It looks like okra again for members of Tucson Community Supported Agriculture.
For several weeks now, members have gotten the capsule-shaped vegetable with their shares. It’s all part of the deal with community-supported agriculture (CSA), Philippe Waterinckx explained.
“The way you cook is driven by the ingredients you get,” Waterinckx said.
He started the Tucson CSA in 2004 with one farmer and about 15 members. Today, the membership rolls have swelled to 500, with a waiting list of more than 100.
In simple terms, community-supported agriculture members agree to support one or more local farms. They buy subscriptions for a growing season, and in turn, they receive weekly shares of whatever the farm harvests.
“You’re not really buying the vegetables, you’re buying a share of a farm,” Waterinckx said.
The community-supported agriculture philosophy first popped up in Japan and Europe in the 1960s.
It’s been around in the U.S. for almost as long. But its popularity has soared in the past few years as many begin to take a closer look at the food they eat and where it comes from.
Thousands of groups similar to Tucson CSA have sprouted up throughout the country.
As a doctoral student at the University of Arizona, Waterinckx — a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo (his parents came from Belgium) — studied the lives of organic farmers.
Through his research he found that small farms benefited from the community-supported agriculture model.
Farmers’ markets sales are mostly nickel and dime for the small-time farmer.
Many sought more profitable ways to compete against the supermarket and its agri-business suppliers.
The CSA model offers a way to do that.
Community-supported agriculture groups buy an entire harvest — cash on the barrel to a small family farm.
And CSA members benefit from a steady supply of fresh and locally grown produce.
But for Waterinckx, it’s as much about relationships as it is fresh vegetables.
“We can talk with the farmer, and we have a personal relationship,” Waterinckx said.
Agua Linda Farm near Amado grows much of the region’s CSA produce.
Farmer Stewart Loew, 39, grew up at Agua Linda, a farm once run by his father.
In 1957, his dad bought and farmed 1,000 acres near the Santa Cruz River south of Tucson.
But the farming endeavor lasted only a few years, after which he leased the land to pecan farmers.
His dad since passed away. Today, all but 63 acres remain in the family.
A dreadlocked philosopher-farmer in sandals, Loew has a command of the region’s farming and ranching history.
Like the battles over water that pecan and other farmers fought against the area mines.
“These little farmers brought the mine to its knees,” Loew recalled.
In the 1990s, Loew started to farm a portion of the land.
Mesclun and other lettuces was the first crop planted at the restored farm.
Today, Agua Linda grows melons, squashes, cucumbers, peppers and the mesclun greens.
“You’re migrating through the season,” Loew said.
But he’s quick to point that they don’t grow certified organic produce.
“Truly organic certified is the anti-organic,” Loew said.
Federal certification has helped giant farming conglomerates and agri-businesses corner niche markets, Loew said.
Agua Linda produces what he calls “customer-verified” organics.
He encourages people to come to Agua Linda and see pesticide- and herbicide-free farming at work.
While the CSA and local farming model has grown into one of the most popular food trends in the country, the farming methods hearken to the 19th century.
At Agua Linda farm, Loew does almost everything by hand.
He and his workers sow seeds with a manual Planet Jr. seeder they push through the fields.
“That fed this country through the Great Depression and the dust bowl,” Loew said of his old-time two-wheeled cart.
The farm also uses a centuries-old method of weed control.
Turning loose cows and horses into fallow fields to chomp the weeds not only rids the unwanted vegetation but provides a hefty load of fertilizer.
That sort of farming, though, presents challenges at Agua Linda.
This season, insects devastated Loew’s crops.
“We had to bail out of the fall CSA because we have grasshoppers of, like, biblical proportions,” Loew said.
Scores of the bugs sprang from the foliage with each step Loew took through the watermelon field last week.
It’s a seven-year cycle, Loew explained.
The grasshoppers multiply until the seventh-year crescendo, after which the cycle starts anew.
But pesticides aren’t an option; his customers wouldn’t have it. So Agua Linda must wait out the bugs.
In the meantime, Loew hopes eating locally and CSAs don’t end up as just another dietary trend.
“If we can get through to people, then we can create a more efficient local food chain,” Loew said.
Community-supported agriculture groups help sow the seeds.
For the first two years, the Tucson CSA struggled to keep 100 members.
But things started to change a few years ago, Waterinckx said.
More people started to get the message about community-supported agriculture and numbers swelled.
Waterinckx attributes much of that to the 2006 publication of Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivores Dilemma.”
For Loew, the more people who start to get it, the better.
He plans to increase production by automating harvests and planting in “hoop houses,” which keep winter temperatures above freezing and create a perfect environment for lettuce and other fragile crops.
Plus, pests can’t flourish in houses the way they do outside. And when they do strike, Loew sets a chicken or two loose inside to peck away at the bugs one by one.
And it’s not just local farms the community-supported agriculture helps support.
Artisanal food producers benefit as well.
The CSA buys free-range chickens and eggs that members can purchase in addition to the produce.
Local ranches provide grass-fed beef and a Marana farmer breeds pigs.
The group buys one animal at time, dividing the meat among participating members.
Waterinckx said members can choose from a variety of fresh goat cheeses produced at a small farm north of Show Low.
“It’s the best goat cheese I’ve ever had,” Kathleen Yetman said.
In her first season with community-supported agriculture, Yetman splits the $249, 13-week season with a friend.
The cost comes to $19 a week for a full share.
The group compares its costs to those in supermarkets’ organic aisles. Most weeks, the group is the less costly option, Waterinckx asserted.
In a society with growing concerns about what’s in our food and where it comes from, the CSA provides another service.
“It forces you to cook, as well,” Yetman said.