The beauty and balance of our farms
By Alan Haight
Special to The Union
The light on our growing fields was noticeably fall-like today. Even if the hot weather made it clear that fall is still something to look forward to, the low angle of the light suggests what we already know: Late-summer has arrived.
We’re sleeping later in the morning because it’s not light enough to start work until after 6 a.m. Soon, we’ll be keeping our long-sleeved workshirts on over our t-shirts a little later in the day, and the hats that protected our heads from the harsh summer sun will come off more and more frequently.
The plants know it too. Although they continue to produce well (today I picked a full bin from each of our rows of zucchini, just like I did a month ago and the month before that,) they look almost as tired as we feel, and soon enough many of them will stop producing altogether. On the other hand, other plants will revive and improve with the coming cool weather. Our kale has steadily grown all summer since being transplanted out in June, and we’re looking forward to its sweetening flavors as fall brings its cooling touch to their leaves. And with the cool weather, our salad mix of cilantro, arugula, collards, radicchio, broccoli, chard and a host of other crops will perk up and thrive.
On balance, it has been a great season. Had you asked me early on, I probably wouldn’t have said that. Compared with last year, we more than doubled the number of shares in our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription box offering from 55 to 120, and I suffered a great deal before the season began over whether we were growing the right quantities to load that many boxes with produce each week. Despite my fears, we’ve managed not only to fill the boxes to overflowing every week of the season, but we’ve also managed to introduce a new fruit or vegetable almost each week.
Last week was no exception, and a good one it was. Each box had strawberries, cantaloupe, pears, tomatoes, basil, sweet corn, eggplant, chard, shallots, garlic, baby romaine, carrots, cucumbers, summer squash, and beets. The week before last we had much of the same, plus broccoli and yellow wax beans. This week we’ve added potatoes and kale. Next week we’ll add tomatillos, peppers, cilantro and cherry tomatoes.
In addition to our other, more traditional markets (farmstand, farmers’ markets, restaurant and grocery store sales,) we’ve managed to find our way through our second season as a CSA subscription farm. It can be remarkably complex and unnerving, but the difference CSA subscriptions make for a family farm like ours cannot be overstated: It’s the difference between surviving and failing.
As a CSA farm, our subscribers pay a deposit to us in the early Spring which ensures them a share of that season’s produce. The money received by us as a deposit covers the cost of seed, soil amendments, irrigation supplies, labor and a host of other expenses that are incurred long before the first crops are ready for harvest. When the season starts, the subscribers pay the balance due for the season, and in exchange receive a weekly box of produce like the one described above for as many weeks as the season lasts.
Although I’m not one to relax into the kind of ease that bucolic images of the family farm evoke, CSA offers the very tangible benefit to a farmer of knowing what the income for the season will be. Whether it’s enough to pay for all the necessary materials and labor as well as provide a salary to the farmer is another matter, but CSA farming is about as opposite to the economics of traditional farming as one can get. As CSA farmers, we’re removed from the vagaries of the market economy that have been the scourge of American farmers’ existence, pushing no fewer than half a million people off of farms each year since the 1930s. We’re able to grow a diversity of crops, reduce the risk of crop failure to practically nil, and supply a large number of people with enough groceries to reduce or eliminate the need to shop for produce during the farm season. And, better yet, we supply our community with fresh, healthy produce – all of which is grown and sold either right here on the farm or within ten miles of the farm, eliminating the environmental costs of transporting produce the average 1,200 miles it travels to get from farm to consumer in this country.
All the same, what we find in our own efforts at community-based farming is something far more than growing and selling a crop. We’re helping to feed our town, but we’re also adding something very tangible to our community’s identity. A well-tended farm growing beautiful produce which is handed over to a consumer by the people who grew it is in stark contrast to most of our consumption habits. The farm is a place of great natural beauty to be sure, but it’s also a place where people can understand a little better the fact that we are dependent on nature – and on one another – for our sustenance.
Alan Haight farms with his wife, Jo McProud, at Riverhill Farm near Nevada City. For more information about Riverhill Farm, go to riverhillfarm.com. For more information about Nevada County agriculture, go to localfoodcoalition.org.
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