Van Houten: Preserve Farmland One Farm Share Box at a Time

A guest post by Michele Van Houten

Chances are you’ve never heard anyone say that farming is easy. And that’s for good reason – because there isn’t much that’s easy about it. Yet, our West Michigan community has the good fortune to be home to a growing mix of like-minded individuals who are deliberately choosing to do just that. Their approach to farming is commonly referred to as“community supported agriculture” (CSA). Their decisions to farm come from a desire to be active participants in the hands-on solution of bringing safe and healthy, sustainably grown local food to our community. At the same time, these farmers feel a deep sense of responsibility to both the farmland and the community that sustain them. This is what drives them; what motivates them.

So what is a CSA farm and how is its role in our local food movement contributing to the well-being of our community? LocalHarvest, an online directory that provides organic and local food information, provides this overview: “A farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share (aka a “membership” or a “subscription”) and in return, receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.”The Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources goes further: “This commitment implies a willingness to share with the farmer both the bounty from the land and at least some of the risks involved with production. In this way, farmers and members become partners in the production, distribution and consumption of locally grown food.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture adds, “CSAs take many forms, but all have at their center a shared commitment to building a more local and equitable agricultural system, one that allows growers to focus on land stewardship and still maintain productive and profitable farms.”

Long before our local CSA farmers begin their own farms here in West Michigan, it isn’t unusual for some of them to journey across the country and even the globe to learn their craft firsthand; working on the farms of those who are practicing sustainable agriculture. Others stay closer to home, learning farming skills and techniques under the generous guidance of some of our local farmers. Still others enroll in formal agricultural programs. It is the culmination of these nurturing experiences that enable these aspiring farmers to realize their dreams. In doing so, these farmers and their farms are helping to make our community stronger and healthier—economically, socially and environmentally.

Earthkeeper Farm is one such local farm. Situated on one of the high spots off the undulating county road, the sweeping views from Rachelle and Andrew Bostwick’s farm are distinctively agricultural. You know you are in the country as you approach their farm. Along the way, you pass by the orchards that lend their names to area roads, like Peach Ridge and Fruit Ridge. Nearby roads take you past acres of crop fields, punctuated every now and then by generations-old barns and farmhouses. Like other farms in the area, what is now their farmland was agricultural long before they began to farm it. But as you arrive at the Bostwick property, you won’t see a large-scale commodity crops or orchard operation. Theirs is a rather small patch of farmland, compared to their farming neighbors. Although their style of farming is different from that of their neighbors, the Bostwicks quickly point out, “We are all farmers connected to the land. At the end of the day, we all want to live and work in a community that supports sound agricultural efforts.”

The Bostwicks credit a study-abroad college program, a number of farming apprenticeships in New York and the Collaborative Regional Alliance of Farmers Training program (CRAFT) for equipping them with the skills and knowledge of the organic and biodynamic growing practices they use in operating their farm. To further their experience, they “WWOOF’ed” (a term that grew out of participating in the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program) in Spain and traveled around the U.S. to visit farms before settling as a family here to start their own farm. Now, they too, are providing learning opportunities to others from around the globe and to those of us living right here. “CSA farms provide a wonderful shift in community participation,” says Rachelle Bostwick. “They help to bridge that relationship we have between our food and our farmland. It becomes personal.”

Earthkeeper Farm CSA member, Ron Cammel, explains why he is a member: “They strengthen the connection between the consumer, food, land and farmer. It’s about our physical health, the community’s health and the land’s health.” For Dwyne Patrick, his CSA share is a way for his family to “push ourselves into trying new and less familiar vegetables, to simplify our Saturday morning market buying and to support what Earthkeeper Farm is doing.”

Green Wagon Farm, another of our local CSA farms, began with a few acres of farmland on the outskirts of Ada that Heather and Chad Anderson leased from family friends. Chad grew up on a small West Michigan hobby farm but never seriously considered farming as his livelihood until he joined the Peace Corps after college. There, in Uganda, he helped a dairy cooperative develop a marketing outlet for the milk the farmers produced. “My view of farming began to change,” Anderson said. It was there that he began to see a real connection between food and land. When he returned home, he worked for a season with Groundswell Community Farm in Zeeland. This experience solidified his commitment to embrace farming as his calling.

Their friends from whom they lease the land are now looking to raise cattle on it, so the Andersons are currently looking for farmland of their own. “We are committed to farming, even though we admit that we are just getting going; still learning the ins and outs of farming even after a few growing seasons under our belts,” Anderson said. So while they look for farmland, they are leasing land from Josh and Melody Nobel, fellow CSA farmers and owners of Melody Bee Farms. Chad reflects on the past few years: “We enjoy the beauty of it—it is simple and complex at the same time. We feel strongly that it’s important for people to be able to connect with their food-to appreciate its source and enjoy its freshness. Clearly, we want the farmland to be able to sustain us and our farm business so that we can contribute to the local economy and to the social well-being of the community.”

Green Wagon Farm CSA member, Laura Zandstra, purposely purchased a double-share with the Andersons this season. Zandstra noted, “Investing in the farmer and the farmland is not only one of the most economical decisions we have made as a family; it’s one of our most important ones.” She continues, “It’s so important for me to know that my family’s food is safe-not just because of some sign that might say that it is, but because I can involve myself in the actual planting and harvesting processes. That’s valuable!”

West Michigan has a rich variety of CSAs scattered throughout our region. Some of them, such as Groundswell Community Farm, Visser Farms and Trillium Haven Farm, are nearly legendary to those familiar with our local food movement. Others are just digging in and getting their footing. Many of them not only provide their products through their share programs, they also have vendor stalls at our area farmers markets and they supply our farm-to-table restaurants with their farm-fresh local products. It is through the dedication of all of our CSA farmers to nurturing the CSA vision that so many in our community have come to seek out, discover and appreciate the abundant benefits of this burgeoning approach to farming. Their work promises not only future farmers and more community involvement and support, but our own increasing resolve to respect and care for our local farmland so that it is available for future generations.

Our local food movement not only challenges farmers to commit to keeping their products in our community food chain, it challenges us to support their efforts. While farmers are doing their part by bringing their farms to our tables, when we purchase their products, we are supporting them by bringing our tables to their farms. CSAs may play a smaller role in our overall food system. However, they play a sizable and essential role in the health of our community. By their very nature, CSAs foster and encourage a holistic connection to our local farms and farmland. Not only do CSAs train prospective farmers in sustainable farming practices which improve and build up farmland soils, they also provide the community face-to-face and hands-on interactions with our local farmers and their farms. By doing so, CSAs help preserve our local farmland by bringing its value and importance to the forefront of our community—one farm share box at a time.

Michele Van Houten is the conservation interest representative on Kent County’s Agricultural Preservation Board, which serves to foster economic, social and environmental benefits in our communities by preserving prime and unique farmland. She was recently recognized as the winning essayist in the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum’s 2013 community-wide essay contest. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and a Master of Management degree, with concentrations in Sustainable Business and Communications. She is a long-time practitioner of environmental, health, safety and supply chain management. She is also a Master Gardener who loves to toil in the soil. Contact Michele  This article was previously published by Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

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