Bounty in a Basket

Stephanie Haugen ’12 grew up on a farm in Washington County. As a journalism major at Pacific University, she used her senior project to explore the changes in agriculture in her home county and to tell the stories of the farmers who are neighbors to the University. With her permission, Pacific magazine is publishing excerpts of her seven-story investigative series.

Florence Jessup of Artisan Organics stood under cover from the elements in the late winter. She covered her new sprouts with canvas to keep off the dust. Raindrops hit hard on the roof of the small greenhouse, and Jessup looked forward to summer, when her friends and customers would pick up the baskets of food she had grown.

Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, are making food personal. As interest in eating locally grown food and supporting local farmers blooms, Oregon growers are adapting to new ways to distribute their goods, providing direct sales to consumers while making it possible to make a living in agriculture on smaller parcels of land.

The first CSAs in the United States appeared on the East Coast in the early 1990s. Since then, they have spread throughout the country, growing in popularity.

CSA customers make a payment at the beginning of the season to receive a portion of the farm’s harvest, usually on a weekly basis. The up-front payments give the farm a stable and predictable income, while the customer can enjoy ever-changing produce deliveries based on the farms’ crops and the season. Spring baskets may include more leafy greens, for example, while fall baskets are packed with tomatoes and squash.

Customers will often go directly to the farm to pick up their produce baskets, though many farmers also have developed multiple pick-up sites for customer convenience, or even delivery systems.

The CSA model allows consumers and producers to interact directly, as well as to share the risks inherent in farming. If crops fail due to weather or pests, the customers are in it with the farmer—there are no guarantees or refunds.

But there are benefits for consumers, especially those with an interest in organic or local produce—a demand that has been growing for the last 10 to 15 years, according to Brent Searle of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

CSAs are important, said Steve Cohen of the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, “so people can once again have a connection to our food source.”

“It’s giving people more choices, the opportunity to know the person who grows their food and the chance to taste food as it’s meant to be consumed locally,” he said.

The bureau is re-examining regulations concerning growing and distributing food in Portland neighborhoods. In recent years, Cohen said, farmers markets, community gardens, CSAs, food-buying clubs and backyard farming have increased in Portland, and the Urban Food Zoning Code Update proposes new and revised regulations to accommodate the increase in local, small-scale growers.  

The model is certainly popular, Cohen said, noting that Portland residents bought $1.2 million worth of CSA crops in 2010.

Still, it’s no way to get rich quick.

“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” said Jessup, at Artisan Organics. She moved to Oregon from California to farm, but she estimates she earns about a cent an hour. Days are long, and when she isn’t working on the farm, she’s taking a welding class or attending a meeting at the Portland Area CSA Coalition.

Being outside and doing what she loves is worth the work—and it’s good for the community, too, she said.

“CSAs give the consumer a chance to really have a relationship with the farm that grows their food,” Jessup said. “I’m growing food for people I know, people I’ve met. I have a relationship with the people who buy my produce and get feedback on the fruits of my labor.”

Polly Gottesman, who owns Pumpkin Ridge Gardens with her husband James Just, has been farming on 20 acres in North Plains since 1990, when CSAs first started cropping up in Oregon. She also believes in the health and community value of local food.

Eating local not only supports Oregon farmers but often provides better quality and fresher produce, as well, she said.

“Community is the main thing we love,” Gottesman said. “We love to see kids who have grown up on our vegetables."

Related Stories:

The Future of Agriculture in Washington County
Disappearing Dairies
Bulbs and Blooms
Wine on the Vine
Finding New Markets
Bounty in a Basket