Late summer sun bleaches the sky into soft cotton denim over the fields of Fair Share Farm. Head up Highway 69, race down the straights of Route MM, and ride the gentle bends until a dusty finger of gravel road beckons. This 228-acre organic farm in Kearney is just a few miles from Watkins Mill State Park. Farmers Rebecca Graff and Tom Ruggieri invited me to tour the organic farm and taste test recipes to be included in their weekly newsletter to community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscribers. How could I resist? I needed the countryside drive to escape the tensions of the city if only for a few hours.
Ruggieri greets me when I arrive. His soft-spoken voice offsets a solid and stocky frame. A quick smile cuts through a profile of wiry hair, bushy eyebrows, and grizzled chin. Graff joins us for a stroll across the rolling grounds and sloped fields. Butterflies dance and skitter among a carnival of flowers. Thyme, rosemary, and other herbs stitch long rows across the first field as we walk a path toward the other crops. Ruggieri pauses to gather a couple of plump green tomatoes. “We need these to test out the recipe of a CSA member for fried green tomatoes,” Ruggieri said.
The prospect of cooking dishes with organic food picked recently from the field appeals to me. Can you eat food fresher than this? Eating organic food serves as the primary reason many people in the Kansas City and surrounding area choose to participate in a CSA program. Community-supported agriculture programs exist in many different forms across the nation. The basic premise involves subscribing as a member to receive weekly shares of produce and other goods from the farm. Interest in such programs has grown steadily.
“We have doubled the number of subscribers since last year to roughly fifty members. Our limit will be about one hundred. That’s what the farm can support,” said Graff.
A Growing Market
Operating an organic farm requires an immense amount of work, knowledge, and belief in the cause. The number of family farms continues to dwindle throughout the country each year. National events such as Farm Aid draw attention briefly to the plight of disappearing family farms. Many small-production operations such as Fair Share Farms find the means to survive by connecting with customers through CSA programs and participating in farmers’ markets.
Notably, the number of farmers’ markets has increased 79 percent according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture with more than 3,000 markets operating nationwide. Fair Share Farms is one of several local farms as well as individuals that sponsor the Crossroads Farmers Market* each Wednesday near YJ’s in downtown Kansas City. As the growing season draws to a close, I bought candy-sweet cherry tomatoes, basil, okra, and beans to take home. The Crossroads farmers’ market also doubles as a rendezvous point for urban CSA customers to pick up their weekly shares of produce.
Overall, the interest and participation in CSA programs has grown slowly and steadily. According to Sharing the Harvest, a book by Elizabeth Henderson, over 1,000 family farms operate a CSA program where local residents buy a seasonal share of produce directly from family farms. The advantages seem obvious––fresh organic food from the farm without chemicals, reasonable prices, meeting the people who actually grow your food, supporting the local economy, and helping the environment. Rather than buy expensive produce grown in California and other parts of the world that is shipped long distances to supermarkets, a basket of tomatoes, carrots, or beans from Fair Share Farms travels fewer miles and tastes fresher.
This afternoon’s visit to the farm enables me to see the crops first hand. Ruggieri explains how planting seasons on the fields are rotated so the land can recover from growing and cultivation cycles. Cover crops such as clover help the soil rejuvenate for future planting. The process makes sense. Conventional farm methods tend to grow crops in the same fields, resulting in decreased crop yields, depletion of minerals and natural resources, and soil erosion. Small-scale organic farming techniques use natural and beneficial methods of pest control and agricultural maintenance.
Rather than operate as a commodity farm with industrial scale production, organic farmers forgo economies of scale to devote more time and hands-on labor to the process of growing food. They act as stewards of the land with a long-term view similar to how all farming used to be practiced nationwide six decades ago. “My family has farmed this land since the 1930s,” Graff said.
She and Ruggieri have been farming these acres together for the past three years under the banner Fair Share Farms. They continue to learn as they combine a dedication for organic farming with an entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to preserving a way of life.
Admittedly, the production of conventional farmers feeds the nation, and even world markets, with cheap and abundant food largely subsidized in the marketplace by the federal government. Even so, conventional farming bears costs to the environment, energy consumption, and other factors not truly accounted for in the price of supermarket food.
