Farms Don’t Just Feed Communities—They Build Them

A CSA or farmers market does more than simply feed people.

(Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Dec 27, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Recall Mister Rogers: What does it mean to be good a neighbor? For answers, look no further than farms, CSA members, and the communities they call home.

Last winter, Portland, Ore., had been assaulted by days of bitter cold, wind, and intense ice storms. Caylor Roling, project coordinator at the Portland Area CSA Coalition, told me that 22 miles out of town at Pumpkin Ridge Gardens, the bad weather blew the hoop houses down. And then, in true barn-raising tradition, members of the farm’s CSA helped rebuild the structures over the course of a few weekends.

It wasn’t the first time members had shown up when things were tough for James Just and Polly Gottesman. In the farm’s early days, one spring saw both farmers out of commission after appendicitis and the arrival of twins. Members began the planting for them.

“The most successful farm start-ups grow healthy community resources, not just healthy greens,” Laurie House wrote in recent story for TED’s Future of Food Series. So what if what’s new in food looks a lot like what’s good for a town or city too?

It’s not just the invested interest of CSA members and their farmers who are collaborating—community food systems are a crisscrossing lattice of cooperation. And at their best, they’re not just about food but about nourishing the people, businesses, and the economy. Jennifer Wilkins of Syracuse University’s department of public health, food studies and nutrition explains in Discovering the Food System that the strongest food communities are the ones in which the production and consumption of food is integrated in ways that benefit the environmental, economic, social, and nutritional health of the place.

Pumpkin Ridge Gardens–style pitching in isn’t just feel-good hippie-dippie Portlandia behavior. The same spirit is integral to farming communities, even on some of agriculture’s biggest scales. In November, national news outlets covered the story of Illinois’ Hayden Schaumburg, who broke his neck during a high school football game. While the family received care 90 miles away at Chicago-area hospital, 100 people in the town of Watseka arrived at the Schaumburgs’ farm one Saturday morning to harvest 1,000 acres of corn. “Everybody knew what it was about,” a family friend explained to Yahoo Sports. “Helping your fellow man."

But farmers aren’t the only ones who benefit from this kind of community. Cayuga Pure Organics works to rebuild the local food system in New York’s Finger Lakes region, improving the health not only of its consumers but of the community and the land. It donates the beans it grows to a local food pantry as well as selling them at less than half their commercial rate to other food pantries.

Owner Erich Smith has made a concerted effort to staff his farm with young people who want to learn about farming. “Forty percent of the U.S. farm population is over 55, and the skills I take for granted, having grown up on a farm, are rare among those under 40,” he told Epicurious. “If we do not support young people in gaining the education and experience it takes to run a farm business like ours, it almost guarantees that the production of food will become ever more concentrated in large corporate structures.”

He’d like his farm to serve as a viable model for others. “If Cayuga Pure Organics is able to become an economically and environmentally sustainable business, then I feel like I will have succeeded in my goal of giving back to my community.”

Agriculture as social glue is evident in urban environments too, where garden plots can serve as home base for immigrant and refugee communities. At the Farm-Faith Project in St. Paul, Minn., Hmong immigrants tend vegetable garden plots at churches in a partnership between the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches and the Hmong American Partnership. Lyda Robb, who works with the project, described the initiative as not only providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables (including Hmong staples that may be expensive or difficult to find in Minnesota) but one that connects congregations with immigrant families.

Similarly, at Cleveland’s Ohio City Farm, farm manager Margaret Fitzpatrick described the importance of connecting various immigrant groups with one another on the farm, while the on-site farm market introduces those who work on the farm to the larger community. “It’s a really good opportunity for people from the community to meet people who are growing the food, and say, ‘Yeah, this person lives in your community, and this is their story.’ ” she said.

And the social support of a food system can be as simple as hearing the right thing at the right time. In her TED piece, House recounts the story of a CSA member’s small interaction with her farmer in New York’s Essex County that came at the right moment and was perfectly simple. “Just after buying our first house, we accidentally got pregnant with our third babe, and nine months later lost our jobs,” Jen Kavorchak told House. “The first person I saw was [our farmer]. I was the size of a whale, utterly freaked out, and she just hugged me and said, ‘Well, at least you know you’ll be able to eat.’”

Because sometimes it is about the food, after all.