A merry dance of Catholic social doctrine, permaculture, distributism, and other odd answers to pressing questions

Vol. I, No. 3

Local Food Is Easier Than You Think: Farmers' Markets and CSAs

2008 Jan 12, 12:00 Sat tags:


From the Editor

  • Feature Article: Local food is easier than you think
  • Distributist News
  • Action: Subscribe for a season with a local CSA farm
  • Resources: It's easy to find a CSA farm near you
  • Selection: John XXIII on family farms, co-ops, surpluses
  • Bonus Selection: Chesterton on milk
  • Backmatter


It's 2008, and what better way to begin our adventures in justice than with something we do pretty much every day: eat. Buying local food just makes sense; it's fresher, it's healthier, you support independent farms, and if you do it right, it's even cheaper than the supermarkets. My feature article explains more, and under RESOURCES you'll find web sites that'll help you find independent farms near you, right now.

In our selections, Pope John XXIII goes on the record for the need for independent family farms, and Chesterton has a bit to say about milk.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think.

Bill Powell, Editor

The small and average sized undertakings in agriculture, in the arts and crafts, in commerce and industry, should be safeguarded and fostered. Moreover, they should join together in co-operative associations to gain for themselves the benefits and advantages that usually can be gained only from large organizations.

Quoted by John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 84. (1961)


Local Food Is Easier Than You Think:

Farmers' Markets and CSAs

by Bill Powell

Imagine getting a full bin of fresh fruits and vegetables every week, all summer long.

The freshest possible carrots, of course, are yanked from your own garden. I do think everyone who can move ought to have a garden, but that's not the same as gardening all your own produce. We don't all have the land, skills, or desire for that little project. (Yet.) So how can we get fresh produce if we don't grow our own?

Supermarket fare: Old and cheap--if you don't pay taxes

The stuff in the supermarket is labeled "fresh", but the withered ingredients of the average American salad have traveled a total of 1500 to 2500 miles from the ground to your plate.[1] It may be legal to define freshness relative to the Pyramids, but that doesn't make the stuff ideal for human ingestion.

We buy it because it's cheap. In a future article, I'll delve into one of our culture's unsung achievements: you can easily pay less at the checkout for a carrot shipped halfway the world than for one grown a few miles down the road.

But is this bargain for real? The key phrase is at the checkout. For one thing, the government annually pays out billions of tax dollars to agriculture, "helping to make Twinkies cheaper than carrots and Coca-Cola competitive with water".[2] We pay a huge chunk of our food bills on April 15th. Lactose intolerant? You still merrily chip in your tax dollars to the milk subsidies. Every year.

Because independent farmers often don't have access to these tax dollars (or lower rates of financing, or armies of underpaid immigrant labor, or labyrinthine schemes of tax avoidance and evasion), a price tag in a farmers' market may well reflect what it actually costs to grow that tomato. In an actual "free market," without subsidies, a three-dollar pound of supermarket tomatoes might have a price tag closer to nine.[3]

Meaning, you've already paid twice the shelf price for your tomatoes before you even get to the store.

I look forward to future "Nutrition Facts" panels on supermarket foods being accompanied by "Cost Facts". That would be fun. But reclaiming your stolen tax money for food you don't think is worth eating is a whole other adventure. Right now we're trying to get fresh, local produce at a price we can afford without having to work full-time in our own gardens.

Farmers' Markets: Fresh, local, and maybe even cheap

Most cities and many towns these days have a local farmers' market throughout the growing season. These can be a great place to get fresh, local produce (as well as raw honey, excellent quilts, and embarrassing knick-knacks).

Where I live, it's the dead of winter, so it's been awhile since I hit a market day. I was going to write that farmers' markets can seem pricey; it's easy to spend far more on a green pepper than a lifetime supermarket shopper dreamed possible. But my wife says I'm remembering wrong, and that even organic produce at a farmer's market can be comparable to or cheaper than prices in a supermarket. She would know better than I, and anyhow, even if the farmer's market seems expensive, once you mentally adjust the supermarket prices up for subsidies and other social thievery, the farmers' prices look quite decent, even amazing.

