A common refrain about local, organic food is that it's expensive. I don't believe this to be true for two reasons. First, as an organic vegetable farmer selling most of my produce through local farmer's markets, I pay extremely close attention to what vegetables cost in the grocery store (probably much closer attention than the average consumer). It's my conclusion that our prices are often on par with the organic produce aisle, and sometimes even lower, while our freshness and quality is always far superior to that of grocery store vegetables. Second, our prices reflect our true costs of producing this food. We set our prices in a way that allows us to do the hard work of growing food and stay in business over the long term. When we see cheap food coming from Mexico, China, Argentina, and so on, it's because someone else (or some place else) is paying the price for us in form of low wages, human rights abuses, and social and environmental degradation... All so the grocery stores here can sell green onions for $0.99/bunch.
For conscientious consumers (or folks who simply value the taste and quality of good, fresh food), one solution that has arisen over the past couple decades is the "CSA". This acronym stands for "Community Supported Agriculture" and has come to represent a range of pre-paid subscription programs for farm produce, for everything from fruit and vegetables, to meat, grains, cheese, eggs, and even fish. These programs might vary in some details, but they all typically serve customers who pay in advance for an agreed upon amount of farm product to be distributed over the course of the season. While CSA programs are a service provided by the farmer or fisher, sometimes we forget that CSA's are also a partnership.
Community members participate by supporting their local farmer with a commitment at the start of the year, paying for their produce in advance of the season. Most farmers, especially vegetable growers, incur the bulk of their expenses early in the year when there is very little farm revenue coming in and so CSA programs originated to help farmers with this challenge. The early season income from CSA customers is incredibly helpful to the farmers at a time when they need it most.
Later in the spring and throughout the harvest season, the farmer then reciprocates by providing fresh, local produce to the customers each week. Most farms go further though, many include a newsletter with farm updates, recipes, and cooking tips, as well as hosting on-farm events like tours and potlucks. In this way CSA programs offer supporters of local agriculture an opportunity to really connect with a local farm.
CSA's are also a great way to learn about seasonal eating, as customers discover new foods they might have overlooked (and realize they love!), try new recipes, and learn new ways to prepare some of our “every day” vegetables. Another benefit is that farmers usually prioritize their CSA customers. On our farm we offer a CSA as well as going to farmer’s markets, but if we only have enough of favourite items like peas or strawberries we put these in our CSA box first, only sending the extra (if any) to market. Joining a CSA program is a great way for customers to ensure access to the best local produce all season long.
Some customers might not be able to afford making one lump sum payment at the start of the season though, so talk to your farmer as some will offer payment plans. While it’s helpful to receive the full payment up front, farmers don’t want to be exclusive; they want everyone to be able to enjoy their produce. Another way to afford joining a CSA is to save your change! At the start of this year one of our CSA customers began saving all her pocket change each week. Over the course the winter and spring she had saved up enough to pay for the CSA in full prior to the program starting. She paid us in neatly rolled toonies, loonies, quarters, and dimes (which come in handy for making change at the farmer's market!). She said it felt like she wasn't paying anything at all, as normally small change goes unnoticed. You see, local food is not necessarily more expensive and it definitely doesn't have to feel expensive!
Personally I'm not a social media buff. Perhaps that makes me less of a "young" farmer than people think. Because I don't use facebook and twitter in my private life, I have always been hesitant to use them for our business. This is despite the fact that every farming conference these days seems to have a workshop on the importance of using social media. Also I have to admit that some of our fellow farmers swear by it, whether for marketing or just for some "feel-good" feedback from their favourite customers.
It's not because I'm a Luddite or anti-social that I have shied away from these online tools, it's just that I am busy- plain and simple. I spend enough time managing our website and email, so I'm not looking for yet another reason (i.e. distraction) to spend more time behind the computer- I'd rather be out in the field.
That all said, the reason for this post is that we have in fact recently created a facebook page for our business. You can find it at facebook.com/tatloroadfarm. It is here we will make timely announcements ("Pickling cukes are ready!"), post beautiful photos ("Look at those glowing beets!"), and share market updates ("Find us at the Duncan Farmer's Market this Saturday with fresh sugar snap peas!"). We hope this allows our customers to easily stay informed of what's happening here on the farm. We hope this let's our supporters feel more connected with us and encourages them to share their enthusiasm for our produce with their friends. In short, we hope that facebook proves worth our precious time.
A final note for all those customers who are not into facebook or simply prefer good ol' email, we also encourage you to sign up for our email newsletter. We send this out once a week during the growing season, with updates and recipes. You can sign up for it here.
At the farmer's market we regularly receive compliments about how we display of our vegetables. My husband likes to respond with the quip, "I should hope so! We both have master's degrees in design!" While we have put some careful thought into how we display and market our vegetables, the display is only as beautiful as the produce it presents... And our vegetables are the product of our farm- the direct result of the functions and systems we have designed on the ground.
At its core design is about problem solving. Faced with a challenge, the designer creates a solution. This solution can be a product such as a building or a website, or it can be a process such as a bus route or a record-keeping system. Farmers are solving problems everyday, from the simple ("we need a better way to open the greenhouse doors") to the complex ("how do we efficiently integrate our irrigation and drainage systems"). From the challenges of crop planning and rotation, to soil and water management, to farm economics and marketing- farmers are constantly designing solutions to the myriad problems they face. Their solutions are often ingenious (and thrifty), solutions based on knowing a place and a task intimately.
Another quality of design is that it be beautiful- not simply for aesthetic purposes, but because good design is beautiful in the way a mathematician describes the beauty of an equation. It is the beauty of efficiency and function. Good design is all these things: efficient, functional, and beautiful.
I cannot think of a more beautiful thing than an efficiently running, sustainable farm.
When applying to do a master's in landscape architecture one of the questions I had to answer was "What is your favourite landscape?", to which I replied, "The agricultural landscape..." And here I find myself on the other end of it all farming, creating the landscape that inspired me to study design in the first place. I do still love this landscape more than any other, as it is such a direct example of the human place in our local ecosystem. We have to eat. We are an agrarian society. So a farm that is modelled on an ecosystem, designed to nurture healthy plants and animals- while working with the air, soil, and water in a way that is beneficial and sustainable- is one of the most direct examples of humans taking their place within an ecosystem, rather than pretending to be separate from it. Such a farm is the culmination of hard work, thoughtful design, and careful planning. And it is beautiful, it is efficient, it is thriving with life.
I still consider myself a designer, perhaps I am farmer first but the "designer" is implicit. To those who question whether I use my graduate degree I say "Yes!" In fact, I feel privileged that I am able to partake in the ultimate design project- the design of just one place over a lifetime; and not just "on paper", but a design that we then implement and test and refine. After three years of building this farm I feel as though I know this place intimately, while simultaneously feeling like there is so much to discover here. The other reality for the farmer/designer is that her work is never done; problems evolve, new challenges arise, and she is tasked with finding ever more beautiful, creative solutions.
One last note on design: you may have noticed a slightly updated look to our website. It's subtle, but as farmers/designers subtle things matter to us. As part of this change we have made the blog portion of the new website secondary, but with this shift we intend to treat to blog, well, more blog-like (i.e. opinionated!). So stay tuned as we look forward to sharing more of our thoughts on food and farming...