With the arugula fronds reaching for the cool spring air and the early strawberries still ripening in the fields, local foodies are ready to rumble. At issue: Whose community-supported agriculture (CSA) is the best? In coffee shops and office break rooms, at soccer practices and perennial sales, the conversational one-upmanship ranges from convenience of CSA drop-off spots to variety and pricing of vegetables. Devoted customers of local farms champion their pastoral produce providers with a loyalty often reserved for partisan politics or gang warfare. Are Beaverdam Creek and Birdsong Hollow farms the post-political Whigs and Tories? Are Bugtussle and Bountiful Blessings the bucolic Jets and Sharks? Or has the burgeoning local-food movement just got folks really excited about where their next meal is — literally — coming from?
It didn't take long for community-supported agriculture to worm its predominantly organic way into Nashville's nutritional psyche, growing from a fringe distribution channel for small farmers to a rite of spring for many local families. (The idea of paying an up-front fee to a farm in return for a share of the year's crops — no matter how lean or bountiful it may turn out to be — has become so commonplace that no one even questions the grammatical logic of employing "CSA" to refer to a single vendor rather than a collective movement. But I digress.)
In the six years since Turnbull Creek and Drury Family farms launched Fresh Harvest, farmers Tallahassee "Tally" May and John Drury have seen their CSA business double. The weekly pickup at the corner of Hillsboro Road and Sharondale has become a festive informal meet-and-greet. Delvin Farms and Peaceful Pastures drop off at the same location on Wednesday afternoons, and there is a loose sense of community as customers who bump into each other week after week begin to feel like friends. On balmier summer afternoons, folks linger in the grass, trading recipes for crookneck squash and kale. Gathering up your bags of golden and red beets and your bundles of fresh wildflowers under the shady canopy of trees in front of Trinity Presbyterian Church, you'll be tempted to ask the farmers to start carrying other products to save you from having to park in a supermarket lot ever again. (How about diapers, dishwasher detergent and milk*?)
In fact, over the last few years, farmers have begun expanding their wares to offer broader service to their customers. Fresh Harvest teams with West Wind Farms in Deer Lodge, Tenn., to supply grass-fed poultry, and with McDonald Farm in Hohenwald to provide chemical-free eggs. They sell Bongo Java coffee and Earthwind Botanicals bath products, and Twin Forks Farms Artisan Breads baker David Tannen brings his earthen-mound-baked loaves to sell at Fresh Harvest's drop-off.
In the Bells Bend/Scottsboro neighborhood, where residents are struggling to keep development at bay, four small farms have banded together to provide a diverse basket of food, eggs and soaps to CSA subscribers. Jeff Poppen, the renowned "Barefoot Farmer" from Long Hungry Creek Farm in Red Boiling Springs, Tenn., consulted with Sulphur Creek Farm, Ellen's Melons and Berries, Whooping Crane Farm and Red Bud Farm to launch a co-op in 2009 with a range of 70 items. The Bells Bend CSA is already at capacity with 60 subscribers for the coming growing season, but starting in May, the farms will supply produce to the West Nashville Farmers' Market on Saturdays in Richland Park and to the East Nashville Farmers' Markets on Wednesdays on South 10th Street, near Five Points. In the meantime, the Sulphur Creek cast of characters keeps an active and amusing blog about life in the country a stone's throw from the big city. (To read their meditations on everything from morels and mules, or to sign up for the CSA wait list, visit SulphurCreekFarm.com.)
With a few years under their belts and the wind of the locavore movement at their backs, farmers have seen demand grow; meanwhile, they are also learning to tailor their supply. At Peaceful Pastures in Hickman, Tenn., farmers Jenny and Darrin Drake are offering more combinations of their all-natural pasture-fed meats. This year, they will introduce a so-called Three Meat Basket with beef, pork and chicken, designed for customers who are skittish about lamb and goat. They will also carry a range of sausages, including Polish, Italian, bratwurst, hot dogs and smoked beef summer sausage. This year, Peaceful Pastures will have at least seven drop-off sites, including new locations at Glendale Elementary School and beside Centennial Park. Peaceful Pastures CSA pricing starts at $600 for six monthly deliveries of approximately 20 pounds of meat, plus handmade soap, bath salts or bath oils. Discounts are available for customers who subscribe to the Delvin Farms vegetable CSA.
On its website, Avalon Acres in Hohenwald, Tenn., solicits requests for new drop-off spots and will deliver its meats, eggs and produce to workplaces and churches. The farm even hosts an online message board for customers to trade recipes or swap produce.
But it's not just farmers who are bending over backwards to make the CSA movement successful. Subscribers are changing their habits, too. In some cases, that means learning to plan ahead to make the most of a basket of meat and vegetables. In other cases, it means learning to love the crops that thrive in the Middle Tennessee climate.
"People have grown much more willing and adaptable to eating what the farmer provides them," says Tallahassee May of Fresh Harvest. She says clients are becoming more open to items such as broccoli rabe, bok choy, escarole and raddichio — non-traditional vegetables that grow well here. "Foodie culture has developed so there is a market for more things."
May says there's support coming from multiple sources. "There's a lot of new government funding for new infrastructure. There's an acknowledgment and encouragement of small organic farmers."
She says all this during a break from work on her Turnbull Creek Organics Farm in Bon Aqua, Tenn., where she's building a new greenhouse, thanks to a government reimbursement program to support conservation projects. "That will help me do a lot more winter production."
But Tally can't talk long. She's still got to auger holes for the greenhouse and get the arugula and strawberries ready for the first CSA drop-off. May 5 is just around the corner.
* Tennessee Department of Agriculture prohibits the sale of unpasteurized milk for human consumption, but West Wind Farms markets a raw-milk CSA for pets and livestock — in case, you know, your "pet" gets thirsty for milk with her Oreos. We still have not found a CSA for diapers or laundry detergent.