Recently, I learned that there is an organic farm located in Wisconsin that makes a weekly donation of organic produce to the food pantry of a Chicago social service agency. This seemed to me a wonderful win-win situation and I wanted to know more. Each week a truck from Primrose Valley Farm, owned by Jamie and David Baker, arrives at The ARK on California Avenue in the evening, and all kinds of absolutely beautiful produce spills out into the hands of waiting staff members and volunteers. The containers filled with produce are then refrigerated until the clients arrive to select food for their tables at home.
I went to see how this works and was amazed at the speed and efficiency of the unloading procedure and how appealing each of the items were. Now, I think I know a lot about vegetables, but there were exotic varieties that I wasn’t sure about. I understand that the staff and clients frequently aren’t sure of some of the items either and this becomes a wonderful learning experience. Susan Rifkin, Assistant Executive Director, who oversees the food pantry at The ARK, explained that seeing and tasting organic produce is a new experience for most of the clients. They learn new names and try new recipes, which they are asked to share with one another. There are 500 to 600 clients per month who are served by the food pantry.
Read on to find out more about what David Baker had to say about the concept of the CSA, the eco-friendly processes used by Primrose Valley Farm, where individuals can find tips and support for starting their own community garden, their relationship with The ARK and much more.
Andrew DeCanniere: For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, what exactly is a CSA?
David Baker: Slide 4 in our deck defines a CSA as an acronym for Community Supported Agriculture, a kind of co-op in which families subscribe to our farm for a season. The subscription entitles them to a weekly box of assorted vegetables and herbs (or bi-weekly as an option) for about 20 (or 10) weeks between June and November.
AD: How, when and why did you decide to start your own CSA?
DB: A number of years ago, we began to discuss what we believed to be a number of issues affecting the nature and quality of the food we were feeding to our family. These discussions helped us to identify a number of goals that ultimately led to the idea of creating a farm that could benefit our community. We’re voracious self-learners, so we began to read books, take courses and network with others who had gone down this road. We also looked at a number of working farms and ultimately chose and purchased ours based on criteria we established. It’s been a lot of hard work, but we feel that we’ve been very much rewarded for having taken this journey.
AD: Did you have any prior experience doing this type of work?
DB: Jamie’s grandparents owned and operated farms, so she was exposed to both concept and lifestyle from an early age. I was born and raised in Chicago so was quite familiar with concrete, but little else.
AD: What would you say are the most challenging aspects of your job?
DB: We regularly experience two challenges … time and unknowns. There’s never enough time in the day to address all of the myriad of items on our to-do lists – especially when building a farm operation from scratch using organic and sustainable farming concepts. Unknowns are a function of farming. Unpredictable weather, pest and insect pressure, crop disease prevention. The list goes on.
AD: What are the most rewarding aspects?
DB: At the end of a very long work day, we are physically tired but emotionally lifted by the day’s accomplishments. Our meals consist of our own food, which is fresh and healthy. We feel good about the fact that we’re doing ethically responsible work and is in sync with the planet, the seasonal cycle and spiritual values that are aligned with our Jewish faith.
AD: All of the produce you grow is organic, but beyond that you've come up with and employ some "green" (or eco-friendly) methods or processes of farming. Can you elaborate on what these are?
DB: We do a number of things that we believe make a difference in this regard. For example, like most vegetable farms, we’re required to use large refrigerated walk-in cooler rooms to keep our crops fresh between harvest and delivery. We’ve built the building housing these rooms into a large hill, and the resulting insulation provided by the earth significantly cuts down our associated refrigeration electric costs. We also use the heat that is drawn out of these rooms to produce hot water that the farm uses. Another example would be the use of chickens and ducks. These animals eat bugs and replenish soil nutrients. Future plans include use of a wind turbine for electricity generation, geothermal heating and our own biodiesel fuel production for use by our tractors by growing and cold pressing canola and soy beans.
