One of the easiest ways to eat local food, if you don’t grow your own, is by participating in a CSA. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It begins when a number of people buy shares of a farm’s harvest, at a set price, before the food is even planted. In return, they are guaranteed a regular basket or box or cooler of fresh produce from that farm. The shares can be weekly or bi-weekly, and they are either delivered or picked up starting on the date when the earliest harvest is available and extending a set number of weeks beyond that. A share generally provides enough produce for a small family for a week. Some CSAs allow half-shares to be sold, either half as big or delivered half as often. The “official” history has the CSA originating in Japan in 1971 with the beginning of organic agriculture there and coming to the U.S. in 1985. But there are likely deeper roots in the United States, in Alabama in the 1960’s. Booker T. Whatley had a passion for agriculture. He studied agriculture at Alabama A&M University, managed a hydroponic farm feeding the troops during the Korean War, and eventually became an agriculture professor at Tuskegee University. He saw the number of black farms begin to decline and the difficulty family farms had competing with industrialized agriculture. He advocated for regenerative farming, a sustainable and organic method, and he advocated for “Clientele Membership Clubs” where community members supported a farmer who fed them. Today, CSAs are found all over the world where people who farm and people who eat form communities to share both the risk and the bounty of a farmer’s work.
In northeastern Minnesota, we have several CSA farms. Today’s column is about Northern Delicious CSA outside of Babbitt. Van Conrad and Ellen Root were living in Ely when they started looking for property. In June of 2013 they bought the farm that has become Northern Delicious. It’s a beautiful 80 acres with an early 20th century log barn and the Birch River running through the land. The wooded acreage was clear cut in 2006 but the trees are growing back quickly. Van and Ellen grow vegetables on three acres. And from those three acres, they sell 34 full shares and 63 half shares to a total of 97 customers! Every week, subscribers pick up reusable cardboard boxes full of produce, either at the farm or at drop sites in Ely and Babbitt.
Two high tunnels, each 30x96 feet house tomatoes and crops that need some protection, especially from the cold nights. Drip irrigation connects all the crops to a new well. And the soil is fed with composted pelletized chicken manure and “Garden Green” compost from WLSSD’s organics composting facility in Duluth. (You can read all about that amazing operation here: https://wlssd.com/services/yard-waste/large-scale-composting-at-wlssd/) The plants are as healthy as any I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of gardens and farms! Bugs aren’t much of a problem in the tunnels, and outside, in the huge garden beds, the soil is so sandy that slugs don’t like to cross it and munch the cabbage like they do at my house. For protection from the bigger 4-legged “pests” like deer, there’s tall fencing around the enormous gardens.
Weeds are not a huge problem as the soil is so healthy and WLSSD compost contains no weed seeds. Van and Ellen also occasionally use water-permeable agricultural fabric to cut down on potential weeds. As I looked out over an enormous bed of sweet corn, Van tells me how he cut every hole in that fabric into which corn was planted. And the same for the varieties of squash nearby. The red kuri squash is brilliant on the day I visit. The butternut is still a bit green, though. I ask about early-maturing varieties and get some good suggestions for my home garden (Havana Butternut with 90-day maturity). Out here with so much land all around, each garden has full sun all day, excellent air circulation, and whatever else nature provides.
Almost all of the produce at Northern Delicious is seeded by hand, and most of it started inside and transplanted. For outside seeding, they use a hand-pulled seeder that makes a small trough and spaces the seed. A new processing building was added last year with a concrete floor, produce washing facilities, long work benches, large coolers, packaging areas for small items like berries, and grow lights to accommodate starting plants inside. The building and their house are heated by a large outdoor wood furnace. The day I visited, an abundant harvest of acorn squash was washed and ready for next week’s boxes.
There are about 12,000 CSA farms in the U.S. (Compare that to 4,177 Walmart stores.) The food available through CSAs is grown by a farmer you can know, on land that you can visit, using processes you can examine, and it travels far fewer miles to get to your table than conventional, store-bought food. Check https://minnesotagrown.com/search-directory/csa-community-supported-ag-farm/ for the CSA nearest you and give it a try!