American agriculture -- and for that matter, the entire food chain -- has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Much of the revolution has been driven by consolidation of ever-larger food production and distribution systems. Amidst the din of today's industrial operations though, are smaller-scale producers and consumers seeking locally grown food. One method of connecting customers and growers is known as Community Supported Agriculture. The operations unite growers and consumers to share the risks and benefits of food production. As Sara Frasher discovered earlier this year, the operations provide a unique opportunity for consumers to support their local farmer.
Angela Tedesco, Turtle Farm: "I had somebody recently ask me, 'Do you consider yourself a farmer?' It's like, 'Well yeah.' I do. I mean when you think about, when it comes down to the basic, what is a farmer, it's someone who grows a food or a fiber product for commercial basis."
Angela Tedesco grows produce commercially on 20 acres with several employees. But her relationship with her customers is a little different.
Tedesco's customers are called "members," subscribing and paying in advance for a share of Turtle Farm's bounty each year. If weather or insects destroy a crop, the members don't get that crop.
In short, the member shares the risk with the farmer.
Angela Tedesco, Turtle Farm: "I always tell my customers every year we're probably going to lose a crop or two. I don't always know which one it's going to be. I lose crops more to weeds than I do the insects and so it's an adventure. Every year is an adventure. You have to look at it that way."
It's called Community Supported Agriculture, known as CSA.
Tedesco's adventure in this alternative to the conventional food delivery system began 11 years ago. Located just outside the Des Moines, Iowa metro area, only five or six of her 20 acres are under cultivation each year, but they produce over 30 crops, mainly vegetables and berries. That means a lot of management, planning a sequence of crops.
Everything is grown organically and that means a lot of manual work, like hoeing by hand to get rid of weeds.
Turtle Farm's 130 members pay $400 dollars a year to receive a box of vegetables and berries in season for 19-20 weeks. And some members do work for their share.
With the proceeds, Tedesco is paying off the land and built a small barn, also used as a summer food stand. Like many so-called traditional farmers she has off-farm income from her husband's job.
But it's not just about money for the farmer or farm member.
Angela Tedesco, Turtle Farm: "I like to say that people are taking back responsibility for their food system. They kind of turned it over to corporations to grow their food, you know, because we've gotten busy doing other things. And I think we're realizing that we're missing something there. And we're taking responsibility by supporting people like me that are growing for the local market, growing good food, taking care of the land and how it's grown, and recreating the spirit in food maybe."
The first two American CSAs started in the Northeast in the mid-1980s.
Today it's hard to say for sure how many there are. The USDA doesn't count CSAs for its census. There are only self-reporting listings at USDA and elsewhere. A 2005 survey by the National Center for Appropriate Technology put the number around 1100.
Whatever the number, CSA practices can vary significantly: from members doing all the work, to members only getting the box of food, to any variation in-between.
Some CSA farmers find other additional outlets to sell their produce. They can be certified organic or not.
In addition to vegetables and fruits, CSAs can provide meat, eggs, dairy products and more.
But it's not just about food either, for the farmer or the member.
Angela Tedesco, Turtle Farm: "It's about a lot of people looking for a connection to the land. This is one way they can do that. They can come out and this can be their farm. They can come out and visit any time they want, we can have social events out here if they want... Some of my customers' kids get excited and they'll eat my vegetables because they know me as opposed to a vegetable they might get at a grocery store. So, it's a really nice connection for people to have, to where their food is coming from."
On specified days, Turtle Farm members pick their box up at the farm or at various drop sites in the Des Moines metro area.
Rather than making a list and going to the grocery store, with a CSA the food arrives and then you figure out what to do with it. That's why the weekly newsletter includes a recipe for those who might be unfamiliar with some of the items.
Linda Hanson, West Des Moines: "It's kind of like Christmas for me every week, I never know what is going to be in the box. And so it's kind of fun to see what's there."
This year, Linda Hanson is splitting a box with someone else.
Linda Hanson: West Des Moines: "This is another fun part of picking up the box is the newsletter because she, Angela is so articulate. When I read the newsletter I feel like I'm just talking to her and she's talking to us because she talks about what goes on at the farm each week and she talks about her workers and ... I think that's very important in remaining a member of the CSA is feeling included, feeling like you're part of something, part of a community."
Cece Arnold wanted good food and she wanted to do more than be a member. She has been hosting a drop site in her driveway since she signed on.
Cece Arnold, Urbandale: "There is a social element to this too because people come to my driveway every week and we share about what we've done with the food and swap recipes and just. They're my Tuesday friends. They're here every Tuesday. I can count on them. And it's a wonderful thing."
Every member would probably tell a slightly different story which is also partly what CSA is about, giving people choices including the opportunity to live their convictions.
CSAs are admittedly not for everyone. And they aren't about to replace the existing food delivery system.
But they are an option for those who want fresh food that wasn't trucked 1500 miles, people who, as the Japanese put it, want food with the farmer's face on it.
For those farmers, it's another model for working on the land.
For Market to Market, I'm Sara Frasher.