AD: Your organization delivers fresh, organic produce to The ARK, a not-for-profit social service agency in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood. When and how did this relationship come about?
DB: Good, healthy food is not just for those privileged enough to be able to easily afford it. Rather, it’s the responsibility of the privileged to do what it takes to feed us all. Judeo-Christian scriptures tell us in then-acceptable terms that a farmer should set aside a corner of his or her field for "the orphan, widow and stranger," meaning to do charitable giving as a requirement for a community food source. In today's world, this is impractical but doesn't eliminate the requirement's basic intent.
We are fortunate to have a good relationship with The ARK of Chicago, a social services organization for Chicago's Jewish community. The ARK’s Rhea Segal Food Pantry serves as our biblical "corner of the field" through the weekly donation of organic vegetables. The Pantry distributes our vegetables along with other donated perishable and nonperishable foods to 550 families each month, a quarter of which are children. We're now in our second year of providing The ARK with up to 1,000 lbs of produce per week.
AD: We live in a major metropolitan area, which makes getting out into the great outdoors something of a challenge, unlike when someone lives out in the country surrounded by nature and thus has easy access to it. Yet, we are all dependent on the planet. We need the planet to not only survive but to thrive if we, as humans, are to continue to thrive ourselves. What is one thing that you would suggest people could do to connect with (or reconnect with, as the case may be) nature, and to recognize the interdependence that exists?
DB: There is a beautiful concept called Gaia, which proposes that all organisms and their inorganic surroundings on Earth are closely integrated to form a single and self-regulating complex system, maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. Using terms like biosphere and homeostasis, Gaia suggests that the planet and its inhabitants are interlinked and dependent upon each other. We have always been moved by this concept which, in part, motivates us to become a food source that is sensitive in both concept and practice to the heavy “footprint” that clearly exists on the part of corporate agribusiness that has come to feed our planet’s inhabitants. We encourage our subscribers to visit the farm and participate in its activities and to experience the feelings that the farm evokes related to nature and source of food.
AD: If someone wants to start their own CSA, perhaps a little community garden, what advice do you have for them?
DB: From our standpoint, the more the merrier. It would be terrific if a grass root movement involving local, responsible food were to burgeon. Our families’ health would improve, health costs would conceivably go down and we would benefit from an environment that clearly requires a smaller carbon footprint than that which we’ve come to accept as the status quo. Knowing precisely where your food comes from makes a big difference. Knowing that it came from your own efforts or those of your local community can make an even bigger difference.
That said, farming is physical, hard work and represents a significant change in lifestyle – especially for urban dwellers with traditional job skills. Yet, the community garden might provide great opportunity to experience the benefits of responsible food production in an urban setting.
AD: Are there any resources, either in print or online, that people who want to start their own CSA can turn to for additional tips and support?
DB: There are many resources that one can take advantage of in going down this road, including books, University and USDA extension offices and even courses of study. One terrific source of learning is the University of Wisconsin’s School for Beginning Market Growers. Created by the University’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, the three day survey course gives students a realistic picture of what it takes to run a successful small-scale produce operation. Other programs like this exist around the country.
Many books and journals also exist, such as those by authors Elliot Coleman (The New Organic Grower), Vernon Grubinger (Sustainable Vegetable Production From Start-Up to Market), Karl Schwenke (Successful Small-Scale Farming – An Organic Approach), Elizabeth Henderson (Sharing the Harvest – A Guide to Community Supported Agriculture), and Tanya Denckla (The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food).
AD: If someone wants to learn more about your organization in particular, where can they go?
DB: Visit our web site at www.primrosevalleyfarm.com, or give us a call. We love to talk about our farm and the local food movement!
AD: Is there anything else you would like to add? Anything else you would like for our readers to know?
DB: With respect to your family’s food … Go local. Go organic. Go sustainable. Go responsible. Your kids will thank you!
Primrose Vallley Farm also runs a summer camp where participants learn about farming.
Photos: B. Keer, Primrose Valley Farm, The ARK