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Armful of Dahlias: A Personal Experience of CSA Membership

On rainy afternoon in late Spring a friend called and asked if I had heard about the Root Connection, a farm where you could buy a weekly share of organic vegetables for the summer. Yes, I had heard of it, and yes, I was interested in splitting a share with her. I asked my friend to have membership information mailed to me.

The mailed packet told me everything I needed to know about becoming a member of the CSA, an acronym for Community Supported Agriculture. As one of many CSAs, Root Connection is part of a 10 year old national phenomenon. Community supported farms sell weekly shares of their annual produce to a number of households. The shares are sold before the harvest begins. Thus, each member household takes a stake in the risk of garden production as well as the possibility of a bountiful harvest.

With Root Connection, we had a choice of picking up our vegetables here in Seattle or at the farm. Since my friend and I both have three year olds, we decided a weekly visit to the farm would be fun for them and we could pick the fresh flowers and herbs. I sent in my form and excitedly anticipated our first pick-up date.

Come the first week of June, my daughter and I made our way out to the wilds of Woodinville. We got very lost and were breathless and frustrated by the time we met up with our friends in the parking lot. I stepped out of the car onto a beautiful broken-glass mosaic. Instead of gravel, the parking area and walkways were made with recycled polished glass. It was like walking in a multi-colored glass sky. My daughter ran ahead and I followed her into the small shelter used as a produce store. A woman greeted us and led us through a back door out to the garden area. The open land of the valley laid out before us, damp, turned open to expose the fecund soil of the garden. I breathed in the coolness and felt a deep stirring of recognition and gratitude. Our three year olds romped out into the open, more fascinated with the polished glass than the garden. As we walked I could tell the garden was just beginning to offer the simpler vegetables of early Spring - radishes, tender lettuce, and spinach. The woman showed us where the flower garden would be and urged us to pick some of the Japanese iris that had returned from the prior year's garden. We picked flowers and herbs then went back to the shed to take our first share.

Root Connection, like most CSA farms, grow organically, an aspect I consider most important. Walking through the garden, I saw weed barriers, and slug inhibitors, which only enhanced my appreciation of the difficulty of organic farming in the tenacious environment of the Pacific Northwest. Where no vegetables were planted, weeds grew to six feet tall - a testament both to the fertility of the soil and the challenge to the farmer.

When I signed up with Root Connection I knew intuitively that organic produce was important for my growing child. However, in March 1999 Consumer Reports issued a report called "How Safe is Our Produce." In this report they tested over 27,000 samples of domestically grown fresh fruits and vegetables for acceptable levels of pesticides. What they found was that although the pesticide levels were considered to be at safe levels for adults, they were unsafe for children. The report says "Current residue limits are based on outdated standards not specifically designed to protect children, given the way their bodies process the chemicals and the amounts and types of foods they eat." And CR gave one example of this problem: "The USDA tests found that some apples contained as much as 10 micrograms of a popular organophosphate pesticide called chlorpyrifos. A 154-pound adult eating such an apple would ingest only half of the current safe daily dose, whereas it would put a 44-pound child (the weight of an average 5- year-old) 67 percent over his or her safe limit."

Because we know how important it is for us to feed our children fresh fruits and vegetables they tend to consume more per pound of body weight than the average adult. Also, children are growing and developing so rapidly they are more sensitive to the toxic effects of pesticides. When, as parents, we rely on commercially (non-organic) grown produce, an act of caring for our children - feeding them fresh fruits and vegetables - may inadvertently be contributing to their consumption of potentially hazardous residues. To me organic is a clear alternative to exposing my child to unnecessary health risks. By buying organic, I also avoid supporting an industry of pesticide use and development. My reading of the CR report confirmed my sense that belonging to the garden and understanding the importance of organic farming is much more than just a good idea. The report concluded with the following recommendation: "Consider buying organically grown produce, which is increasingly available. When we tested organic fruits and vegetables, we found that they had few or no toxic residues."

As a member of a CSA, I am also stating with my dollars and my actions that farmland preservation is essential. Even a small garden can generate tons of food. The Root Connection harvested 108,000 pounds or 54 tons of produce from their 12 acre plot during the 1998 season. That's an average of 264 lbs per membership in 1998. There is currently a proposal to turn nearby farmland into soccer fields. When I consider how well children could be fed from that land if it were actively farmed, soccer fields would clearly be an unwise land use. There are 12,600 acres of farmland currently held by the farm preservation trust in King County. According to Claire Thomas, the manager of the Root Connection, if all those acres were actively farmed they could feed 214 people per acre or 2,695,400 people, almost a million more people than the entire population of King County.

As the summer unfolded, my daughter and I looked forward to our Thursday morning trips to the garden. We would get our white share bag with the delight of a child at Christmas. And the flowers - the flowers - first were the dahlias growing spindly and bright early in June. My daughter would pick huge armfuls each week and distribute them in vases among the rooms of our house. Then the other flowers began to bloom - asters, zinnias, cosmos, and rows and rows of multi-colored stattice. We picked and sniffed and romped each week - tasting herbs, clipping chard and the army of greens that followed. The children's garden filled with ripe carrots and beets, then with towers of green bean castles where the ripening beans hid folded in the large leaves like tiny elves. My daughter loved picking the vegetables from "her" garden and jumping into the nearby drainage ditch with her friend.

As weeks passed I began to realize that what I imagined our garden would do for my daughter was also happening to me. Each week I would bring home larger and larger bags of vegetables and sort them into my refrigerator. Then I would place flowers, still damp from the often-rainy gathering, in vases around the house. When dinnertime came I would make a salad, light candles and stand back from the table. The table looked, blessed. The beauty and vibrancy of the flowers and the food seemed to emanate into the house. I felt related to the food in a new and very affecting way. I knew where it came from, walked on the ground where it grew and picked some of it myself. Importantly, I knew the food was organic, knew and trusted the standards of the farmers and respected the care with which they implemented them. I received the care of the garden through my hands as I worked with the food and the flowers, and felt it pass through me as I washed my daughter at the end of the day, and through the many conversations with friends and family during the week. What I had thought would be a "good idea" for my daughter has turned into a vast and deeply moving spiritual experience for me. I have become passionately committed to the garden and what it offers my family. What the garden has taught me is that there are simpler ways to live, to raise our children and remember the source of our life is the earth, the very ground, the very soil we continually pave over with endless developments.

So when we pull into the stunning glass parking area and park by the sign with the carrot I feel a sense of relationship to the land where I live and raise my daughter. I feel satiated with a life that supports a deeper relationship with the food I bring home and prepare for my family.


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