Fresh from the farm

CSA programs link local farms to local families

Aaron and Isaiah Davies, 6 and 3 years old, know where their food comes from.

It arrives each week (during the summer and fall) in a box on their Stanford West porch, brimming with veggies picked just hours earlier in Watsonville or Hollister.

"It's like Christmas," their mother, Sheryl Davies, said. "They get really excited to see what's in the box."

Four years ago, Davies and her husband, Jason, joined an increasing number of Midpeninsula residents who belong to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.

Farms from as far away as the Capay Valley in Yolo County have CSA programs with delivery locations in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Mountain View — but many have waiting lists, several CSA managers said.

"There's no lack of interested people," said Ryan Casey, co-owner of Blue House Farm in Pescadero, which is offering CSA memberships "over the hill" for the first time this year.

CSA programs link consumers with farmers in a bond that, for many, extends beyond the exchange of money.

"We like to be getting our produce directly into the hands of our customers without having a go-between," High Ground Organics' Jeanne Byrne said. "We like knowing who our customers are, just like they like knowing who we are."

High Ground Organics partnered with Hollister's Mariquita Farm in 2001 to form the Two Small Farms CSA.

Many farms offer tours, allow CSA members to volunteer, host children's events and provide opportunities for members to pick strawberries, tomatoes and other produce.

The Davies family travels south for the annual Tomato U-pick day at Mariquita Farm and to attend High Ground Organics' Kids' Day.

"My kids love it," Davies said. "I think they have a real connection. ... I think they get more excited about the food."

Members know the farming methods, the land and even the people who produce their food, said Jason McKenney, agriculture manager at Hidden Villa, the longtime community farm and camp program in Los Altos Hills, which also offers a CSA program.

Most CSAs use organic, or even "beyond-organic" methods, McKenney said, referring to the controversy surrounding the federal organic-certification process, which permits monoculture farming and other industrial methods unacceptable to many organic farmers.

CSA programs are truly local, he said. Even farms a few miles apart will produce different types, and tastes, of produce, which vary throughout the season.

"I think people are really looking for a closer connection to the food that they are eating and to the natural world at large," Casey said. "By joining a CSA, you really develop a pretty close relationship to both the farm and farmer but also to the specific piece of land that's being grown."

Veggies fresh from the fields rarely resemble what is available in grocery stores, several farms and CSA members said.

"The taste of the vegetables is just amazing," Davies said. "I never liked cauliflower before. Tasting freshly harvested cauliflower is different."

The Davies serve as hosts for Two Small Farms, so the weekly boxes come straight to their door.

Davies, who now describes herself as a "100 percent convert" to CSA, said she didn't expect to be. Before joining the CSA, which she learned about from a friend, the Davies purchased on-sale conventional produce, she said.

But she was sold by "the taste and the experience and the connection to the farm — I love it," Davies said.

CSAs aren't for everyone. Members receive whatever was harvested that week, not necessarily their favorite vegetable.

CSAs are increasingly recognizing that most people may not know what to do with fennel, bok choy or other less conventional produce, Byrne said.

"They will get frustrated if they get a bunch of stuff they don't know how to use," Byrne said.

To help, Two Small Farms sends a newsletter, available via e-mail or paper, which provides recipes and serving suggestions.

Byrne said she and her husband have learned that what is fun to grow may not always be enthusiastically received. Last season, for example, Two Small Farms stumped its customers, including Davies, by including cardoons, a member of the thistle family, in the weekly basket.

For farmers, CSA programs provide a critical source of stable income, often providing an influx of cash at the beginning of the season, just when it's needed, Byrne said.

They also know exactly how much to pick, so food doesn't get wasted if few people show up at a farmers market on a particular day, Byrne said.

And members share in the risks of farming.

The Blue House Farm enrollment form, for example, includes a disclosure: "I understand that the farmers do all they can to provide a full harvest. I am committed to share with the farmers in the bounty or loss of each season. ..."

Prices for CSAs are similar. McKenney said farmers attempt to keep them in the range of wholesale costs for vegetables.

Two Small Farms' 36-week season costs $691; it costs $550 for Blue House Farm's 25-week season and Hidden Villa's May-November program costs $950, with half-shares available. Each CSA also offers shorter subscriptions and payment plans.

By treating the land well, and shaving thousands of miles off transportation, CSAs are good for the environment, McKenney said.

"Environmentally, farms have been seen as an enemy," McKenney said. "It doesn't have to be that way."

Farmers among us features a map of organic farms, farmers markets, organic restaurants and grocery stores in the country. Comprehensive in its scope, the site has links to local CSA farms, events, blogs and photos. Zoom in on the Midpeninsula and be amazed: .

Local Foods SF puts a different spin on the food locator, letting users type in a ZIP code to see how many miles food from local farms travels, or how many small farms are in a specified radius: .

Common Ground This decades-old pioneer on local organic gardening wants to help you grow your own food and cut food miles down to zero. Palo Alto's home for organic garden supplies and education offers a wealth of topical classes — which sell out quickly — at its College Avenue store. Visit the information-packed Web site at: .

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