Organic Consumers Association

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State's Farmers, Not Vegetables by Mail, Grow Agriculture

I am writing in response to the article "The chard's in the mail," written by Victoria Barber and published in the April 9 edition of the Arctic Sounder and other Alaska Newspapers Inc. publications. Although this was an excellent examination of Full Circle Farm's distribution of fresh vegetables and fruit to villages and towns around the state, it muddied the distinction between community supported agriculture and subscription purchasing of produce, an equation that hurts Alaska farmers and communities.

Full Circle Farm does not have a community supported agriculture program in Alaska, as the article claims. Nor does Glacier Valley farm have a CSA, except in its immediate vicinity (Palmer). These farms have subscription services. This may not seem like a very important distinction, but it is. Farms that have true CSAs are engaged with their members and in their communities-their immediate locale and the people who live there-in a way that is mutually beneficial to their members and to the farms. Subscription services that ship food hundreds or thousands of miles are not being supported by their community, they are being supported by somebody else's community. In other words, sending money Outside for food shipped 1,500-7,000 miles, even fresh, organic food, is still sending money Outside. That is in no way sustainable or good for the local or state economy. Sending money from the Bush to the Matanuska or Tanana valleys, for that matter, still drains that money from the Bush.

The April-June 2009 issue of Sustainable Agriculture for Alaska, a statewide newsletter published by the Alaska Cooperative Extension Service, reprinted an excellent article from the University of Massachusetts Extension titled "What is Community Supported Agriculture and How Does It Work?" In that article they provide this definition of CSA: "Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) represents a viable alternative to the long-distance relationship most of us have with the food we eat. [It] reflects an innovative and resourceful strategy to connect local farmers with local consumers; develop a regional food supply and strong local economy; maintain a sense of community; encourage land stewardship; and honor the knowledge and experience of growers and producers working with small to medium farms.   CSA is a partnership of mutual commitment between a farm and a community of supporters which provides a direct link between the production and consumption of food."

What villages off the road system need is a way to support and feed themselves, a system that strengthens the local economy and the health of the people. Subsistence provides much of this, but another option is that of community supported agriculture-agriculture that connects people to their food, to the growers of that food, keeps money in the community, provides jobs, and is a sustainable, healthy option.

Barber's article described the Alaska CSA movement as though it were brand new, implying that Full Circle has inspired "new CSA farms popping up in the Anchorage, Fairbanks and Mat-Su areas." Full Circle was contacted by residents of Juneau and started deliveries to the capital in 2005. By that time, there were at least seven CSAs in Alaska, one of which was founded in 1989, and five more founded before 2004. Since then, another eight have begun distributing shares, including Glacier Valley. Preparing for CSA operation means that there must be a functioning farm and a system set up for engaging shareholders. This takes a year or two at the very minimum, so most of the currently operating CSA farms were already functioning or getting ready to offer CSAs by 2005.

Barber is correct that there is an explosion of growth in CSAs in the state-demand has skyrocketed. And with an increased demand is an increased opportunity for enterprising gardeners, farmers, and support business (such as commercial compost and fertilizer manufacturers, and vegetable, meat, grain, or dairy processors). CSAs are not limited to vegetables or fruit or herbs. For example, there are poultry and meat CSAs, providing shares of eggs, milk, cheese, and/or meat.

Bethel was described in the article as a hub to the villages. Bethel has its own CSA, Meyers Farm. Yet this local farm-a superb example of how people off the highway system can produce quantities of excellent, local food-was unmentioned in the article.

Subscription services such as Full Circle Farm and Glacier Valley provide a valuable service to Alaska communities during the off-season: it's hard to provide fresh, locally grown vegetables in the winter unless they're shipped in from somewhere warmer-and that pretty much rules out the entire state for several months of the year. However, the villages could benefit from CSAs, even small, garden-sized ones that feed only a few families. Storage vegetables, such as cabbages, turnips, onions, carrots, or potatoes, dry beans or grains, or certain herbs, such as garlic, can extend the season in which a CSA's members could receive or benefit from the produce grown at an Alaska farm. Community greenhouses, community gardens, and farmers' markets or farm stands can also help communities achieve a greater measure of food security. Controlled environments, such as hoop houses, can further extend the growing season. In some places, winter heating and electricity generated from alternative sources may even allow food to be grown all winter, as at Chena Hot Springs.

Alaska's media can help Alaskans on this issue first and foremost by accurately reporting what options are available-and there are more of them than you might think.  

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