Monday, May 10, 2010

Symbiotic Agriculture and the East Bay CSA

Dear reader,

A bit of insight on CSA farms:
Last week we were privileged to hear Matt McCrue's story of another new 10-acre farm, Shooting Star farm, a CSA in Fairfield. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It is one of the profoundly positive movements that is gaining momentum for producer-consumer unity. Sprouting in Switzerland and Japan in the 1960's, Community Supported Agriculture spread to much of Europe and eventually to the US in the '80s where it has been thriving ever since. The idea is that consumers can become active in the livelihood of their local food producers by sharing financial responsibility. This is accomplished in many different variations, each unique to the farm in question and the producer/consumer relationship that has been spawned.

The farmer and the customer both benefit greatly from a tighter relationship. (Over the many years of cultivating agricultural practices, the farmer/consumer relationship has become estranged and distanced, causing a derangement in the motives and morals in food production. Commercial, monoculture crops are the result of this. Dirty deeds in the agricultural business.) Farmer and consumer can share financial benefits and risks when the consumer invests for the length of the season. Farms and customers alike share feelings about the success of the farm in a more hands on way. In some cases, customers are even encouraged to exchange volunteer work for food service. Kids love knowing where their food comes from and being able to say where "their" farm is and who picks their vegetables. Members get a much better sense for the seasonality of their local food. This helps to diminish the unreasonable standards we have gotten used to, where we ship season vegetables in from remote farms, using huge amounts of fossil fuel to do so.

Most commonly, an individual or family can pay a seasonal rate to become a member, thus shareholder, of the CSA, in turn receiving a weekly vegetable box. Shooting Star farm, for example, has dropsites all over the Bay Area where members can arrange to pick up their box in the most convenient spot. Click here for a list of Shooting Star dropsites!

  a lovely photo of the sample veggie box from the Shooting Star CSA website

Shooting Star's tree-shaker:
One of the best parts of hearing about Shooting Star farm was the personal prelude from Matt McCrue. Matt told us a little bit about the stuff he's made of, what brought him to where he is now. 

In brief and totally unfair representation of the excitement and charisma we found in the actually storytelling:
After serving time hunting for enemy weapons in Northern Iraq for the U.S. Army, Matt came back ready for a change. Inspired by Middle Eastern gardens and pomegranate groves, he took a 16-month course in vegetable production at Center for Agro-ecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz. He served on the peace Corps at the edge of the Sahara desert, working towards community building through agriculture. There, both he and the Muslim community he lived and worked in gained perspective on those who were previously proclaimed as "the enemy." After coming close to death, the kindness of the community saved his life. He came back to CA in search of refuge from the draft and found the VFC. The Veteran Farmer Coalition is a fantastically inspiring organization that helped Matt dig into the farming business. Definitely check out that website. He got a job working at the French Garden farm in Sebastopol and eventually became farm manager. As Matt says, there are tree-shakers and jelly makers. With regard for the huge amount of work and support in between then and now, Matt is definitely a lot of both, and he used his tree shakin' skills to start up he and his partner Lily Schneider's 10-acre farm in the East Bay.

Matt had a ton of advice and insight to share with us from his experiences in life and specifically in starting and running a small CSA farm. (Can you believe this guy is only 28 years old?!) We talked a bit about the perils of conventional agriculture (the cost of soil erosion, $37.6 billion a year, 1.6 million new cases of diabetes yearly, obesity as a threat to national defense, government sponsored soda through corn subsidies, etc.) and how sustainable agriculture is beneficial to the health of people and the planet as a whole. Now what kind of logistics does it take to run and market a 10-acre organic farm? A few weeks ago, Zoe from County Line Harvest gave us her story. Matt broke his advice into three areas of focus: production, transportation, and marketing. 
In production, his points were that high production requires:
  1. ample water combined with water tests. a good knowledge of what's in your water source is vital. some plants can't grow with too much of one chemical element, i.e. lettuce can't grow when there's too much boron. It's good to get to know your irrigation districts and to recognize the differences between well water and rainwater.
  2. Flat land is good for high production
  3. Roads are a farmer's friend. In productivity, the most efficient system wins. Roads provide access to markets, which are the livelihood for small farms.
Some utilities for the farmer are the USGS map of soil types. When finding a place to farm, the soil type that needs less work is the one a farmer wants.

For efficient equipment, Shooting Star farm relies on a highly praised Farmall 140 tractor with a belly bar. This tractor cuts down the labor costs and allows the farm to function with Matt, Lily and generally only 2 other paid labor workers.

For transportation to markets, Matt does all the moving himself. He uses a van over a truck which helps protect the produce from highway winds and pollution.

For marketing, Matt told us about the breakdown of income from restaurants, groceries, CSA, and farmer's markets. Apparently, Shooting Star makes about 31% of the income from markets and 69% from the CSA subscribers. Keepin' it local! We talked about the benefits of supporting small markets and farms in comparison to organizations like Farm Fresh To You and their attempts to take over the fresh produce craze.

Overall, our time with Matt was highly valued. I think the class really got a lot of inspiration from the personality and passion in Matt's story and his realistic advice brought us insight on efficiency in the local farm industry.

Leandra's Ode to the Honeybee:
We had our first final student presentation as well. Leandra gave us some awesome information on the biology of native honeybees. We learned about the cultural and spiritual significance of the bee throughout history, the deity of the sun and sacred since the times of ancient petroglyphs. Her report transformed from a focus on European honeybee, to a focus on our underdog heros, the native honeybees. She told us of materials that are toxic to them such as neem, sulfer, copper, insecticidal soap, and diatomaceous earth; she also told us of plants that attract these beneficial beauties: sage, sunflower, basil, borage, lavender, sweet elisium, woolly blue curls, lupine, buckwheat, and much more. She covered a lot more and it was fantastic! Thanks for the great little bite out of the wide world of bees.

The class was jam-packed with information! I do my best to summarize but there's so much to tell! Hopefully my long-winded blogging isn't too overwhelming. So many thanks for all the insight and enlightened thinking that comes out of this class. We're nearing the end of the semester and it will be so sad to see it end. But! The end marks a beginning. We will have a celebration (potluck, music, farmtalk, whatever else the day brings) on our class day on the 26th of May. See you on Wednesday!


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