The sun pierces through oak branches as the last dew of the morning evaporates. A peacock on a rooftop makes calls that echo through a valley. The daylight has traveled far: from the top of a hill, down the side of a freshly harvested field and into a wide canyon illuminating a homestead. Between the homestead and field is a shed, where friendly conversations cut through the pristine silence and tranquility of the area.
The scene is Kiler Canyon Farm, a 160-acre, family-run community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, located west of Paso Robles. It’s harvest day; family and volunteers are busy rinsing produce and organizing baskets.
CSA is an alternative community effort to create a locally-based food distribution system. The CSA concept works like so: willful eaters of local produce pay a farmer ahead of the growing season, a direct relationship is made between the farmer and the consumer eliminating the cost of the middleman (i.e. supermarkets), the farmer invests that money in the land through seed and equipment and in return, the members receive a share either weekly or bi-weekly.
“You’d be amazed how much—even one of the little baskets—how much food is actually in it. I barely, with someone else splitting it, can get everything consumed in a week,” said Kim Noyes, a fourth semester history major at Cuesta and volunteer at the farm.
The property, owned by two related families, has been run for over 15 years as a certified-organic CSA farm. After rinsing the produce, the family and volunteers begin filling bushels with the assorted veggies to be dropped off at two locations: Paso Robles and Atascadero. The shares members receive include such diverse vegetables as carrots, beets, onions, spinach, kale, chard, broccoli and cabbage.
“I think that our CSA would be a good option for Cuesta students living in North County,” said Kaleen Perlich, a family member that works on the farm. “As a college student, one thing that would come up would be cost, which I think If you want to eat organic, really healthy food, it’s not that exorbitant. You could share with house mates.”
Considered an alternative to buying food from the grocery store and farmer’s market, the CSA model allows members or subscribers to sign up in advance and absorb some of the risk associated with farming. The majority of CSAs offer solely produce like fruits and vegetables; others may offer meat and dairy for an additional fee. Another advantage is members receive more food for their money than they would get at a supermarket.
“So you know what, I pay every week, in order to live this lifestyle, $12.50 a week. Could you imagine me going to the farmer’s market or the supermarket with twelve dollars and fifty cents as my budget and go around and even find non-organic,” Noyes said. “Twelve fifty a week. I could not spend that anywhere else and get that amount of food, especially organic.”
For Cuesta students that live in San Luis Obispo, Los Osos Valley Organic Farm, another local CSA, might be an option for the college student interested in sourcing local, organic food.
Located off Los Osos Valley Road, this CSA drops off in downtown, Los Osos, Morro Bay and Paso Robles. Leased and run by Jim and Dawn Terrick, this CSA farm offers work-trade deals in which people can volunteer and work on the farm in exchange for a share.
If you are unsure about joining a CSA, you can always volunteer or visit the farm beforehand. Both farms encourage volunteers and Kiler Canyon “in the last few years [has offered workshops in food preservation,] cheese making, canning and fermenting,” said Chaponica Trimmel, another family member at Kiler Canyon.
By having members pay at the beginning of the season, the members have agreed to absorb the risk associated with problems on the farm such as pest issues and crop failures.
“The CSA concept allows a small grower a more direct and reliable way of distributing their crop,” Terrick said. “The reason the CSA model was adopted by farmers was so they could get the money up-front. They could even out their income strain, at least they had something they could count on during the year and they didn’t have to wait.”
With the money in advance, the farmer can invest in the land by purchasing supplies such as fertilizer and seed and better anticipate what it will yield.
“There is the concept that you know not every year will you get the same stuff, like one year, you might get potatoes but you can’t always count on it. It’s like a magazine subscription,” Perlich said.
The members know they won’t receive the same produce every week but they made that agreement at the beginning of the season.
“They figure $20 a week for produce. And what you get in the bag. The value isn’t just in comparing a head of lettuce to a head of lettuce. The value is in its freshness; it’s organic and the money that you’re spending is all kept locally,” Terrick said. “Nothing goes outside the county. The money that I pay for labor, they’re all local people. It’s keeping the money in circulation here. They’re helping out and they’re keeping the ground from being contaminated because it’s sustainably farmed. Those are these other benefits; this is value that doesn’t come to the bottom line. It’s a life choice.”