It cannot be easy to be a small farmer, what with the 100-degree days turning into a succession of 100-degree weeks. Soon a month has dripped by in suffocating temperatures. Many of us have the luxury of staying inside to produce a paycheck at the end of every month, but as long as there are hungry people to feed, the farmer will toil in the hot sun to satisfy us all.
There was a period in the '80s and '90s when our food just appeared out of thin air, and nobody really questioned that. We gobbled down, toasted each other and said, "Please pass the potatoes."
In the 21st century, a profound interest has emerged as to where our food comes from. Who is growing it? How did it get to my grocer? How was it grown? What has been sprayed on it? Is it irrigated with polluted water? If these beans could talk : what would they say?
A group of forward-thinking farmers in the Lawrence area noticed that in an educated society, people have a satiable appetite for knowledge, wanting to know what it is they ingest. The Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance was born. The year was 1994, and the need to forge relationships between the farmer and the consumer was an unheard-of approach to farming.
Paul Johnson, a grower for Rolling Prairie (www.RollingPrairie.net) and manager of the Merc site, explains the concept behind the idea.
"Dan Nagengast (former Rolling Prairie grower and the director of the Kansas Rural Center) was operating a vegetable subscription service south of Topeka when he moved to Lawrence and decided to expand to a cooperative model where several farms would be involved," Johnson says. "He chose growers who had quite a bit of market gardening experience. The various growers had different specialties such as greens, berries and root crops.
"The risks of crop failure and weather disasters are significantly reduced by sharing the production over so many farms. We were probably the first major Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) cooperative established in this country," he says. "There are roughly 1,100 CSAs now operating nationwide. What is special about our service is that we are growing for identified customers who have signed up for weekly produce from May to October as opposed to the uncertainty of farmers market sales."
So the farmer has an identified market, the consumer has an intimate knowledge of where their foods are coming from, and each week when the 300 participating households gather their bags from one of the four pick-up sites, a symphony of oohs and ahhs are heard across Lawrence neighborhoods.
"The customer receives six to eight different seasonal items of produce weekly over the growing season," Johnson says. "Our Thursday bag is an economy with five to six different items. Customers will see 40 to 50 varieties of produce over the course of a growing season. Our Web site has a chart showing what to expect month by month in Kansas. Ninety-five percent of the produce supplied is organic, and it is all supplied by our six growers. Occasionally, we supplement the bags with other local produce such as asparagus, apples and winter squash."
Margaret Coffey has been a customer of the Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance for quite a few years now, and for her, one of its greatest joys is the ability to experiment.
"I like that I'm never quite sure what I'm going to get in my bag each week," she says. "I try everything I put in my bag, and I always find foods that I love. This year, I finally tried the farmer's roasted beets recipe, and I love it. I thought I hated beets, and now I can't eat enough of them. I had a similar experience with rhubarb a few years back."
The lure of an alliance like Rolling Prairie is that it puts a face on both the farmer and customer.
"It is great to build a culinary relationship with customers who have been with us for several years," he says. "The customers are getting the freshest and most nutritious produce available in this food shed. The price is on the low-end of the cost of wholesale organic markets as well."
Lisa Grossman, a customer of Rolling Prairie since 2000, sees other advantages to the relationship.
"We need to put a face on our food, and I'm sure it feels good to the growers to not be so anonymous," she says. "This is an educational experience that helps us understand a bit of what it takes to put food on our tables. You begin to think more how a hailstorm or drought affects 'your' growers."
Stu Shafer, a grower and coordinator for the Lawrence Senior Center site, explains why this might appeal to a farmer.
"Growing food sustainably is much more difficult than most people realize, especially in conditions like this year. There are a wide range of skills, tasks and knowledge that are necessary to be successful. At the same time it is incredibly satisfying thing to do, physically, intellectually and spiritually. And, I argue, these skills are going to be absolutely essential as we move into a post-petroleum era."
I was told a few weeks ago that when you buy nonorganic produce, you must wash it vigorously with water and soap. The concern of pesticides in our foods is a real concern many health-conscious folks deal with. Kelly Barth, a Rolling Prairie customer since 2000, is one of them.
"I'm very concerned about the seen and unseen impact of excessive pesticides. Rolling Prairie is a huge step in protection our entire community," she says. "Just like my ancestors did, I want to eat food when they're in season. It's been both thrilling and humbling to realign my eating habits and life to the bounty and limits of seasonal shifts."