Back to the Future of food

Where does your food come from?
No, not the grocery store – those sprinklers in the produce aisle aren’t for growing vegetables. Where does it originate?

This wasn’t a very difficult question 70 years ago. Food came mostly from the farmers and ranchers in and around the place you lived, or perhaps from your own gardens and fields. But the exponential growth of industrialized agriculture and processed foods changed all that.

“The food system that we are all a part of, to be quite frank, just simply wasn’t working very well,” said Michael Jones. “It didn’t work very well for our children. It doesn’t work very well for our farmers, and it certainly doesn’t work very well for communities in need.”

Jones is one of a set of local advocates championing a shift toward community-supported agriculture, or CSA. Operating farms requires steep initial investment – seeds, fertilizer and equipment – then a volatile growing season and a significant delay in market-ready products. CSA programs attempt to make small farming more stable and financially viable by spreading the risk across a community. They sell fixed, pre-harvest shares in a growing season to residents, who in turn regularly receive a box or bag of products throughout the season, as well as recipes and information about the farm.

At Sunbeam Family Farm, situated about 30 miles from Columbus in tiny Alexandria, head grower Ben Dilbone offers about 100 varieties of 30 to 40 different vegetables, focusing in particular on heirloom and unique strains, like rainbow carrots, hakurei turnips and beauty heart radishes. For small upstart farms like Sunbeam, one of the primary challenges is finding consistent distribution channels for their produce, especially those that can garner retail prices instead of wholesale. They sell to several local restaurants and at the Granville Farmer’s Market, but those don’t provide the kind of upfront money or built-in demand offered by CSAs. Dilbone began Sunbeam’s share program in 2012, and this year he wants to provide 30 weeks of produce.

“I think CSA members come away from the season feeling like they had a hand in the growing of the food that they’re eating,” he said. “[They] feel good about where it comes from, and knowing how it’s grown, and who grows it and building that relationship.” They reconnect people to the land.

There are drawbacks, though. First, most small operations require share members to pick up products at the farm, which can be inconvenient for people who aren’t close by. Also, some growers struggle to offer variety each week because of the unpredictable and seasonal nature of produce availability.

That’s where Jones comes in. He started The Greener Grocer at the North Market in 2008 and began selling market bag subscriptions, which combined the products of several local farms into one weekly offering. This year he branched off with a new venture, Great River Farms, which aims to sell 600 shares in a market bag composed of vegetables, herbs and greens from nine member farms, including Sunbeam.

The 30-week program costs just under $27 a week for eight items and pays growers 70 percent of all sales, plus an investment of $60 from each share into a startup capital fund for the subsequent season. Jones emphasized the importance of organic practices, saying that how food is grown is as important as buying local, and Great River’s member farms will all be certified organic by 2015. They will distribute shares to delivery sites with more than 15 subscribers, and they work with corporations like Cardinal Health and The Limited to create mini food hubs.

Azoti is a larger example of a local CSA-style aggregator. Founder Dave Ranallo and his team developed a software platform to connect growers with employers, schools, restaurants and individuals. The software provides a single access point for users to source fresh food from local and regional farmers and ranchers. Azoti is partnering with 30 farms this year, providing meat subscriptions through Oink Moo Cluck Farms, as well as sourcing artisanal food products through the likes of Soodles Bake Shop.

“We’re on a mission to change the way food is produced and eaten, and we’re gonna do that by decentralizing the ag supply chain using food subscriptions and just-in-time ordering,” Ranallo said. “We’re allowing the farmers to focus on farming.” Produce subscriptions cost between $25 and $35 per delivery, and approximately 82 percent goes back to farmers and food-makers.

Azoti doesn’t emphasize organic products, instead focusing on the ability to customize the offering. Five days before each weekly, biweekly or monthly delivery, the subscriber receives an email showing what the default order will contain, along with the option to customize from 40 to 60 other items. In addition to delivering to employers, such as Battelle and Resource Interactive, it provides home produce delivery for anyone in Columbus.

CSA food typically doesn’t contain additives or preservatives, and many farms swear off the use of antibiotics, hormones and GMOs, though not all are organic. What everyone agreed upon wholeheartedly is that the food is fresher, often harvested within 24 hours of delivery, and it tastes far better, whether it’s a tomato or a pound of pork tenderloin.

Jenn Stevens, the managing creative director for the branding agency Ologie, has been an Azoti subscriber since it began in 2012 and described the flavor of her filets as “pure.” She said that about a third of the agency subscribes, and everyone receives growers’ photos and invitations to farming events. “It’s that relationship you have with the people that make your food, which is really nice.”

The same sentiment is shared by CSA advocates everywhere, that reconnecting with the land and the people who toil for its bounty is essential to changing the unsustainable modern food industry. The path forward is all around us, just back a ways in the past. •