I take comfort in the fact that every piece of produce from Fair Share Farms is picked by hand. Somehow, the consumer culture of eat-at-will, preprocessed, fast food, microwavable, frozen, supermarket deli, mass produced lifestyle of eating seems distant and alien now.
Sharing the Harvest
A sense of history and tradition exists on this land and in these people. Frankly, I tried to avoid the cliché stance of an “urban dweller who heads out to the country and glorifies farming” from the first moment I stepped away from my car. The contrast in lifestyle is undeniable, but we share common goals. Each person decides how to live. The actions have consequences – how we eat, how we spend our dollars, how we use and preserve natural resources, how we understand and respect the role of modern farming in this country – whether we know it or not.
Graff takes the tomatoes from her partner and tucks them into the front pockets of her dress. I find the gesture charming and timeless. She stands before rows of broccoli, chard, and cabbage, surveying nature’s progress with one arm propped on her hip. Her skin glows with a hard-earned tan. Later, we move to a section of rattlesnake beans named for their unusual coloring. Ruggieri picks a bean and tastes. Farming relies just as much on sensory information as it does on time-proven traditions.
Organic farming is certainly a more time-consuming, tiring, and expensive approach; however, the results provide an opportunity for the farmers to tell their customers specific details about how their food was grown. As we stroll the fields, I am reminded that farming requires a broad array of knowledge: the lay of the land, soil content, weather patterns, and pest control; habits of flora and fauna, dealing with invasive weeds, hungry rabbits, and crop-damaging deer; biological characteristics of seeds and crops, building devices and adapting tools, marketing, promoting, pricing, and distributing product. The list goes on. Farming is a multi-disciplinary enterprise, but this way of life offers pleasures as well.
We finish the tour of the crops, the worn barn where bunches of onion and garlic dry, and the storage room where weekly orders are packaged. Graff heads inside to work on the newsletter that accompanies the weekly CSA deliveries and appears on their web site under member services.
Ruggieri and I begin preparations to test the recipes that will appear in the newsletter. Now the fun truly begins. I follow the recipe from CSA member Pat Horner, a Southerner, for fried green tomatoes. I slice them one-quarter inch thick, douse in egg batter, dredge in coarse ground corn meal, and then fry them in safflower oil in an iron skillet. Any vegetable oil will work that won’t burn at high temperature. Each batch of slices only takes a minute or so to yield crisp, browned discs of fried tomatoes. I dust them with salt and pepper, then dig in. The coarse corn meal’s gritty texture balances the juicy tomato. Ruggieri suggests adding a dollop of sweet tomato preserves (his recipe) which helps to offset the tartness. Now we’re cooking.
Between glasses of white wine and a few bottles of Boulevard beer, we assemble two courses including fried green tomatoes, tomato olive tapenade spread over toasted slices of olive rosemary ciabatta (a rough-textured country Italian bread), a dip of yogurt cucumber raita, garden fresh salsa and blue corn chips, summer vegetable curry, and sloppy joes. Somehow, I have set aside my self-imposed city slicker status as a guest cook. My natural inclination to cook and get my hands dirty not only earned me a meal, but also offered an opportunity to feel even more welcomed in this hands-on farm home.
As the evening wears thin, Graff, Ruggieri and I trade details of our mutual interests in food, farming and local advocacy groups such as the KC Food Circle. We sit down briefly outdoors at a table with a canopy strung with white lights near a flower garden.
The meal draws us together, city and country, into deep conversations about the social power of food and a simple appreciation for the outdoors. Until the bugs bite, that is. Now that we have broken bread together, we head to the living room for more conversation, Eventually, we exchange goodbyes. A soft fog settles into the fields as I drive home across bareback highways with the cool night wind whispering in my ears. Tonight’s autumnal equinox signals a shift in season, but I sense fundamental changes have already begun deep in my senses, in the soil beneath my feet, in the food that symbolizes a time for harvest and a friendship still growing.
Originally published in Present Magazine, October 2008.