“I've been feeling acutely aware of how it's a really rare thing to have a perfect farming season.”

Oona Coy, Town Farm, Northampton, August 2009

One of the many pleasures of buying into a farm share (we’re on our second farm, the first, still beloved to us is Food Bank Farm, which we belonged to for two years, before moving on to Town Farm, because it’s in Northampton, rather than the next town over—and because Town Farmers Oona Coy and Ben James are longtime pals) is reading farmers’ updates. Michael Docter of Food Bank Farm was responsible for some of my most favored summer reading in recent years. I think I love the updates because farmers (sample size here, three: Michael, Ben, Oona) chronicle process—and I kind of like process (I’m a little geeky that way).

For example, I’ve long had a somewhat closeted obsession with reading memoirs about mountain climbing, one that began before Jon Kraukauer’s brilliant Into Thin Air. Do I, or have I ever fancied myself attempting to summit Everest or Denali or Kilimanjaro or McKinley? The answer is a resounding: no. I’m the person that has fielded all complaints about this wet, cool summer with the stock line: “It isn’t snowing.” I do not savor cold (although I have developed an appreciation of winter after so many in New England). I aspire never to be so cold as one is atop a capital M mountain. This does not stop me from loving to read about mountain climbing and climbers. Rick Ridgeway’s Below Another Sky is such a great book, not only about climbing, but also about taking stock in the middle of one’s life and about friendship and memory, much as Krakauer’s book encompasses more than the fateful climb itself. The best writing about process does two things at once: it teaches you about something you do not know (or something you know) in such a way that you learn and appreciate what’s being illuminated on its own merits and it transcends the thing itself, in some unexpected way. Process can be a springboard, something we hope we’re lucky enough to learn in our own lives. Being interested in that “how-to” is something Michael Martone really taught me well during my graduate school education in fiction writing at Warren Wilson College.

Back to farming: these accounts of a farm season increase my understanding of just how involving a process growing food actually is. That sounds dumb. I should have known, right? As anyone in the farm education or local food movements will tell you, though, the florescent glare, plastic wrap, immense bounty of a sort at the big chain supermarkets has fundamentally warped our perceptions about food. Food is just lined up on shelves for the taking, regardless of season or nutrition or even actual food content. That is the culture’s “norm” in most places. And that “norm” has practically nothing to do with what happens near Venture’s Field where a few hearty people, a few relatively small machines, and a few bicycles help grow the freshest food seventy-five families (plus all purchasing Town Farm produce at the Tuesday Market) will eat all year.

One more quick aside: growing up, I loved—well, lived in—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, and while rereading some of them to my children proved kind of painful (so racist, so sexist, even though, quite obviously written during a very different era), what endures unscathed by social concerns and context are those accounts of farming: roasting the pig tail, blowing up the pig bladder as a balloon, churning butter, cooking down maple syrup, and the giant hailstones in summer flattening a year’s work, to name just a few. I mention these books both because they represent some of my earliest actual regard for how involved farming is (although I may have thought, probably at some level until a couple of years ago, that present day farming’s a lot easier; I have altered that opinion, though, it’s easier but not so much easier as I used to imagine) and because they made farming real to so many people. Writing, that is to say, can help us develop an appreciation for ways we do not live. My other brush with farming as a child really came during summer visits to Nashville, Tennessee where my mother’s family lived; my grandparents and siblings owned Tollgate Farm (essentially, at least by the time I was growing up, a “gentleman’s farm”) in Franklin County (not far from where the Saturn plant went up). They hired a farmer, so there was no family farming, just the farm, where we’d spend a little time. The rolling hills were so pretty, the farmhouse slanted pleasantly here and there. I kind of wanted to move there. It was a starry-eyed view of farming, removed from a certain gritty aspect of farming’s reality, yet steeped in the beauty of place, which certainly is one reason we should all care about protecting farmland.


One of the organizations locally that stewards farming is CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture—try saying that ten times fast). People better versed in CISA than I could boil down what the organization does into a sentence or a sound bite. I just remain awed by the many ways this organization offers necessary scaffolding to the very involved process of farming and more so, making farms sustainable enterprises. Yet this isn’t a lobbying group, trying to protect the interests of big farm(a). Poor joke aside, CISA holds true to its first tenet: community.

And one of its best examples of community involvement supporting agriculture (and local food, and local residents, and the local economy) is its Senior Share program. Since 2004, CISA has used monies from the state Office of Senior Affairs—first fifty thousand per year, falling this past year to twenty-five thousand—to make a wonderful program that gets farm share food and membership to seniors otherwise unable to afford local, fresh produce. Now, we can all make the case for why local food from the farm is healthful. That’s easy. And we can agree that the program’s original incarnation—before being cut by more than half—in which not only did 300 seniors receive the food, but also got to go to their CSA farms to get their produce (at least some of the weeks) had extra merits. Seniors could participate in the pick-you-own feature of their farms, if they wanted to, and they got to know their farmers and fellow members. This feature, obviously, was a great example of community building. With the initial cuts, CISA had to take away the farm visit component (which included transportation) and shorten the farm share season for seniors (from 12 weeks to 9), in order to continue to serve 300 seniors (the topmost priority). But the brilliant piece, the support of community and of agriculture at once, is this: 300 shares underwritten by state funds not only support seniors; those monies support local agriculture. A-ha! Talk about win-win: low-income elders receive healthy food and local farmers earn a living wage.

A few of those seniors’ shares are at Town Farm. At the Tuesday Market, Ben James (Town Farmer) was telling me that of the seniors their farm now serves, a few come to pick their shares up—and they are all folks from the neighborhood. “They used to stare and wonder what we were doing as they drove by,” Ben said. “It’s so cool, because now they know and they know us and they love eating from our farm, in their neighborhood. Without the program, we’d never have come together.”

Enter the recession. Thanks to economic freefall, this program—although such an appropriate priority for state governmental support—was one to be axed entirely from the state budget for 2010. There are funds in place to keep the program going through this calendar year, and CISA is committed to raising funds—25,000 dollars—in order to keep Senior Share going next year. You can help by donating online (or snail mail works too (here’s the address for CISA: One Sugarloaf Street
South Deerfield, MA 01373). The idea, according to Executive Director Phil Korman, is to “keep the embers alive until the economy—and thus the state budget—recovers somewhat and CISA can lobby to get the funds for the program reinstated.”

Part of appreciating the process of farming—of anything, really, that involves making community thrive—is how complicated and involved, and also simple, it really is. Here’s a great case in point: add water and good weather and some funds to help farmers and seniors come together and you’ve got a sustainable formula that does good, and more good. Even if you never want to pull a week, this is a way to enable an aspect of local farming to endure and that’s a process worth supporting.