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"Local-grown, organic food is best," according to the woman who was filling out a contract to commit to a season's worth of vegetables from a local Community Supported Agriculture farm. "CAFO farms are harming our atmosphere and using GMO seeds that produce unnatural and unhealthy food that brings on more memory and dementia problems."

Now that's a mouthful!

And it was, coming, not from the mouth of an environmental activist, but rather from a women who has retired from a professional position at a huge book publisher in Chicago, lives in a small town in western Dane County and proclaims herself a "readaholic."

She was a bit unusual in the crowd that was mostly young — I think millennials would be descriptive as they were often traveling as families, many with children in their arms, in big strollers or following behind — eagerly charging from exhibit to exhibit while collecting hands full of information and moving fast.

The event was the 24th annual Community Supported Agriculture Open House held last Sunday at Monona Terrace in Madison.

32 farms 1800 visitors

There were 32 CSA farmers promoting their products — ranging from eggs to meat to vegetables — and their farms to potential customers who would contract for a weekly box of food during the 20- to 26-week growing season.

The crowd of 1,800 (they were counted) visitors rangd from: 1) first-timers who had never participated as members in a CSA program and were trying to make up their minds whether to join or not; 2) current CSA members who might want to change farms for whatever reason; and 3) those who came to reorder and say hello to their farmer friends at the start of a new season.

Paid before planting

CSA farmers operate in a system that most any farmer can only envy. They are paid in full before the crop is planted and keep the money come rain or drought. Buyers sign a contract and pay for a given amount of food (most often vegetables), in terms of a full share weekly for 20 weeks at a cost of about $500-600.

A standard share is aimed at feeding a family of four for about a week, but most farms do offer smaller shares for smaller families, bigger shares or every-other-week delivery. Families pick up the food at the farm or at central locations.

The open house is sponsored by Madison-based FairShare CSA Coalition (csacoalition.org) that, according to executive director Erika Jones, has 55 farm members serving some 15,000 members. The farms and members are located as far north as Athens, east to West Bend, south to Monroe and northwest to Stockholm in Pepin county. However, most farms are located in south central Wisconsin with about 40 in the Madison area.

The CSA system (paying for food in advance) started in the 1960s in Germany, Switzerland and Japan during a time of food safety concerns and rapid urbanization of farm land. Consumers and farmers got together and formed partnerships to support farms by paying farmers up front for sound and socially-responsible agriculture.

CSA farms began operations in the U.S. on the east coast in 1986, came to Wisconsin in 1988 and has long since gone nationwide. The Madison-based FairShare CSA Coalition began in 1992 when a small group of people who had heard about the concept felt the system was a natural for progressive-leaning Madison.

Why CSAs?

The Fairshare CSA Coalition explains: "CSA is an investment in health, community and the local economy ... it is a commitment to family farms who farm so as to minimize environmental impact and produce nutritious and delicious foods ... and keeps independent businesses thriving, helps families eat seasonally and builds a strong, equitable local food system."

A yearly cost of $500-600 for a weekly box of organic vegetables (lettuce, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, melons and whatever is in season) seems like a lot of money for a young family, which prompted me to ask some of them "why."

"My children eat more vegetables because we have more vegetables on hand what, with our weekly box," a young mother with two children explained. "Vegetables are good for you, right"

"We know where our vegetables come from because we've visited the CSA farm and watched them harvest and pack our food boxes," another mother said

"Our kids love to visit the farm and help pull and hoe weeds. That's a lot better than watching TV or being on a computer."

"I just don't like big farms," a woman collecting brochures said. "The animals are mistreated in those big barns, and the meat isn't as good as what I buy from a farmer with just a couple of beef animals. Actually, I was raised on a small dairy farm with about 20 cows, but it's long gone out of the family."

"I want organic food that's not loaded with pesticides and other chemicals," a women viewing a farm display said. " You can't trust those big chemical companies that sell farmers the chemicals they use on their crops. Maybe the chemicals will grow bigger crops, but what will they do to me years later?"

The subject of GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) was mentioned by every person I talked with, although I'm not sure they knew what a GMO food actually was other than that they didn't want any.

Not about the money

Uniformly, the farmers never mention "making money"; in fact, they may have held high-paying jobs in government, industry or nonprofits to start a farm that produced little income for several years.

They value hard, physical work in the field and processing shed over mechanization. They love talking with their members and hosting them on farm visits and make every effort to include them as part of the farm through newsletters, farm events and personal contact.

Many CSA farms are small in acreage and members: Plowshares & Prairie Farm at Argyle is just 3 years old, farms 2 acres and has 50 members. On the other hand, Harmony Valley Farm in Viroqua farms 120 acres and supplies 1,500 families with seasonal produce.

Not many

The 15,000 people served by the Fairshare CSA Coalition farms is but a tiny portion of Dane County's 500,000 eaters and Wisconsin's near 6 million people, but they are eating happy, loving farmers and making their own food decisions — things that people seem to do less of these days.

It's an interesting and growing approach to food production and eating even if some of the reasons people decide to do so may be based more on emotion than fact.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him atjfodairy2@gmail.com.

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