"Isn't that mural great?" asks Farmer Scott Mathieson as he rolls in from the field on a beat-up purple mountain bike. He points out one of the three rainbow murals adorning the outbuildings of Sebastopol's Laguna Farm, Sonoma County's only fully realized community supported agriculture (CSA) farm. "A local young man did that. I paid him in trade. He's still getting vegetables years later!"
Community supported agriculture is a practice that originated in Japan in the 1960s. Focused specifically on the production of high-quality agriculture using environmentally friendly farming methods, CSA depends greatly on its consumers, who, in the original model, bought into a share of the farm's harvest at the beginning of each season. Making its progress from Japan to Europe and through our own East Coast, CSA arrived on the West Coast in the 1980s, by which time it had morphed from a system in which members paid a set fee at the beginning of a growing season and shared in whatever bounties or losses nature decreed, to a subscription system where members pay a weekly fee and receive a consistent box of produce from the farm they support.
"I prefer to call it community shared agriculture," Farmer Scott says.
While Paige Phinney, a staffer at the nonprofit Marin Organics, says that CSA hasn't been able to sustain Marin farmers due to profit margins so tight that they don't "have time to put together perfect produce boxes," Scott affirms that the CSA program at Laguna Farm has "been what's kept me in farming."
Scott was a certified organic farmer for many years who finally got turned off by the "Certified Organic" label as the process became more bureaucratic in recent years.
"It got to the point where huge corporations were coming in, and I made the choice to go all CSA 12 years ago," Scott says. "Unless you could put that O [for organic] on your product, you couldn't sell to stores."
So Scott cancelled the farm's wholesale program, and Laguna Farm's harvest is now 90 percent spoken for by its members, the other 10 percent going to the farm market in Sebastopol.
"I do still have one distributor that gets some of my excess and sells to restaurants," Scott says. Among the few restaurants that receive his outstanding produce are San Francisco's Millennium and Berkeley's Chez Panisse.
"The really upscale restaurants don't care about a label; they care about quality," he says.
Community shared agriculture seems an apt moniker for a farming practice that generally results in a stronger-than-usual consumer-producer relationship. Laguna Farm has developed a member base totaling 457 and produces about 400 boxes of produce per week. Membership fees can include weekly or twice-monthly produce boxes that consist of fresh vegetables and a "fruit option" for those so inclined.
"Our members are very committed," Scott explains. "We have a consistent group of people who take what the farm is giving."
The guaranteed cash flow from its members is what keeps Laguna Farm afloat. In fact, there is a waiting list for prospective members. Although Laguna Farm decides what goes into the weekly boxes--a recent box included salad mix, yellow onions and red tomatoes, a bunch of rainbow chard, an eggplant and a bunch of basil--the price is always $16 per week. "We have to keep it interesting," Scott says. "Otherwise, people are going to get overwhelmed with too much of one kind of produce, not be able to eat it, feel guilty and quit."
In addition to delivering boxes of fresh produce to members each week, Scott says that Laguna Farms is "huge on education." This includes a newsletter included with the box each week, highlighting events the farm is hosting, recipes for the produce included in the box and whatever other eco-topic takes the farmer's fancy. Lately, it's been alternative fuel sources, on which Scott runs all of Laguna Farm's tractors and generators.
Visiting Laguna Farm is how you "experience CSA to the fullest," Scott says. There are three families picking up their weekly boxes during my visit. "It's the ultimate connection between people and their food." If members want a little more produce than their box contains, there's a store where produce from other local farms is available. We sell mushrooms and fruit; things we grow here and things we buy from the best organic local growers," he says proudly.
Scott has reason to be proud. Laguna Farm has come a long way since he started breaking ground on the 50 acres he stewards along the Laguna de Santa Rosa.
"It's a pretty amazing ecosystem here," Scott says. "The co-existence of agriculture and nature is a sensitive issue. We stay completely away from the heritage oak trees and the Laguna channel, and just farm the appropriate areas."
The results are those 400 boxes of produce that the farm distributes each week. Most people's lives are so fast, Scott says, that many of them can't even eat the little bit of produce they order each week.
"They're eating out a lot, or they're tied into processed food," he explains. But becoming a member of a CSA, shopping at farm markets or growing your own food is a choice you can make in your personal life to become more in touch with your body and the land, and the membership of Laguna Farm reflects that.
"To choose to spend that time at home cooking, to do that whole Slow Food experience is hard," Scott says. "The demographics of our members tend to be families and people who are committed to that, not having to have things always be super-fast."
And indeed, slow food is a topic that generates much excitement during this visit to Laguna Farm. One of the members who has swung by to pick up her box has just been chosen to attend the annual Slow Food conference in Torino, Italy, the birthplace of the movement.
Slow Food, founded in 1986, is an international organization determined to protect a more human scale of life. Promoting agricultural biodiversity, protecting traditional foods and developing taste education are all focal points of the movement, which began as a reaction to the ever-growing fast-food culture.
Community "shared" agriculture assuredly goes hand-in-hand with these values. "Certainly you could go and buy product at the store and hope that they're selling you something healthy," Scott says, then adds that there are "so many entities that control all of that, it's bound to be compromised."
Farmer Scott clasps my hand in both of his and leaves me with a heartfelt "Be well."
After spending the morning at Laguna Farm, I am.