Sunday, June 26, 2011

And Vegetables for All

Scrolling through the stats of this blog, I noticed that I was getting an unusual amount of traffic from Austin, Texas. Concerned that my Austin-based friend Erin had fallen asleep with her head resting on the "refresh" button, I followed the URLs back to their sources.

Turns out Erin was responsible for the bump in traffic, but not because she was reading my blog. She had graciously linked to me as an an example of how individuals can support small organic farmers, while also helping out families who cannot afford the fresh vegetables, fruit, eggs and meats from those sources, all from sitting in front of their computers hundreds of miles away.

There is a good story here.

A little over 5 years ago, Erin and her husband Skip embarked on an adventure to fulfill Skip's lifelong dream of being an organic farmer. This was no easy decision - both Erin and Skip had lucrative careers in a big city, an enviable house in an even more enviable neighborhood, two beautiful children who were poised to walk to the high-performing elementary school in their neighborhood. Life was good, and many people would have stopped there and just let it play out.

But something was missing for Erin and Skip. Ever since the two had known each other, Skip had cultivated a backyard garden, volunteered at local community gardens, took classes on organic gardening, raised chickens (yes, in the backyard), and just generally pined to do all that full time. The couple knew that if they didn't make the break and try to live their dream that they would be too old to make the change. So in a now-or-never, incredibly gutsy midlife move, they sold their house, packed up their stuff, and moved to Austin, TX, where Erin had family.

They found a small homestead to rent, with a centuries-old farm house built by the Swedish family who settled there and a few acres to farm. They started small, with vegetables and flowers, then expanded into more vegetables, heritage pigs, chickens that lay softly-hued eggs, sheep, goats, ducks, and more.  Faster than you can say Old McDonald, they had created a real, working farm that they called Green Gate Farms in honor of the green metal gate at its entrance. Last year, they purchased beautiful acreage on the Colorado River to expand their operation. Their delicious vegetables and humanely grown meats grace the menus of some of Austin's most highly regarded restaurants and their farm has become a destination for families who want their children to know where real food comes from.

But the heart of their operation - and of every organic farm's operation - is the community supported agriculture plan (CSA). Subscribers to the CSA get weekly or bi-weekly boxes of seasonal vegetables and flowers and can add on meats, eggs, and milk. Because the CSA is a subscription service, it provides a baseline of income for the farmers and allows them to plan their budgets for the seasons. The farm markets, special events, and restaurants are important for revenue, but only the CSA provides an idea of how much money the coming year will bring. It is as close to a salary as these farmers will come.

Erin with Callie, an orphaned goat.
The down side of a CSA subscription is that it can be pricey. After all, subscribers are committing to a generous weekly ration for an entire growing season. And that priceyness runs counter to one of the goals of the farm: to provide healthy foods to those who need it the most.

Green Gate Farms in located in an area that is not wealthy and where there are many working-class families. Further, Austin, like most American cities, has a significant rate of childhood obesity and chronic diseases, like diabetes, that could be prevented or helped by good nutrition. Erin and Skip wanted the public health aspect of good food to have a wide audience. So, in an effort to accommodate individuals with different incomes, they developed a "workshare" program, where people can work on the farm in order to get their vegetables. But for some people that is not enough. Erin has heard from many families in the area that they are too busy juggling multiple jobs and children to volunteer at the farm in order to get their shares. In response to that need, Erin and Skip instituted another program, one where anyone, anywhere can sponsor a CSA share for a family.

Thus began the Sponsored Share program. If you contact Green Gate Farms at this link, you can sign up to support a local family for the duration of the CSA season. The plan is beautiful because you are also supporting a small, family farm, the type that we desperately need to provide us with the healthiest seasonal produce imaginable, as well as humanely raised meats, free-range chickens and eggs (truly free range - those chickens have a lot of space to move around in), and milk products.

Some of the happy critters at Green Gate Farms
I like this program because Erin could tell me about the family that receives my donation (no names, just number and ages of the children, the mom's desire to get them the best food possible). I firmly believe that childhood nutrition is one key element to producing kids who are ready to learn and in preventing future diseases, so I was delighted to put my money where my mouth is and donate a share that will supply this family with excellent food.

Take a tour around Green Gate Farms' web site. Peruse the blog (bonus: both Erin and Skip have been professional writers for national publications and organizations. They make all that farm stuff sound really darn good). Importantly, they are committed to getting their healthy foods to some of the people who need it the most. I think it's a great model that is worthy of support no matter where you are.


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