be a good experience for them," Shafer said.
Rolling Prairie needed a season-long commitment, and Carey is going to see that it happens. K-State graduate students and others will fill in the between-term gaps if JCCC students aren't available for weekly deliveries.
Shafer, who also is an adjunct professor of horticulture for JCCC, said the inaugural year of the sustainable ag program at JCCC was modest, and he and Carey are planning to attend the summer conference of the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association in July in not-too-distant Ames, Iowa, to get ideas. He was aware of only one other community college with a sustainable agriculture program, and he would like to see this one grow beyond its horticultural sprout, perhaps to include livestock and other products.
He's confident it will happen. The college, he said, is committed. Now, there's just more cultivation to do. In the meantime, the college's partnership with Rolling Prairie serves the farmers' needs, too. The demand at the JCCC drop-off location exceeds the farmers' supply, and the students' contributions will help, at least a little.
For more history on the CSA movement in the U.S., check these out: