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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Commnity-Supported Agriculture

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood talks with the owners of Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, MA, a community-supported agriculture enterprise that links traditional organic, local food production and an unconventional approach to marketing.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The family farm is an endangered enterprise. Squeezed by agribusiness growers and ignored by giant supermarket chains, in the 1980s more than 300,000 US farmers were driven off the land. But a few family farms have found a unique way of making a go of it, by blending the traditional values of organic and local food production with unconventional approaches to marketing, and to satisfying the need for a sense of place in today's alienated society. It's called community supported agriculture, and it's designed to preserve small farms while reconnecting them with their local communities and regional economies. In a community-supported farm, local residents essentially buy a membership that entitles them to a season's worth of produce. The farmer foregoes the chance to make a killing in a great year in exchange for the security of a guaranteed income every year. Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is one of about 500 community-supported farms in North America. Sam and Elizabeth Smith made the switch 4 years ago, after going it alone as organic farmers for 20 years. We'll be checking in with them and their farm's members from time to time over the coming growing season. Right now, the Smiths have come in from the fields to join us on the line. Hello.


SAM SMITH: Greetings, Steve.

CURWOOD: What do members get when they join your farm?

ELIZABETH SMITH: It produces food for them. Beginning on June 1st, we'll have our first distribution. And it will mostly be greens such as lettuces and spinach, and the quantity of food then begins to increase as more things come into production, until by the end of June and the beginning of July it's strawberries and peas and -

SAM SMITH: Broccoli -

ELIZABETH SMITH: Broccoli and beets and carrots. And moves right on through the summer, through corn, through the squashes, into the more winter crops. These are things that are stored in the root cellar and people then help themselves from the root cellar during the winter months.

CURWOOD: And what do people get aside from food?

ELIZABETH SMITH: It offers them all the benefits of having a farm in a community: social, ecological, educational.

SAM SMITH: The most important benefits they get is a sense of community. A visitor who's returning after 30 years in India, and it just so happened that her visit was in late June and coincided with a distribution, so there was around many families here at the farm that day. And she walked in and she said, later on she said to us, "This was the first experience that I've had in the whole month of being back in the United States when I've seen a group of Americans with smiles on their faces." And she said, "You must be a great personality or something." And I said, "No, it's not that. It's not us. It's their being present and part of this farm. There's this diversity of people coming together."

CURWOOD: Let's talk about what the farmers get from this. Is there a financial advantage?

SAM SMITH: There's no immediate sort of bonanza. The interesting, and the powerful, financial aspect of this is for us, is that that income is secure now. You don't have the constant worry that if we have a crop failure or something goes wrong, or even if I or Elizabeth should have an accident and break a leg or something and we're incapacitated, now the community says we're loyal and we're going to support this farm, and the community assumes of course that Sam and Elizabeth and our apprentices will do our best to always -

ELIZABETH SMITH: I would say that the biggest pleasure for me is that I don't feel isolated from the community. For many years, we saw lots of people at our farm stand who were mostly summer people, who had the time and the leisure to come to our farm and pick up a few vegetables. But we didn't really see very many people from our immediate community.

SAM SMITH: I share that same feeling with Elizabeth. Another thing that comes to my mind, though, I feel liberated. Liberated to do my work as well as I possibly can. And before that, one felt kind of bonded to this anonymous market; you had to decide what crops you were going to grow, not on what was good for the land or what you liked to do. But what the market demanded. And also, the marketplace demanded that you put a lot of energy into the whole business of marketing, which takes up so much energy.

CURWOOD: Well I'm looking forward to seeing all of this. We're going to come out for a visit in a few weeks. What have you got planned for that day?

ELIZABETH SMITH: You will be coming to our open house where we invite members of the community, whether they are members of our farm or not, to join us in the great potato saga. Everyone plants potatoes. Children and grandparents and parents and everyone gets down in the dirt and puts the potatoes in the soil.

CURWOOD: Well I'm looking forward to seeing you. Sam and Elizabeth Smith, the proprietors of Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Thanks for spending this time with us.


SAM SMITH: Thank you very much.



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