And when you start researching what it does to your body to continually ingest agricultural poisons, as well as all the nutrition that's lost on your food's thousand-mile treks, you may decide you're avoiding so many future hospital stays that the "expensive" local food literally saves you money. (Not to mention getting sick.)

Community Supported Agriculture: A share in the farm

But there's even another option, one so recent you might not have heard of it: the CSA. CSA stands for "Community Supported Agriculture," and it's a way to buy food directly from the farm, without even an intervening stall. The basic idea is that you buy a "share" for a whole growing season's worth of produce, in advance.

So you're shelling out a few hundred dollars in, say, March. That's the icky part.

Sometimes, the "share" is more like a subscription; you're guaranteed a particular program of produce for each week. In this scenario, you know exactly what you're getting. The risks of the harvest are still borne by the farmer.

But the more interesting model is when your "share" is just that, a share in the farm. If there's a drought, you don't get so much. If there's a bumper crop, you share in the extra wealth, without paying an extra penny.

Either way, you support farmers when they need it; before the growing season. In return, farmers can support you; the reduced overhead in marketing and transportation is a savings they generally pass back your way. If you divide your share cost by a season's worth of produce, your CSA produce can be even cheaper than a farmers' market.

If you want fresh, local produce throughout the growing season, at a reasonable price, a CSA may be your best bet. Every week, you drop by a pickup point, or even the farm itself, and get your share in that week's harvest. Food buying doesn't get much more direct.

Even better, you can talk with the people who grow what you put into your body, and see where they do it. Forget the faceless thousand-mile salad. As you'll find on the web sites in our RESOURCES below, local food is much closer than you think. You'll probably find more than produce, too--local eggs, poultry, meat, and even milk are getting more and more available. It's an exciting time.

Eating can be such a persistent habit. Let's do it right.

Bill Powell
January 12, 2008


[1] Food mileage given by the WorldWatch Institute:

[2] Twinkies artificially cheaper than carrots:
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/04/opinion/04pollan.html This article also discusses our newest Farm Bill, which as of this writing isn't quite passed, but is hovering at 286 billion dollars in subsidies over the next five years. (I am sorry about all the ads on this site. I suggest using a text-only browser, or else opening your browser settings and turning off images for a bit.)

[3] This Canadian author estimates that a $3 pound of tomatoes (Canadian dollars, I presume) might actually cost $9:


BENEDICT XVI: Globalization as _opposite_ of world order.

Benedict XVI's recent Epiphany homily ended with a surprising twist.

"Indeed, it cannot be said that 'globalization' is synonymous with 'world order'--it is quite the opposite.... It is already obvious that only by adopting a sober lifestyle, accompanied by a serious effort for a fair distribution of riches, will it be possible to establish an order of just and sustainable development."

Homily: http://pennyjustice.com/links/ben-xvi_20080106
[This short link will redirect you to the full homily.]


"From this new estimate, it appears that pharmaceutical companies spend almost twice as much on promotion as they do on R&D [research and development]. These numbers clearly show how promotion predominates over R&D in the pharmaceutical industry, contrary to the industry's claim." [emphasis added]

Article: http://pennyjustice.com/links/cost-pushing-drugs
[This short link will redirect you to the full article.]


With all this talk about small farms, I'd better mention the latest attempt to squash them: NAIS, the National Animal Identification System. It's exactly what it sounds like.

Two short introductions to NAIS:

Supposedly, the program is "voluntary". So why is North Carolina, currently in a drought, refusing to let farmers buy emergency hay unless they register with NAIS?

Article: http://pennyjustice.com/links/nc-nais-hay
[This short link will redirect you to the full article.]

Incidentally, if you don't like the idea of the government knowing whenever your chicken hatches an egg, you might be unhappy to hear that you're already tagged yourself, if you carry around certain credit cards--or passports.
Article: http://www.difrwear.com/insecure.shtml

How easy is it to steal information from your RFID chip? Well, an attacker has to...walk past you.
Article: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.05/rfid.html [More annoying ads! Sorry!]

