Farmer Josie Erskine cut a seriously asymmetrical profile as she stood in her freshly plowed field, nine-months pregnant. Around her a small army of volunteers worked to get thousands of onion starts in the ground before the next spring storm rolled in. Some carried bright green flats of onions while others crawled along the ground on hands and knees, planting those delicate starts one by one. With a baby due and blustery spring weather giving her and husband Clay only a brief window to get crops planted, the owners of Peaceful Belly Farm asked for help and got it.
"It's always kind of surprising the response you get, how many people want to be part of where their food comes from," Erskine said with a smile as she took a brief break from her own planting. "A lot of the CSA members know how hard it is to grow vegetables. They appreciate it and want to help."
Community Supported Agriculture is often defined by the financial help it gives small-scale farmers. It's an arrangement in which CSA members pay in advance for a season's worth of food, thus giving the farmer access to money for seed, labor and equipment during the cash-lean planting season.
"It really makes it so we don't have to deal with financing from a bank," Erskine said. "It's really hard to get financing." And without a CSA program, she said, Peaceful Belly and many other small farms in the Treasure Valley would likely go out of business.
In exchange for providing farmers a stable financial foundation by purchasing a several-hundred-dollar up-front "share" in a CSA, members get a weekly and ever-changing assortment of fresh, local food through the growing season. Yet this group of dirt-caked, onion-planting volunteers gave the phrase "community supported agriculture" much deeper meaning than the mere exchange of cash for crops might suggest.
"When they sent out an email message to come out and help," five-year Peaceful Belly CSA member Ann Heringer said, "I was like, absolutely! Whatever I can do to ease their load as they prepare for a new baby."
Several helpers said a CSA membership has given them greater empathy for farmers and ranchers and a deeper understanding of what it actually takes to get crops to market. It also exposes them to new foods.
"You're constantly learning," planting volunteer Anna Almerico said of the varieties of produce that end up in a CSA member's basket each week. "You always get a new product that you may not have picked up on the shelf at a grocery. I've learned a ton about the different berries and herbs and things."
To help with the ins and outs of unfamiliar food, many CSAs provide newsletters, cooking tips and classes that can further expand a participant's knowledge of the chervil, currants and turnip greens that show up in their CSA baskets.
Mary Rohlfing of Morning Owl Farm in Boise said her CSA members often tell her they're not only gaining food knowledge but also becoming active participants in the food system.
"What I love about CSAs is exactly that; it's not just that your foisting some unusual vegetable on people that they then have to go to their cookbooks and figure out how to use. They become part of the food system. They become a vital part of it because they're helping recreate it by their very participation," Rohlfing said.
Back at Peaceful Belly Farm, volunteers finished planting more than 8,000 onion starts in long, reasonably straight rows and cleaned up to head home. Ann Heringer, who loves the camaraderie and education that comes with being a CSA member, said there's one more, down-to-earth reason to join.
"I think it's a bargain," she said. "If you add up the amount of food you get throughout the summer vs. buying that same food at a store, I think the value is incredible. That's the primary reason I subscribe."