Just 30-miles Southwest of Atlanta's bustling gray-toned streets sits a verdant plot of land known as Serenbe. The farm is the source of my family's vegetables we pickup every Tuesday at a drop-off spot in the city. It (and many other small-scale farms around the country) is also the wellspring for a new way of thinking about food, farms, fertilizers and urban foraging.
The term for this type of agricultural operation is a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture. Through seasonal subscriptions, the growers provide members with weekly fresh fruits and vegetables (some farms also produce meats and dairy) and, in turn, the members support the farmer's livelihood. This sort of shareholder system has existed in Europe, Chile and Japan for centuries, but only caught on in the U.S. in the mid-1980s. Since then, it has burgeoned from a handful of isolated farms to thousands across the country.
Of course no CSA is exactly alike. That's why I headed to Serenbe this week to meet the people behind the produce, learn more about the farming, the food's energy-cycle, and pick up our weekly share.
Nourishing Americans accounts for over 15 percent of US energy use, with much of the conventional food we eat traveling thousands of miles before ending up on our plates. Though food-miles have been a widely touted reason for becoming a "locavore," only a minimal percentage of energy use in the food system goes towards transporting it. The lion's share of energy and greenhouse gas emissions (about 85 percent for both) goes to producing, packaging, processing, marketing and preparing it.
So while my family initially signed up for our weekly share in hopes of limiting our food's frequent flier status (the food from Serenbe travels at most 40 miles, though not all of the farms inputs – seeds and fertilizers like fish and seaweed – are local), we're maintaining the share for many more reasons than food-miles. One of these is a direct connection with the farmers and the land.
Stepping out of the car Tuesday evening and strolling through the cultivated rows of green peppers felt casual and calm. A small line of CSA members had gathered at the burlap-covered table to pick out the choicest heirloom tomatoes, yellow watermelons and furry edamame – all organic, all freshly picked. Paige Witherington, Serenbe Farm Manager, stood by providing cooking tips for the black-eyed peas, and pointing people towards the flower patch to pluck 12 brightly colored stems.
Decades ago, this farm produced only one crop, cotton. Constant heavy cultivation left the land depleted of nutrients and approximately 4 feet of its topsoil. Through Witherington's gusto and determination, along with the help of Justin Dansby, now also a Manager, and two interns, she nurtured the eight-acre plot over the past six years back to vitality. In 2010, the growers planted over 350 vegetable and fruit varieties, harvesting 58,000 pounds of produce. And 2011 is an even more fecund year.
Another reason for continuing our share is that no pesticides, genetically engineered seeds, or chemicals have been used to grow the food. Instead Witherington relies on composting, cover cropping and crop rotation to boost crop yields. Finally, in terms of food's energy-cycle and greenhouse gas production, a diet rich in vegetables and low in animal products is proving to be a healthy on numerous levels.
According to the Environmental Working Group's recent report, "The Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change and Health," the foods with the top 3 highest associated greenhouse gas emissions are conventionally raised and produced lamb, beef and cheese. With the second highest emissions, beef comprises about 30 percent of the meat consumed in the U.S. The report also states that "That’s more than twice the emissions of pork, almost four times that of chicken and more than 13 times that of vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu."
The report has a list of other easy to swallow facts like, "if your four-person family skips meat and cheese one day a week, it’s like taking your car off the road for five weeks – or reducing everyone’s daily showers by 3 minutes."
Statistics like these are food for thought. So too are trips to farms like Serenbe.