Supporting local agriculture is fun

In the early 21st century, Connecticut has been getting back to its family farming “roots.” Environmentalists promote family farming as wise land-use policy, especially in Milford, blessed with prime agricultural soils. Health-conscious “locavores” demand access to food with the freshness, high nutrient levels, and low pesticide burden provided by neighborhood farms.

Finally, economists emphasize small-farm rewards due to employment, land-use diversification, and so-called “external” efficiencies, meaning efficiencies realized from the services nature supplies free of charge. Milford has three summer farm markets: One at Treat’s Farm in Woodmont, one in downtown Milford by the train station, and one in Devon on Route 1 between Naugatuck Avenue and the Washington Bridge. These markets support family farms by giving them new outlets for distribution.

So far so good, but community-supported agriculture (CSAs) up the ante. They’re small farms using direct distribution. Whether alone or supplemental to farmers’ markets, CSAs are more nitty-gritty than the markets and more fun.

First, “fun.” Typically, the way a CSA works is that members pay a set amount in advance for a summer’s worth of farm product. On a certain day each week, members pick up a basket of food at their CSA, but they don’t know in advance what’s going to be inside. They might get a few items they’ve never heard of, such as bok choy, kohlrabi, or tatsoi, radishes in unlikely shapes and colors, red currants or white eggplant or purple squash they scarcely know how to prepare.

Besides sheer novelty, these unfamiliar species offer way more diversity than a customer ever finds at a grocery store, even counting exotic imports. Then consider the abundance. Flowers and herbs can be cut as bonuses to the weekly basket, and, sometimes, when a particular vegetable or berry crop ripens all at once, members can pick all they want.

Next, “nitty-gritty.” CSAs bring members up close and personal with farmland. Sometimes, as mentioned, members act as farmhands themselves; in any case, when members are at the CSA they see their food growing, not just sitting on shelves. The ecological connections underlying agriculture are evident all around.

Here, the farming history of Milford comes alive. Sun, rain, and the slow progress of the seasons rule. Farm work is more than isolated individuals can do by themselves, so community becomes important, as reflected in the way CSA members share a common schedule and set of basket items; additionally, many CSAs celebrate the end of their year in September with a party for all their members—a feast entrée from the farm, the rest pot-luck.

Originally, America was a nation of farmers. What our forebears called the “symmetry” of nature was all-important: They tried to preserve it with diligence, patience and frugality.

Today we use the term “sustainability.” Regardless of the label, the basic concept is illustrated in every CSA: Human beings are not “above” nature, but embedded in it together with all nature’s creatures.

Our health depends on the health of the land.