Growing Food and Community:
CSA Takes Root in Oklahoma
by Wylie Harris
Small family farmers struggling to make a living, tasteless produce
shipped thousands of miles from pesticide-drenched fields to supermarket
shelves, and a state full of kids (and parents) who aren't eating
enough fresh fruits and vegetables to stay healthy…. Many
people are tired of hearing about all the problems with food and
farming in Oklahoma. Rather than throwing up their hands, though,
some modern-day Oklahoma pioneers are digging in to plant an innovative
Those initials stand for "Community Supported Agriculture,"
or, as some prefer to call it, "Community Sustaining Agriculture."
Others use the term "subscription farming," which gives
a hint as to what's actually going on. In CSA, a farm's customers
commit to buy a share of the season's produce. As members, they
receive weekly baskets of that pre-paid bounty throughout the growing
season. This arrangement lets the people who eat the food take on
some of the financial risk of farming, literally putting their money
where their mouths are when it comes to supporting family farms
and sustainable agriculture in Oklahoma. "It's a way of really
solidifying a farmer for the season, saying, 'Hey, we want you to
stay around,'" says James Cooper, of Nuyaka Natural Farm in
James and Jenny Cooper
In mid-June, for example, Cooper and his wife Jennifer fill their
CSA members' baskets with salad mix, summer squash, beets, arugula,
and blueberries. Come August, they'll be getting tomatoes, basil,
zucchini, okra, and eggplant. Like many CSAs, the Coopers also throw
in a weekly newsletter with recipes and other tips for preparing
and storing the current harvest.
Nationwide, the average price for a CSA share is about $400 for
an entire season. In Oklahoma, the figure ranges from $240 to $450.
But at $15 a week for a half-bushel basket of produce picked the
same day it's delivered, CSA farmers say that's not such a bad bargain.
CSA is new in Oklahoma – and growing. The first nationwide
survey of CSA farms, conducted in 1999, didn't list a single one
in the entire state. There are currently half a dozen or so. Some,
like Cindy Sterling's Swinging Gate Farm in Norman, have waiting
lists of potential members.
CSA's recent appearance on the state's agricultural radar is only
one of the ways they mark a fresh start for Oklahoma food and farming.
For decades, the national Census of Agriculture has painted an ever-gloomier
picture of farmers as a predominantly male and increasingly aging
group working ever-larger farms. The 1999 CSA survey told a different
story. The average age of farmers in the 1997 Census of Agriculture
was 54 years; that of CSA farmers in the 1999 survey was 43. Nationwide,
less than 10 % of all farmers are women, versus nearly 40 % for
CSA. While there are some large CSA farms, the median number of
acres they operate nationwide is 18.
Oklahoma's CSA farms are no exception. There are as many women
as men running them, as many twenty- and thirty-somethings as retirees,
and it's not uncommon to find them making a profit from an area
the size of the 10 acres that the Coopers farm – or even smaller.
Emily Oakley and Mike Appel, of Three Springs Farm in Tulsa, got
their CSA started on 2 leased acres.
A large part of the way CSA is turning agriculture around is by
making farming more ecologically sustainable. According to the 1999
national survey, over 40 % of CSA farms are certified organic, and
as many more, while not certified, follow organic standards. In
her book Agrarian Dreams, Julie Guthrie pointed out that in the
world of California organic farming, CSA is the only form of commercial
farm that goes beyond the letter of the organic regulations. CSA
farms, she says, are more likely to be integrated farming operations
incorporating "agroecological" practices, like rotations,
cover crops, and livestock, suggested but not mandated by USDA organic
There again, Oklahoma CSA follows the larger pattern. Though not
many are certified organic, many plan to certify, and almost all
meet or even surpass the USDA organic standards' minimum requirements.
The USDA standards "allow things I wouldn't even think of using,"
says Sharon Miller, whose New Beginning Farm in Tecumseh was Oklahoma's
first CSA. "I don't see any real advantage to certification."
Others, like Oakley and Appel and the Coopers, plan to pursue organic
certification. "It's not so much for the economic benefit as
just because we believe in it," says Oakley. All agree, though,
that their personal relationships with their members already carry
more trust and confidence than a USDA organic label.
Those personal relationships make CSA farms sustainable socially
as well as ecologically. Many CSA farmers keep them strong by hosting
farm visits and special events. Oakley and Appel invited members
for an heirloom tomato taste test early in the tomato season last
year, whetting their appetites for the full harvest. The Coopers
host a salsa party to let their members compare recipes. Miller
throws a barbecue for her members and plans to put a pumpkin patch
in this year. "We've tried to make the farm as family-friendly
as possible," she says. "If one of our member families
wants to come out one day for a picnic, that's just fine.
The personal involvement also helps to maintain, and raise, people's
awareness of how food is grown – especially among the younger
generation. When parents come out to pick up their shares and bring
their kids along, Miller says, "It gives them a whole different
Their local orientation and personal scale let CSAs adapt quickly
to suit the needs of the communities, whose business keeps them
thriving in turn. To give their members more freedom of choice,
Oakley and Appel are experimenting with treating some shares like
debit cards. Members still buy shares normally at the start of the
season, but come to the farmers' market to pick and choose, with
the amount of their purchases there subtracted from their initial
payments. Cindy Sterling started out with standard shares, switched
over to a debit system, and now just sends a weekly email telling
members what's available, so that they can order and pay for whatever
they want week by week. "We're flying by the seat of our pants,"
she says, "and half the time they're on fire."
That flexibility also allows CSAs to extend their bounty of freshness
to people who traditionally face obstacles obtaining any sort of
food. For those unable to afford the up-front cost of a share at
one time, some offer pay-as-you-go arrangements. This year, the
Coopers are going a step further, experimenting with an arrangement
whereby a percentage of each paid share goes toward a free share
for low-income families. If successful, it will mark a small but
significant step towards a community-scale solution to thorny problems
of food access and hunger.
Their small size also tends to keep CSA farms diversified –
not just as a nod to ecological sustainability, but as a central
part of their economic viability. In her first year as a CSA, Miller
went with the basics. "But I quickly learned that people want
more variety." Oakley and Appel use a spreadsheet to make sure
they're continually changing the mix of produce in their members'
baskets. The Coopers, by no means atypical, grow 75 different crops.
In addition to diversification, Oklahoma CSA farmers share other
pointers gleaned from their own experience with others contemplating
the CSA route for their farms. "Visit other farms," says
Oakley, "Not just for an afternoon, but for a whole day during
harvest, and maybe another day during office chores." It's
also important for potential CSA farmers to know their own capabilities.
Most of Oklahoma's successful CSA operators had several years of
farming and/or gardening experience before launching their CSAs.
Another tip is to start small. Oakley and Appel began their CSA's
first season with 10 members, mostly family and friends, before
expanding to 30 in the second. It’s also a good idea to be
realistic about the amount of income a CSA will generate, especially
at first. Few if any Oklahoma CSAs generate as much as half their
farm income through the CSA itself, even after a few years. "It's
a good thing to transition into," says Oakley, "but not
as a sole income."
"It's a lot of labor and a lot of love," says Cooper,
"but I couldn't see myself doing anything else."
Lass, D. et al. 2003. CSA Across the Nation: Findings from the 1999
CSA Survey. Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS), College
of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Guthman, J. 2004. Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming
in California. University of California Press, Berkeley.
project is supported by the Community Food Projects Program of
the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service,
grant # 2004-33800-15141
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