Anyhow, if you want to help stop NAIS, and keep all these independent farmers growing great local food:

ACTION: Subscribe for a season with a local CSA farm.

Although it's only January, many farms are already taking orders for the coming growing season. You definitely don't want to wait until spring, as many farms can only offer a limited number of shares. With the web sites in the RESOURCES section below, you can find a nearby CSA farm with ease.

While you're looking, keep an eye out for places to order chickens or buy pieces of a cow. Local meat can be an amazing bargain, as well as an actual act of kindness (both to the animals and yourself!) but you often need to pre-order months in advance, so the farmer knows how many animals to raise.

RESOURCES: It's easy to find a CSA farm near you.

If you live in the U.S.A., here's your first stop.
LocalHarvest has tons of listings and several search options. It also looks like they sell stuff, but they don't make you buy anything or even give your email address. The database includes all kinds of farms, not only those with a CSA program, but you can easily limit your search.

If you prefer a completely non-commercial site, here's another database. It seems to have fewer listings, but some of these might not be on LocalHarvest. There's also a (short) listing of CSAs outside the U.S.A., but I'm sure you can find a better database elsewhere for your own particular country.

You can also try this directory of food directories. Again, not all farms listed will necessarily offer a CSA.

Finally, I found this interesting collection of links and resources on a government web site. This includes more farm databases, as well as piles of PDFs that may or may not be helpful.

Happy hunting!


John XXIII: We need family farms and co-ops.

142. We are bound above all to consider as an ideal the kind of farm which is owned and managed by the family. Every effort must be made in the prevailing circumstances to give effective encouragement to farming enterprises of this nature.

143. But if the family farm is not to go bankrupt it must make enough money to keep the family in reasonable comfort. To ensure this, farmers must be given up-to-date instruction on the latest methods of cultivation, and the assistance of experts must be put at their disposal. They should also form a flourishing system of cooperative undertakings, and organize themselves professionally to take an effective part in public life, both on the administrative and the political level.

148. We therefore desire here to express Our satisfaction with those sons of Ours the world over who are actively engaged in co-operatives, in professional groups and in worker movements intent on raising the economic and social standards of the agricultural community.

158. Mindful of Our position as the father of all peoples, We feel constrained to repeat here what We said on another occasion: "We are all equally responsible for the undernourished peoples. [Hence], it is necessary to educate one's conscience to the sense of responsibility which weighs upon each and every one, especially upon those who are more blessed with this world's goods."

161. Justice and humanity demand that those countries which produce consumer goods, especially farm products, in excess of their own needs should come to the assistance of those other countries where large sections of the population are suffering from want and hunger. It is nothing less than an outrage to justice and humanity to destroy or to squander goods that other people need for their very lives.

-- John XXIII, Mater et Magistra. (1961)

Copyright - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Footnotes removed for the purposes of sanity. :)

Full document:
[This short link will redirect you to the full encyclical.]

[Note: Here's a delightful example of the Church's delicate distinction between principles and specifics. John XXIII advises instruction in "up-to-date" methods, but sees no need to suggest specific methods, which would be outside his realm of expertise, and liable to change. Whatever he meant in 1961, we've now had several decades of the Green Revolution, and current up-to-date systems like permaculture have more to do with smart design and conservation than poisons and topsoil loss. Yet the principle remains true.]


What is wrong with the man in the modern town is that he does not know the causes of things; and that is why, as the poet says, he can be too much dominated by despots and demagogues. He does not know where things come from; he is the type of the cultivated Cockney who said he liked milk out of a clean shop and not a dirty cow. The more elaborate is the town organization, the more elaborate even is the town education, the less is he the happy man of Virgil who knows the causes of things. The town civilization simply means the number of shops through which the milk does pass from the cow to the man; in other words, it means the number of opportunities of wasting the milk, of watering the milk, of poisoning the milk, and of swindling the man.

G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity

Full book:

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