Real Rural Development: Local Food

Unlike most farmers and ranchers today, Scott Laeser and Chelsea Chandler can see all their livestock and nearly every acre of their farm from their kitchen’s windows.

It’s not an expansive view. The entire farm, nestled in southern Wisconsin’s Driftless region a few crooked miles west of Argyle, is a 77-acre quilt of wetlands, prairie, woods, several small barns, an aging stave silo, a hoop building, a flock of 22 laying hens, and one tough rooster named Walden that rules every square inch of it.

Like many young, beginning farmers, however, when Chelsea and Scott look past the clucking chickens, springtime mud, and peeling barn paint, they see a bright, satisfying future.

Today it’s a just-getting-started fruit and vegetable farm that also sells eggs. Soon, Scott explains, it will be a certified organic farm that “will be both financially and environmentally sustainable.”

And, 10 years from now, “We hope to realize our life goal of balancing our off-farm careers with the work we do on the farm.”

It won’t be easy. Last year, their second on the farm, they planted more than 100 varieties of 40 or so vegetables that were sold either through nearby farmers markets or their subscription-based CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, named Plowshares & Prairie. Most of their CSA clients live either in Madison, about an hour’s drive northeast, or near their home in Lafayette County.

It was a year, Chelsea relates, of “too few tomatoes, too many beets, and not enough hours to get everything done.” And “too many hungry rabbits,” says an unsmiling Scott.

“We learned a great deal,” he adds.

It’s a confession you don’t hear everyday from two farmers who both hold graduate degrees from Yale University.

This year is off to a good start, he says in an April 7 telephone interview. The first plantings—early peas, radishes, beets and a spring lettuce mixture—are already in the ground. Soon, the beds of a new 70-ft. by 30-ft. hoop building will be planted.

CSA memberships are on the rise, too. Last year’s total has already been surpassed and Scott hopes to add several more before the first weekly harvest in late May. “We were happily surprised at how many local families joined our CSA,” he relates. “The number of those who pick up their shares at the farm each week remains our biggest group.”

It’s not surprising; most Americans—be they either rural or urban—are but a generation or a couple of decades removed from the taste, quality and satisfaction of fresh, homegrown fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meat.

Moreover, if this mostly unprocessed, completely unadulterated produce is offered locally at a fair price, almost everyone will try it, many will buy it and more than a few will become devoted to it.

That devotion has blossomed into one of the fastest growing trends not only in American agriculture but also in America itself. According to the 2012 U.S. Ag Census, the latest numbers available, 12,617 CSAs operate across the nation. In 1990, that number was estimated to be just 60.

In Madison alone, a key market served by Scott and Chelsea, at least 35 CSAs offer everything from fresh bread, honey and chocolate to local fruits, vegetables and eggs, according to Julie Garrett, the community program manager of FairShare, a Madison-based coalition of CSAs that sell food to more than 9,000 customers in and around Wisconsin’s state capital.

Indeed, FairShare has been so effective in its advocacy of CSA farmers and the farmers have been so successful in delivering healthy food, that local health insurance providers offer substantial rebates and subsidies on health plan costs to clients who are members of FairShare-endorsed CSAs.

It’s a remarkable benefit—and one that can be adopted anywhere in the U.S.—to an ever-growing food movement already loaded with healthy, high-quality benefits and attracting bright, new rural developers like Scott Laeser and Chelsea Chandler.

© 2015 ag comm

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