Feeding Bodies, Feeding the Soul

FairShare CSA Coalition executive director Kiera Mulvey charts her journey from snack crackers to sustainable agriculture, all while finding ways to connect people with food and the folks who grow it.

I vividly remember cocktail hour at Granny Muriel’s house; while the adults entertained themselves with boozy Manhattans and Tab sodas, I gorged myself on Triscuits piled high with unreasonable quantities of cheese product. My mouth still waters when I think of those little wine-cheese balls encrusted with slivered almonds.

This food obsession persists to this day (I highly recommend the Dreamfarm spreadable goat cheese in all its delectable flavors), but, like a fine cheese, it has matured and aged as I have.

Despite my entrepreneurial efforts to sell green beans from our backyard garden to our soft-hearted neighbors in rural Connecticut, ending up a farmer and a food activist would probably have been a shocker to my 5-year-old self.

Many years later, a waterlogged summer job picking strawberries in low tunnels and thinning apples in soggy fields at Fiveways Fruit Farm in Colchester, England, was my first foray into the wild world of food production. It was an appropriate introduction—a rude awakening to the reality of repetitive motion and pick in any weather fast-as-you-can urgency (we were, after all, paid by the piece!), and a gradual understanding of the many hands and hours that go into food production.

In the midst of this summer of crawling and slogging, it was a quick jaunt across the Irish Sea to a Community Supported Agriculture Farm in Kilkenny County, Ireland, that really dug in deep and left an impression that I didn’t truly recognize for many, many years. This was the first I had heard of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), though it was alive and well in the United States, with the first CSA farms starting in the mid-’80s on the East Coast and quickly being adopted by some forward-thinking West-Coasters. We midlanders didn’t get on the train until the early ’90s, but farmers in Madison and the Upper Midwest have since established ourselves as pioneers and have spurred incredible growth and popularity in the CSA movement.

Without even knowing the term CSA and with only a few weeks on the farm in Ireland, I connected back then with the core tenets of CSA that we hold so close in our own local movement: community, cooperation, and top-quality food. In the moment, those lofty ideals and the beautiful big picture may have been overshadowed by the ten hours weeding parsnips, but as with all good lifecycles, it came ‘round again down the road.

As anyone who has successfully tended a wispy, wimpy seedling through to the realization of a juicy, real tomato eaten warm and ripe off the vine can tell you, growing food can provide a deep satisfaction. As that same person can also likely attest, for every plump, beautiful tomato achievement there are exponentially more sweaty curses uttered and countless sacrifices to the pests and diseases of the garden or farm. The hard-earned satisfaction and razor-sharp learning curve of growing food were never so apparent to me as when I truly first cut my teeth in growing food and community in Providence, Rhode Island, at the Southside Community Land Trust.

Without even meaning to, this small urban agriculture organization helped one misguided teacher (yes, for a brief stint post-college I dabbled in the classroom, but it didn’t hold my attention for too long) pull the many strings of interest together and weave a solid fabric of passion and purpose. Sure, I liked to garden and had made a few bucks selling green beans to my neighbors on Cat Swamp Road, and I had paid for college expenses with a summer of wet picking, but in Providence, the amazing diversity of plants and people and knowledge and innovation sprung to life.

Every step into a community garden introduced a new vegetable or flower, every summer a new skill or friend. And in the heart of all this personal awakening arose a parallel awareness of the deep inequalities in access to good food, soil toxicity’s impact on an urban resident’s ability to grow their own food, and our wider societal disconnect from where our food comes from.

I distinctly remember, one early fall day, touring our ¾-acre “City Farm” in the heart of South Providence with my youth garden club from Bailey Elementary. They tasted mint grown in bathtubs and fed fat grubs to the sassy chickens under the silver maple while taking in the sights and the sounds (sirens, car alarms, thumping bass) of this urban oasis.

