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LIVING Bright Harvest

Lovers of fresh produce, and farmers, benefit from a new plan.
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AS A PERSISTENT RAIN PUD.

dles on the saturated ground of his hilltop farm in DeSoto, Jim Smalley frets about his plowing schedule. Too much wet weather before planting time could shorten the spring growing season and reduce his harvest.

However, unlike most farmers, Smalley does not depend solely on the weather for his financial well-being. He has about 80 shareholders-customers who have paid him $400 to $450 in advance. In return, if the harvest is good, they each will get about 600 pounds of fresh, organic produce over the course of eight or nine months.

Smalley’s Natural Harmony Organic Farms is one of Texas’ first examples of a new breed of family farm that caters to an exclusively local, consumer-oriented market. Called community-supported agriculture-or, as some prefer, consumer-shared agriculture-the concept has spread to more than 200 forms nationwide since the first was established in Massachusetts in 1986. There are believed to be fewer than five such farms in Texas; besides Smalley’s there is one other in the Dallas area, near the city of Greenville. Between the two CSAs, approximately 100 families will receive about 30 different varieties of organic fruits and vegetables this year.

Smalley, who has owned his 12-acre farm for 11 years, went the CSA route two years ago, partly because of the disadvantages small farms, particularly organic ones, face when competing against huge industrialized operations,

“I had been selling organic produce for six or seven years… but because of the small scale I was operating on, I found it inconvenient to package my stuff or sell it to a farmer’s market,” says the 50-year-old Smalley, outgoing president of the Texas Organic Growers Association and a director in the Organic Farmers Association Council of North America. “We don’t have to deal now with marketing or selling, other than the one time a year when we sell the program to our members.”

The CSA’s broad appeal can be measured partly by the distance customers are willing to drive to pick up their produce each week during harvest season, which runs from about April 1 through mid-December.

“We have a lot of people from DeSoto and some who are as far north as The Colony and Piano,” says Smalley. “About a third of the shareholders last year were from Dallas.” Shareholders often are in the 2+2+2 category: two adults, two kids and two incomes. “They tend to be more progressive-type people who are concerned about the future and the environment.”

For farmers such as Smalley, the advantages of CSAs far outweigh the problems. A big plus is freedom from debt and financial uncertainty. Rather than taking out loans to pay for equipment, supplies and seed, the farmer gets his capital at the beginning of the year from the shareholders. In addition, says Smalley. “the fanner knows exactly how many shares he’s going to have to serve and what particular crops to plant and the quantities.”

Usually, products are not packaged or delivered. Most CSA farmers divide a week’s harvest equally among members, who come to the farm on specified days to pick up their shares in baskets, boxes or sacks.

Because produce is harvested on the pickup date, the farm need not provide refrigeration. Waste is eliminated by offering culls-less-than-perfect produce-free to shareholders.

Another advantage for the farmer is that he has more time and energy to devote to working the land, developing ways to increase production and trying out new crops. “I always plant a few things experimentally each year,” says Smalley, “and those things are not counted as part of the shares but are used as a bonus.”

For consumers the benefits include pesticide-free food that often can be picked up at its peak, within a few hours of harvest. While there is no requirement that CSAs use organic farming methods, virtually all do.

Consumers also can save money. In an average or better-than-average year, they end up paying about 50 percent of the supermarket price for the same quantity of organic produce. “Once we start making pickups of food from the farm.. you’ll rarely see me in a supermarket and my food bill will go to almost zero from May through September,” says Cathy Harmon of Double Oak, north of Carroll ton.

Selection is determined by what the shareholders want and what will grow locally. Smalley sends his customers a survey each year. “I go by the number of responses 1 get,” he says. “If a third of the respondents don’t like something or want something different, we’ll change it.”

The most popular vegetables are the ones people are familiar with: tomatoes, melons, corn and squash. Fortunately, these grow well here, unlike the much-requested English pea.

In fact, Smalley’s plantings run the gamut from beans to zucchini, from the ordinary to the exotic. Shareholders get four or five types of melon-including Israeli melon, Texas A&M Uvalde and honeydew-and five or six kinds of watermelon, among them old-fashioned iceberg and Charleston Gray. In addition to spinach, there’s Oriental pac choy. Besides the basic green beans and Southern peas, Smalley offers a Chinese bean. Potatoes come in the Irish and sweet version, and there are turnips, beets and broccoli.

Many CSAs allow members to bring children or friends to participate in farm activities as an educational process. Rosanne Fortune, who lives in a housing development across the street from Smalley and is one of his shareholders, regularly takes her young daughter and son to “Farmer Jim” to help him lend his plants and animals.

Of course, there are drawbacks to being a shareholder.

“I think distribution is the biggest problem,” says Janet Henneke of Dallas. “I organized a group of about 11 people the first year, and we’d have meeting places to hand it out.”

Members also may find they have more produce than they know what to do with, or they may receive foods they are unfamiliar with. “It’s not like going to the market every week-you do have to have a plan for what to do with it and how to use the surplus,” Henneke says.

Nor is this a risk-free investment. A major storm or drought could wipe out crops, although the variety of crops and staggered planting schedules mean that a farmer rarely loses all of his produce. Smalley says his first year was the worst so far, “too hot and dry”-but still yielded enough food to satisfy most of his shareholders. The rule of thumb in farming calls for a one in five chance that an individual crop will fail due to natural causes.

In some ways, the CSA farms seem to be as much a mission as a business. “It amazed me when we got into this how few vegetables people knew,” Smalley says. “We’re talking about people 30 to 35 years old who could only identify five or six vegetables by name.”

“They (the shareholders) are having a greater variety in their diets now,” says Smalley, “and several of them said they felt their health was so much better now that they are eating more fresh foods.”

These operations also may be a way to keep the family farm around a little longer. Although Smalley’s farm is located near a thriving suburban neighborhood, the development pressure on his land eased with the real estate slump. It even opened up some acreage for him: He keeps his cattle on leased land once slated for housing.

Beyond produce, Smalley’s operation is branching out. He offers fresh eggs from his 45 chickens, honey from his 22 beehives and lamb from a neighbor’s sheep herd. He has 20 head of organically raised cattle he is breeding for future beef sales and two catfish ponds that someday could be open to customers. Shareholders pay extra for the non-produce items. (Only the eggs and honey are available to non-shareholders.) He also sells organic goods to stores such as Whole Foods Market.

Smalley would like to expand his farm into an experimental center to encourage other people to start regional farms, The other Dallas area CSA farmer, Paul Magedson of Good Earth Farms, would like to sponsor seminars on environmental and nutritional topics.

“I really do feel that Jim and I are on the ground floor of something that’s getting ready to explode.” says Magedson, 46. “The demand for organic vegetables and other foods is exceeding supply.”

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