Home-grown harmony

Growers and consumers support each other and local farmland
Wednesday, March 24, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:19 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Instead of perusing the produce section of the grocery store to select summer and fall vegetables, Sandra Abell and her son often head to the fields. Their destination: Terra Bella Farm in Auxvasse, owned by DeLisa Lewis and Holly Roberson.

“We enjoy visiting the farm and meeting the farmers,” said Abell, who attends special events at Terra Bella with her son. “The production of food is not an abstraction for him.”

The 160-acre farm offers small fruits, herbs, flowers and more than 50 kinds of vegetables from May through October. One big factor in the success of Terra Bella, and of hundreds of farms like it across the country, is Community Supported Agriculture, a program that strives not only to link consumers with organic foods but also to create a sense of community among farmers and the people who buy their products.

“CSA is really helping us to achieve our long-term goals,” Lewis said. “It’s helping us to make this farm a permanent piece of land.”

Supporters of CSA farms buy subscriptions to farms of their choice in early spring. The farmers use the money to buy seeds and equipment for the coming year. Subscribers and farmers then share the harvest throughout the growing season.

The CSA model emerged in Japan about 30 years ago when local women wanted to connect farmers’ faces with the food they produced. The concept spread to Europe, then to the United States, where Indian Lane Farm in Massachusetts dubbed it Community Supported Agriculture in 1985. As of 2002, there were more than 1,000 CSA farms in the country.

Lewis and Roberson started Terra Bella after buying land near Auxvasse at an auction. Although both have Missouri roots, they discovered each other and their common vision for an organic farm while working for a landscape supply company in Berkeley, Calif. They soon realized that pursuing their dream out West would be difficult.

“Starting up in California doesn’t look too good,” Lewis said. “California is competitive and crowded.”

Since returning to mid-Missouri and starting Terra Bella, “there have been some scary months,” Lewis said. “Sometimes we wondered ‘Are we ever going to get anywhere?’ “

Through subscriptions, which cost $300 for a 20-week growing season, Lewis and Roberson’s operation is slowly beginning to pay its way. This year, Lewis is recruiting apprentices for the first time, not only to help with the increasing workload but also to ensure the future of locally supported agriculture.

“We want to grow farmers as well as the farm,” Lewis said. “We want to create sustainable farms and invest in the land.”

It was a similar love of the land that led Mike Knoll to create Bonne Femme Farm in southern Boone County. The 30-acre farm offers chickens, eggs, tomatoes and peppers, but the chicken part of the operation is beginning to take over. Knoll and his wife process 200 birds every two weeks. Meanwhile, Knoll is entering the second year of his effort to develop a herd of cattle and sell grass-fed beef.

Though Bonne Femme is not a CSA farm, Knoll sells products at farmers’ markets and shares many of the program’s views about the benefits of locally supported agriculture.

Fresh, healthy food is one of the most tangible benefits, Lewis said. “The reason people don’t like vegetables is because they don’t know what fresh vegetables taste like. The produce in stores is old. We try to change people’s mind about certain vegetables. We’ve turned a lot of people onto beets.”

Variety is another factor that sets organic farms apart, Knoll said. “We have 40 to 45 different kinds of tomatoes. They are from 10 to 15 countries, all are heirloom, and they are raised naturally.”

The commitment to raising crops and livestock naturally, without chemicals, antibiotics or pesticides, is common among locally supported farms. Lewis said commercially grown foods can’t compare to local, organic produce.

“I am a walking, breathing example of the value of eating food grown from soil that is alive,” she said. “For me, it’s a no-brainer in terms of health, the environment and the economy.”

Knoll feels the same about raising chickens. “In the factories, chickens are fed low-level antibiotics in their food from the time they are born until they die,” he said. “So, we are, in turn, eating the residual medicines when we eat the meat. In the grocery store, the chickens that you get there, they never get to go outside, they never step on the ground, they never get to eat bugs, they never see sunlight. These are all things that ours get to do.”

Knoll said raising chickens naturally makes all the difference when it’s time to serve them for dinner.

“Once, we had a couple in their 60s come over,” he said. “The woman said, ‘Ever since we’ve been married, I’ve tried to cook chickens like his mother used to, and I’ve never been able to. Now, I realize that it wasn’t my fault; it was the chickens.’ “

Perhaps the most important advantage of local farms, participants say, is the sense of community that comes when consumers get to know farmers and the methods they use to grow food. That’s true for Mike Hosokawa, associate dean at the MU School of Medicine and a subscriber at Terra Bella.

“The major reason I participate in the Terra Bella Farm project is the fun,” Hosokawa said. “This is very much like the neighborhoods where I grew up and people shared their products with each other, and there was a feeling of community.”

Both farmers and customers, however, concede that there are disadvantages to buying from local farms. For one thing, each week’s harvest depends a lot on the season and recent weather. Supporting local farms means customers weather the good and the bad right along with the farmer.

“We’ve gotten so used to buying whatever we want at the store, whenever we want, but that’s not the way that things are produced,” Knoll said. “Eating locally means eating seasonally.”

First-time subscribers at Terra Bella often want to know exactly how much of which vegetables they’re going to get each week.

“It’s not an exact science,” Lewis said. “People are always wondering how much they will get. We’re not trying to provide all the produce that a family needs, just the best quality of produce that our farm has that week.”

Lewis said it’s simply a matter of weighing the pros and cons. “If you don’t want your landscape to consist of three- to five-acre parking lots, if you place value in buying local and organic food rather than concentrating it all in a super center, then it’s worth it,” she said.

Her subscribers seem to agree.

“We like the sense that we are supporting sustainable and non-polluting food production,” Abell said. “We like eating foods on nature’s calendar. We enjoy experimenting with new foods and recipes. I guess the real question is: Why would anyone not belong to a CSA?”

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