Fresh from the Field: Community Supported Agriculture brings together local farmers and consumers

For the past five or six years, from May through September, Elizabeth Edwards has made weekly trips to the Edwardsville, Ill., farm operated by Keith Biver and Brett Palmier.

She’s never sure what she’ll come home with.

Edwards is one of approximately 100 subscribers of Biver Farms’ Community Supported Agriculture program. Members of a CSA purchase shares of a harvest, paying upfront to provide farmers with money to buy seeds and other supplies. Throughout the growing season, members come to the farm to pick up their shares of the harvest or have them delivered.

The CSA movement – imported from Europe – started in the United States in the mid-1980s with two farms on the East Coast and has since spread across the country. CSAs help share the risk of farming between the community and farmers, particularly for those like Biver Farms that use higher-risk organic methods.

“When you get a subscription it’s kind of a grab bag,” Edwards said. “It’s like, ‘Whoa, we’d better figure out what to do with this.’” Biver and Palmier will often include recipes for challenging vegetables like fennel, kale and Jerusalem artichokes along with the weekly shares. Edwards learned to poach fresh fennel in chicken stock with cream and Asiago cheese after she discovered the bulbous, feathery herb in her bag one week. “It’s really good with pork,” Edwards said.

She had never cooked with kale before it arrived in her home via her Biver Farms subscription but found a recipe for Portuguese green soup using lots of the ruffled green that is now a family favorite. “It’s been fun to learn how to prepare these things,” she said. “You become more inventive, at least a little more willing to experiment. It kind of expands your culinary scope.”

Nicole Klein’s culinary scope has expanded, too. But being a member of the Biver Farm CSA has another, more intangible benefit, Klein said: “It’s more of a community this way. The kids get to see how the food is grown and who grows it.”

Klein and her husband, one of the three original families in the CSA, are also members of the Biver Farms softball team. And the couple and their two young sons have come to the farm to help out from time to time, once digging potatoes. Upon arrival, the boys, Ian, 5, and Daniel, 9, tend to take off for their favorite part of the farm, the giant mulch pile behind the greenhouses.

This time of year Biver and Palmier are busy transferring seedling peppers, eggplants and tomatoes from the cozy confines of two greenhouses packed with plants into the rich soil nearby. They grow “a couple hundred” varieties of about 40 different crops on 10 acres.

The growing season started for the pair back in January when they planted the first seeds. Within a few weeks, they will begin harvesting and packaging baby lettuces, radishes, turnips, Asian cabbage, asparagus, strawberries, kale, baby beets, fennel, arugula, snow peas and herbs like chives, parsley and cilantro.

Edwards and Klein are among the half of Biver Farms’ customers who come out to the farm to pick up their shares, while the other half pick them up from one of four St. Louis-area drop-off locations.

Statistics are difficult to come by, but a 1999 survey led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison estimated the number of CSA farms in the United States at about 1,000. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture currently lists 17 CSA farms in Missouri, that figure is likely misleading, as several of the farms are no longer active CSAs.

While interest in fresh, locally grown produce has been growing, and CSAs in other parts of the state have thrived, those in the St. Louis area have come and gone with discouraging regularity. Lee and Ingrid Abraham operated a CSA with 125 subscribers at their Berger Bluffs Farm in Berger for nearly 10 years, until 1999. “We were burnt out on having to grow every crop that we possibly could,” said Ingrid Abraham. “Just the pressure of it; you have everybody’s money and you have to come up with everybody’s produce every week.”

Because the farm is still listed on several Web sites, Abraham said she gets six or seven e-mails a week from people interested in joining a CSA. “It’s not that there isn’t a market for them, because there definitely is,” she said.

Since they ended their CSA, the Abrahams have sold their produce at the Clayton Farmers’ Market and recently attended a meeting to learn more about a new market being planned for the Central West End. Many of their customers at the Clayton market are former CSA members who say they miss being forced to try new things. “They say they don’t eat as well,” Abraham said. “They say things to us like, ‘When we got your bag we would try these things and we would eat it because we paid for it and you delivered it.’”

Friends since they were 4 years old, Palmier, 31, is gregarious, while Biver, 32, is quiet, content to let Palmier give a visitor the tour and explain the CSA, only chiming in with occasional details. The pair began farming several acres of Biver’s father’s property in 1996 after Biver had earned an ecology, environment and evolution degree from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, where Palmier studied geography.

Palmer said they decided to try their hands at farming when they realized “everything we were studying involved sitting in front of a computer,” and just couldn’t picture themselves spending their days in an office. The CSA started with three families. “We had a couple local people who came to us and asked us if we would be interested in starting something,” Palmer said.

In the beginning, both worked other jobs: Biver as a carpenter and Palmier at Wild Oats Natural Marketplace in Ladue. They began selling produce at the Land of Goshen Community Market in Edwardsville in 1998. Then, Wild Oats asked them if they would be willing to grow the organic wheatgrass used in smoothies.

“We had no idea what it was,” Palmier said. It took two or three years before they learned to deal with the challenges of growing organic wheatgrass commercially. In addition to Wild Oats, they now supply wheatgrass for Planet Smoothie, Smoothie King and several others. Until recently, their 700 square feet of wheatgrass generated more revenue than five or six acres of produce, Palmier said.

The farm is now both men’s full-time job with revenue from the CSA, wheat grass and sales of potted herbs. In addition, they supply five or six St. Louis-area restaurants with fresh organic produce including Annie Gunn’s, Atlas Restaurant, Cardwell’s at the Plaza, Harvest and Portabella.

“Every year we hit a point where we decide it’s going to be the last year,” Palmier said. “And then things smooth out.” The job requires supportive spouses, eternal optimism and a flexible view of success. “I don’t know a grower who doesn’t work 60 hours a week and makes more than $25,000 a year,” Palmier said. “Success is a pretty relative term.”

For more information on Biver Farms CSA, call 618.656.9082.