My friends who went to culinary school used to justify their decision with a singular platitude: “Everyone has to eat food.” Such a statement seemed so obvious that it fell deaf on my ears. Then I pulled my own food out of the ground for the first time, and from that moment on I understood the implications of their defense.
My appreciation of food before working on the Furman farm was superficial at best. Youtube taught me how to prepare a three course meal; I had taken a course in rudimentary health science with a rigorous nutrition component; my step dad was a bodybuilder back in the eighties, his daily diet indirectly teaching me that greens and lean meat corresponded with chiseled godliness (and that everything else corresponded with premature heart disease). Essentially, food was the stuff that either kept you alive longer if you ate it properly. This was the attitude I more or less adopted during my days as a cashier at an upper tier grocery store. Each shift I would feign enthusiasm as I aimlessly scanned the customer’s assorted items. Our minute or so together would be dominated by small talk and questions (you’d think it was scripted), after which they would leave and I would repeat the process with the next customer. Rinse and repeat with about 1000 more customers and hallelujah your shift is over. It’s a simple fact of life: You can’t grow sincerity in banality.
Fast forward to my third day on the Farm. My manager told me that someone was coming to pick up an order of produce, and that my task for the day was to prepare and present it to them. For the next hour and a half I proceeded to harvest a kaleidoscope of vegetables—everything from spinach to rosemary, broccoli crowns to beats—which I then washed and packaged with my own two hands. All of my prior encounters with food did not last long enough for me to form a relationship with it (customer transactions at the grocery store lasted in intervals of minutes; my mother always told me I ate too fast to enjoy my meals). Within the process of pulling an onion out of the ground and peeling back the layers until it looks aesthetically presentable, a symbiotic relationship manifests: The food that you’ve grown and harvested becomes an extension of you.
But the highlight of preparing the order was not the sweat of my brow, or the occasional kale leaf I’ll admit to sampling—no, it was when my first customer pulled into our driveway. The expression on her face when she saw her crop was alien to anything I experienced in retail. Her excitement made me realize that “organic food” was not just a business model for Whole Foods, but a breath of fresh air to those who have grown accustomed to mediocrity. Over the course of a (meaningful) conversation she alluded to her status as a Furman alum, and that she bought produce from us as a way of perpetuating a sense of community. That’s when it hit me: We weren’t within the clutches of bureaucracy, buying produce because our empty fridges necessitated a trip we all loathed to make in the zenith of rush hour traffic. She was in the back yard of her Alma Mater. She could see where her food came from, she was talking to the man who washed and packaged it for her.
This sort of transaction is common amongst farms now-a-days. They’re called CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). The idea is as follows: You invest money into a local farm, thus becoming a shareholder of said farm. As a shareholder part of that farm belongs to you, so most CSA members come by the farm they’ve invested in once a week to pick up a box of food. The transaction detailed in the above paragraph was a CSA, but a Furman farm CSA is a tad idiosyncratic: Our farm is not funded by shareholders, but by grant money and donations. Because of this, our success is not entirely contingent upon our CSA’s, allowing us to have competitive prices. The cheapest CSA in the Traveler’s Rest comes to about 145 dollars a month—Furman’s CSA only comes to 80. With each payment spanning four weeks, that’s 20 dollars per box (the contents of which are worth much more). Of course we aren’t losing any money—seed is cheap, after all. But our produce is top-notch, and we could easily charge more and make a killing.
The kicker is, our CSA is criminally inexpensive for a reason.
Cheaper prices make our produce more accessible. The more accessible or CSAs are, the more people are capable of becoming a part of the Furman Farm. More people equals a larger, more prosperous community. Rather than squander its potential on profit, the Furman farm has optimized itself as the epicenter of a prosperous community. It’s refreshing to see a business—for once—choose community over bureaucracy.
Featured Image: http://blogs.furman.edu/wellness/2014/06/10/upstate-sc-farm-tour-connecting-consumers-with-farmers/