It's 100 degrees outside, and the air smells like a dirty diaper, but stinking compost aside, this small farm has an understated allure about it. The sheer gargantuan size of the beefsteak tomatoes and the way the shooting corn crops dance against the horizon make the place seem almost Disney-like. Because the harvested crops are scorched dry from the ongoing drought, when a strong breeze blows, pollen grains and other allergens tickle the nostrils.
With its meticulously landscaped fields, this mom-and-pop farm in Heath is like countless other small farms that ring the city, though it does have subtle differences. Toward the back fence, just past the tall trees, an investment banker from Uptown is ankle-deep in muddy earth, picking a head of cabbage. A retired lawyer from Highland Park is leaning against a dirty fence, biting into a ripened rutabaga.
This is the face of a new style of farming, and pretty soon you might be wiping mud off your chinos too.
Community-supported agriculture is an über-progressive, membership-based movement that began 20 years ago, just as organically grown produce was getting its legs. CSA takes advantage of the all-natural concept and those who believe in the purity of organic by building a direct partnership between consumers and nearby farmers.
Consumers join CSA farms, either by paying a monthly fee or providing farm labor--though the latter is much less common. In return, members get a share of the weekly crop, sometimes hand-delivered to their doorstep. The members get healthy and cheap produce while the farmers get some much-needed financial help in a time when the country has an insatiable appetite for junk and an apparent mental block to green food.
Small Texas farms struggle to find markets because large commercial farms have a stronghold over supplying massive amounts of produce to most major grocery stores. While the shoppers are busy eating fast food and searching for prepackaged vegetables for microwave dinners, small farmers eke out profits at local farmers markets. By having consumers essentially subscribe to the farms, CSA operations provide local farms a guaranteed stream of income and lessen the financial strain that comes along with growing organic.
One of Dallas' closest CSA farms, Akin Farm in Terrell, charges its four members only $10 a month and in return hand-delivers fresh vegetables all season at no additional charge. Wendy Akin, the owner, calls the system a tight-knit and unselfish community support system, and the members agree.
In 1985 the CSA concept was introduced by Robyn Van En whose Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts was the first known CSA. It began as a cheap way for supporters to contribute to the organic effort, and the concept is slowly spreading across North America, with more than 1,400 known farms.
An estimated 85 percent of all CSAs are organic, but even with the nutrients and benefits of all-natural food, why not just eat the veggies at the grocery store?
"Because obviously it's not good for us to eat poison," Akin says. She refers to what those in the know call "Roundup ready" produce. Roundup is an herbicide that is sprayed onto commercial fields. The problem with it, Akin claims, is that as it is killing off any unwanted growth it seeps into our produce. She may call what is being done to the food in America "horrifying," but that isn't the driving force for every CSA farmer.
Tim Miller of Millerberg Farms just outside of Austin started his CSA for another reason.
"I just want families with children to eat healthier," Miller says. "Those big commercial farms only offer nutritionless lettuce and poisoned wheat; we should do better for ourselves and our families."
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Health has been a big reason for the influx of sprouting CSA farms in the area, but taste could be what ultimately draws customers. Most vegetables bought at supermarkets travel more than 1,500 miles from where they're grown to end up in your salad bowl, and the demands of transportation and storage of fresh produce force a compromise between convenience and taste--as anyone who has ever eaten a grocery store tomato knows. Without the need to ship large amounts of produce to distant markets, small local CSA farms can focus on freshness and quality.
The CSA movement has been catching on slowly in Texas, but Miller promises that will change soon.
"I think that all small farms will eventually make the crossover to CSA style," Miller says. "It is just a matter of time, because it is either switch or call it quits."
So remember the next time you're searching for your produce at the corner Kroger, if Willy Wonka's snozzberries can taste like snozzberries, why shouldn't your tomatoes taste like tomatoes?