Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
WALNUT, Kan. (AP) — Twenty years ago, Darren Swartz dressed in a suit and tie each day as a sales representative for a Kansas City-based pharmaceutical company. He grew hot peppers in pots on his urban patio.
Today, he dresses in muck boots and jeans to head to work just outside his front door on part of 240 acres near the town of Walnut, Kansas.
Swartz is growing produce for 41 families throughout Southeast Kansas — families who want the organically and sustainably grown food typical of a farmers market delivered to them on a weekly basis.
And they're willing to take a small financial risk to get it: They are members of his newly formed CSA, or community support agriculture.
"I like the notion of 'shared risk' that makes CSAs work: we take a gamble on the crop, and help the farmer by paying in early so he can get seeds in the ground and get growing," said Casie Hermansson, a Pittsburg resident who purchased a full share this season to feed a family of four.
And Swartz loves the lifestyle it affords him: He can work outside, listen to the quail and spot wild turkeys, and have as co-workers his dog, Ella, and his 4-year-old son, Landon.
Swartz began with 15 members last summer, had success, and opened it to twice as many this season, The Joplin Globe reported (http://bit.ly/1zXx2pO ).
Members purchase a share at the beginning of the growing season, usually in February, as farmers are preparing to purchase seeds and other supplies. Some pay in several installments.
In return for their investment, they receive a weekly supply of local, fresh, naturally grown produce — and sometimes other perks — throughout the harvest season. Swartz delivers his to downtown Pittsburg each Wednesday at noon and awaits member pickup.
"We're always excited to visit Darren's truck each week and see what he has for us. The food is fresh, and we'll see nearly half a year's worth of variety on the produce," Hermansson said.
For the past two weeks, it's been primarily greens, but in great variety: kale, arugula, mixed salad greens and spinach. As the season wears on, his members can expect tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, several varieties of potatoes and peppers. Something they won't receive this year: broccoli, which didn't do well because of inclement weather at the wrong time.
"That's part of the gamble," he said. "But our members seem to be very understanding."
Swartz, also a beekeeper, offers his members jars of honey and chicken eggs, and next week his wife's bread will be included. He keeps in touch with members weekly via email and a Facebook page to let them know what to expect so they can plan meals accordingly. He will begin offering recipes soon.
Karen Scott and her husband, Doug, who own 63-acre OakWoods Farm north of Granby, Missouri, in Newton County, have a CSA of 20 members; when they began last year, they had eight.
They grow organic food on an acre of land, which includes two high tunnels, using sustainable farming methods. Their members receive produce from May 5 through Oct. 27, and can choose a share size, from a half share at $390 — or $15 per week — to a full share at $676 — or $26 per week.
"In a full share, we provide seven to 10 different vegetables each week, and that will feed a family of four," she said. "For those who wouldn't want as much, we offer a half-share, which would be four to five kinds of vegetables."
"It was a scary thing to do at first," Scott said. "We did it really at the encouragement of our regular customers from the market or friends who knew what we did."
Interest was high, so they opened it to more members and bumped up production. Scott said she feels strongly that people in the area be provided locally grown, healthy food, but she also enjoys it for the lifestyle it affords her family.
"We are getting to live the way we love to live: We love plants and animals, and healthy, farm-raised food, and this enables us to do all of that," she said.
Her older son, Stephen Bramwell, came to stay at the farm last year from his home in Oregon, for a three-year apprenticeship. When he's done, he will be prepared to set up a CSA of his own.
"I think the more people become educated about what's in their food that doesn't need to be in their food, and the importance of eating it grown this way, you're going to see more of these started," Scott said.
"The whole buy-local, local-food-tasting-better, more-nutritious, help-support-local-farmers thing — that's catching on," she said. "The middle person disappears. And it builds community."
Greg Baker, of Baker Berry Farms north of Oronogo, Missouri, in Jasper County, began providing produce to a CSA for Freeman Health System employees in the fall of 2013.
Last week marked the start of his season of weekly delivery to 16 members, who subscribe through Schenker Family Farms in McCune, Kansas.
"The way ours work is somewhat unique, in that Schenker Family Farms provides the meat," Baker said. "People pay them, they organize it, they're in charge. I grow the produce, and I get paid for that."
Baker also sells produce throughout the season, but those sales vary quite a bit from week to week.
"A CSA works good for me, because it means having a consistent sale I can count on," he said.
Data collected in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that the concept, which began in 1986 with two farms in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, now exists on 12,617 farms in the U.S. Many have taken root here in the Midwest: 144 in Kansas, 291 in Missouri, 164 in Oklahoma and 115 in Arkansas, according to the report.
Information from: The Joplin (Mo.) Globe, http://www.joplinglobe.com