After the farm tour, we whipped up a fresh snack using farm products and questionably useful plastic knives on folding tables. Though skeptical to taste at first (“That looks naasssty”, and “Ew, dude, you gonna eat that?”), one intrepid soul bit into his first sweet potato fry. Once the seal was broken, there were a lot more adventurous eaters in the group and the meal finished off with the oh-so-glowing review, “Dang, that’s almost as good as Burger King.” Okay, change is incremental; adventurous eaters are born one fresh French fry at a time.

I certainly learned much more than I taught in the gardens, farms, and classrooms of Providence, exchanging recipes, digging for potatoes with kindergarteners (treasure hunt!), and meticulously planning to produce copious amounts of food in intensely limited spaces. Most profound was the transformative ability of growing, preparing, eating, and exchanging food to bring together people from intensely diverse backgrounds. Hmong refugees, first-generation immigrants, old-school Rhode Island Italians, and more came together in the community and school gardens and at our tiny urban farm in New England.

But alas, all good things and wide-eyed, youthful awakenings must come to an end. Life swept me from gritty Providence to the breadbasket of the Midwest. It wasn’t simply a blustery wind that blew me here, but more of a sweet puppy love with an ambitious farmer-turned-grad student with her eye toward a PhD at UW-Madison via research in China…but that’s a different kind of love story for another day.

Frankly, I didn’t know how good I had it. As we settled into our new home, I came to grasp the amazing network of farmers and food that supports and is supported by this community. The scope and scale of agriculture floored me: it’s really possible here. This is a place where the region’s farmers CAN feed us with fresh food from our local farms and do it well, as watchful stewards of the land and water.

Blue Moon Community Farm was my first farm home in Wisconsin. I spent my first summer as a full-time farm hand biking out to the farm and getting to know the soils and seasons of this intense new region. Summers are manic, soils are rich, and produce is plentiful and beautiful. I’ve stayed on at Blue Moon over the years and relish the opportunity to put my hands where my heart and head are as a farmer in the field, prepping for market and harvesting for our weekly member pick-up.

Eventually I found my way to a long-established organization, known at the time as Madison Area CSA Coalition (MACSAC), a place I’ve called home for the past five years. MACSAC is now FairShare CSA Coalition, but its mission is still focused firmly where it has been for over 21 years: in the support and connection of CSA growers and eaters; in the belief that good food is a basic human right; and in the knowledge that we, as a community, can create lasting social, health, and economic change through individual and collective action around food.

FairShare is a coalition of 49 CSA farms that serve 25,000 individuals the majority of their food throughout the growing season via harvests and deliveries of seasonal products fresh from the farm. Each farm is unique, each member an integral part of their farm’s vitality, each farm community a living organism that weathers the challenges and the bounty of each season together.

I recently returned from an international CSA conference attended by farmers and organizers from six continents and 12 countries. The energy was inspiring, the enthusiasm was palpable, and the similarities of intention and action far outweighed our differences. In this group of international leaders, the terminology of solidarity economies and food sovereignty dominated the lexicon. While these terms are rarely used in our U.S. movements, the spirit of interdependence and our ability to change the way we are as a local, regional, national, and international community by changing the way we shop, eat, and think about food is very much alive and well in Wisconsin.

Nearly 1 in every 200 families in Wisconsin is a member of a FairShare Farm; that’s a lot of families making a commitment to their local farms and a lot of farmers being supported by their communities. Wisconsin’s CSA movement is a national inspiration; a true backbone of a thriving local foods movement that includes bustling farmers markets, a burgeoning farm-to-school movement, and an impressive commitment by restaurants sourcing locally.

I’m proud to farm and work on behalf of farmers in Wisconsin. Real change is at our fingertips by making informed and delicious food choices, committing to a farm through a CSA membership, shopping at our local farmers markets, and voting with our forks. We each have the potential to put our money and our passion where our mouth is every day at least three times—four if you count that Dreamfarm goat cheese freshly made in Cross Plains, Wisconsin.

For more information about Community Supported in Wisconsin or to find YOUR farm for the 2013 season, check out FairShare’s website,www.csacoalition.org.

The annual CSA Open House will be on March 10 at Monona Terrace. It’s a free event that’s open to the public, and folks can meet farmers, sign up for shares, and attend sessions to learn more about CSA.