Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Food for Thought

It wasn’t until a Wednesday lunch at Sugartree Ministries that I began to think more critically about sustainable food production. I met up with a good friend, Mike Snarr (professor at Wilmington College and rookie backyard gardener), to talk about his latest project. Along with his wife Melissa, Noah Campbell (pastor at the First Baptist Church) and his wife Allyson, and Don Troike and his wife Carol, Mike is experimenting with the economic benefits (and drawbacks) of small-plot gardens. By tracking the money/time spent from planting through harvest, and the relative sale cost of produce at the local Kroger, they hope to determine which plants are cost effective to grow, and which, surprisingly, may not be.

Their experiment stems from the emerging CSA practice. If you are like me when you hear an acronym you typically just nod along, hoping to eventually piece together its meaning through context. Now CSA is something that I have heard thrown around quite a bit lately, so as we sat munching on salads and watching the come-and-go of people in the kitchen, I finally admitted my own ignorance and asked what CSA meant to backyard gardeners. As it turns out it stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and it’s actually not a new concept at all. Mike explained the idea behind a CSA; essentially it involves a farmer who, by selling “shares” of his crop, includes several families in his harvest.

He gave this example: Say you have ten extra acres. You pool money from a few supporters (perhaps 2-10 families). Their money early in the season contributes to your planting expenses, and in return they receive part of your harvest. You may pull a few bucks in profit, they receive fresh, locally grown produce, and together, you share the risk inherent to farming. Sounds pretty ideal, right?

Well that’s the goal for this project. Eventually. Right now the goal? Determine whether or not families benefit from growing their own vegetables. But this is where it gets tricky (and where I start to ask more questions). What does it mean for food to be “cheap?” Cheap is an artificial term really, as it does not factor in the production time, mileage, or entangled tax dollars for each vegetable. As Mike suggests, food is artificially inexpensive. There is a hidden cost to food production—oil, transportation obstacles, conflict, etc. But these costs are covered in taxes, so they are not typically associated with the food we eat. So really, it may not be at all cost-effective for you to grow your own onions. And I mean that honestly. Sometimes it is just cheaper and quicker to buy a few onions on sale at Kroger than it is to buy the sets, plant them, harvest them, prepare them, etc. But by doing so, you only continue to be a link in an unsustainable cycle of food production.

He then offered up this statistic, just think: the average bite of food has traveled 1500 miles. And do you think that when they charge you a few bucks for “fresh” tomatoes they have factored in the costs of transportation, pollution, etc. Nope.

This is where a CSA comes in. It is, once again, a way to be self-sufficient. To remove yourself from a production cycle that has lost its credibility. Now that sounds pretty cost-effective to me.

Just some food for thought.


John Cropper

Very good post, Kels. I'm sure you probably know this by now, but the Bergefurd's offer a nice CSA, and their model would be a good source of information about the topic.

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