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Wednesday, October 14,2009

Living soil

CSA promotes stewardship of planet, body

by Joe Torok

While freighters filled with pyramids of wheat cross oceans, and semi trucks full of supermarket fare barrel down highways, the members of Thornapple CSA, a local organic farming collective, are striving to reduce our dependence on long-distance food.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an alternative to carbon-intensive food distribution, and Diane Thompson, coordinator of the core group of Thornapple’s 25 shareholders, says local cultivation and organic farming practices are vital now more than ever. But it hasn’t been easy.


"It's been a huge learning curve to start a CSA from day one," Thompson said.


Hiring a farmer, finding shareholders, spreading the word and coexisting with territorial market vendors all presented the group with challenges.


Last Sunday, shareholders and community members came together at the Apple Schram Orchard, on Mount Hope Highway, about 15 miles west of Lansing, where Thornapple CSA does its farming on an acre of land. The fundraiser included a tour of the farm facilities, including an enormous hoop house that stretches the growing season, and land where an array of crops are grown.


Melons, peppers, squashes, herbs, okra, peas, broccoli, carrots, fennel, tomatoes, beans, corn and more are grown, harvested, seasoned and prepared for market on three small plots and in the hoop house. Outside, Brussels sprouts and parsnips are still growing strong, even after a recent hard frost. Jen Kline, Thornapple's farmer, said the frost actually makes these vegetables sweeter. She led groups around the fields, gleaning samples of crops and giving them to curious visitors.


Inside the balmy hoop house, which was remarkably warmer on a day that struggled to rise above 40 degrees, chili peppers hung in bunches and ripened to a brilliant red. Squash varieties lay in rows, curing before their probable destiny on a Thanksgiving table. Freshly tilled rows of fertile Earth are neatly combed, covering spinach seeds, which will begin to grow, go dormant through the bitter days of winter and sprout in early spring.


Michael Kelleher, a senior studying agribusiness management at Michigan State University, interned at the farm over the summer, working 40 hours a week. His duties included weeding fields, planting seeds, hanging tomato plants and turning compost.


"An organic farm is organic because of the soil," Kelleher said. "It's all about the soil." With organic farming, a multitude of microorganisms live in and fertilize the soil underneath the growing crops. Conventional farming relies much more on synthetic chemicals and fertilizers to feed crops, whereas organic farming relies on billions of microscopic critters to keep food strong, healthy and tasting naturally delicious. Living soil is the key.


For $650, shareholders receive a stipend of harvested food each week through the growing season (May through October), and Thornapple also sets up shop during the summer months at the Allen Street Farmers Market in Lansing to sell its bounty. While the reception from the community has been largely positive, there has been some friction.


"We have, at times, felt very unwelcome at the Allen Street Market," Thompson said, noting, however, that market manager Hollie Hamel has been supportive. "There's a perception that we are taking away customers from other vendors."


While other market locations are a possibility in the future, Thompson said the focus of the shareholders is to continue to grow, become profitable and perhaps hire two farmers for next year's growing season. While so-called sweat equity (sharing in the physical labor of farming) is required of Thornapple members if they are physically able, Thompson said that policy, as well as a few others, will continue to be reviewed as the collective finds its feet.


But what they are able to do right now, Thompson said, is contribute economically to the community by offering job and internship opportunities, reduce our reliance on Earth-damaging farming practices and provide area residents with a healthy, greener alternative to the supermarket aisle. "I really believe that we're functioning on a mini-level," Thompson said. “One level is the stewardship of the land. And on another level, we're helping people eat better — what we call the stewardship of the body."

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