As a kid growing up on a farm in Southern Wisconsin, I always knew one thing for certain: I never wanted to be a farmer. Farmers worked too hard for too little, were never in control of their schedules or their markets, and lived a lonely life of solitude far from city excitement, friends and family. But sooner or later, we all come to learn that certainty is an illusion. Things are always evolving and what we think we know is never quite as it seems.
What I never understood as a child was that a major shift was taking place around me. The very foundation of conventional agriculture was beginning to fracture in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Pioneering farmers all over the nation were trying something new. Farmers markets were popping up everywhere. Organic farming methods were gaining widespread acceptance and standards for certification were being set into place. Marketing cooperatives that paid farmers fair wages were being formed. And a new style of agriculture that allowed farmers to market directly to their consumers in a way that insulated them from some of the risk of farming while also gaining financial support prior to the growing season was gaining ground. In fact, one of the Wisconsin forerunners in the community supported agriculture (CSA) movement was steadily growing their business not more than five miles from where I grew up. But I had no idea about any of this. When I was young, I had no idea what farming could be.
I don’t remember when exactly I first really grasped the gravity of the CSA model and what it meant for farmers. It could have been when I decided to take a break from college to figure out what degree I wanted to pursue and checked out Elizabeth Henderson’s book Sharing the Harvest from the Janesville Public Library. I remember diving into the pages and thinking that this idea of farmers and nearby consumers creating a partnership with one another was a beautiful and idyllic model, but that it would never work in reality.
It could have been a year later when I first moved to Madison and the whole city was reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, and I ripped through the pages with fervor. Or maybe it was a couple years later during my internship with FairShare CSA Coalition, when I met dozens of farmers from all over the state who didn’t look burnt out, exhausted or lonely; who were instead tan and smiling, enthusiastically building something for themselves with the love and support of their community.
Or perhaps it was a different moment that same summer when my soon-to-be-husband got a job at Tipi Produce, the pioneering farm not more than five miles from my childhood home, and I got to visit their operation. All of a sudden, I saw a different way of life on the farm. All of a sudden, I realized farming could far exceed my naïve assumptions. All of a sudden, I saw myself wanting to head back to my family land and become a farmer myself.
CSA is the backbone of our farm and has been since the very beginning. I don’t know if we would have ever been bold enough to start a business fresh out of college with only a couple thousand dollars in the bank if not for CSA. The shares purchased by those first eight members bought the seeds to grow our crops and the cooler to store our harvests in. We love this business model because it gives us all the things I thought farmers could never have: like predictability, a stable income, insulation from risk, money when we need it (without having to take out operating loans), and most important of all, a community to share our struggles and our successes.
It still isn’t easy. There are forces of nature that we can’t control, equipment that breaks, employees that don’t work out, poor organization and even poorer communication at times, an enormous workload, a society that continually seeks cheaper and more convenient ways of getting their food, and financial obstacles to acquiring land of our own. Farming is still a rough and tumble way of life that is not without challenges. But with CSA, we feel safe and supported through all the highs and lows. We feel connected to people despite our rural existence. We feel like our life can have some semblance of balance.
I love CSA for so many reasons and not only because it makes the lives of farmers better, healthier and more sustainable. I love CSA because it has taught me patience, fortitude and persistence. Year after year, we keep growing things that challenge us because we know our members want them. Year after year, we learn how to grow more and more crops because we want our CSA members to gain exposure to wider varieties of vegetables.
I love CSA because I love sharing stories from the field and helping people feel connected to their food. I love CSA because I adore being a part of people’s routine. I love being a reason why people are spending more time in their kitchens. I love CSA because it helps people achieve a simpler, healthier way of life. I love CSA because I get to be part of the reason a child grows up to love vegetables. I love CSA because I love food: pure, simple, healthy, delicious food. And I love CSA because it taught me to love being a farmer.
Lauren Rudersdorf owns and operates Raleigh's Hillside Farm outside of Evansville, Wis., with her husband Kyle. Together, they manage four acres of leased family land, growing vegetables for a small CSA and area restaurants. They are currently filling their 2017 CSA. In her free time, Lauren loves to share stories about farming, life and food on her blog, www.TheLeekAndTheCarrot.com.