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Community-Supported Farms Cropping Up

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A new alliance popped up recently in the world of farming. A Champaign, Illinois agriculture agency joined up with a global seed provider. Both companies say their initiative could get new seed varieties to farmers faster by increasing seed production year-round. Another fairly new idea in farming is geared at making what's normally a seasonal connection between farmers and consumers into a year-round relationship. The Environment Report’s Christina Morgan has more.

Late summer is the time residents of the agriculture belt see an abundance of locally-grown produce. Farmers' markets in urban areas and farm stands along rural roads bring growers and buyers face to face. A fairly new idea in farming is geared toward turning this seasonal connection between farmers and consumers into a year-round relationship. Christina Morgan reports:

Ben and Lisa Sippel are among a few hundred families in the US who approach working the land differently from other farmers. Like any farming, their days are long during the growing season, the work is hard and the weather is the big variable. Unlike most farmers, the Sippels receive money from consumers before the first seeds are planted.

These consumers pay up front for a share of the year's crop, and the Sippels supply them with produce for 30 weeks. That is how Community Supported Agriculture works. Lisa Sippel describes it as an adventure:

LISA SIPPEL: We're both very happy here and can't imagine doing anything else.

Ben Sippel is more pragmatic:

BEN SIPPEL: A little bit of romance is a good thing for sustainable agriculture, a heavy dose of reality is also a good thing for agriculture.

Ben Sippel is on a mission. He majored in Environmental Studies and Geography in college. After hearing about all the problems facing agriculture, he set out in search of solutions. In Sippel's view, agriculture must be sustainable in 3 ways:

BEN SIPPEL: We feel strongly that sustainable agriculture has to be sustainable ecologically, basically respecting the eco-system that is our farm, but it also has to be sustainable economically. You can rotate crops, you can not use chemicals, you can do all this stuff, but if you can't afford to do it or you have to get money from an outside source to continue doing it, then the sustainable system if you will is flawed.

Sippel believes social sustainability is just as important as ecological and economic sustainability. He says farming should allow families to take an occasional vacation, set aside money for retirement and pay their children a fair wage for work they do. Sippel says farmers too often end up selling their land to finance their later years. That land might also go out of farming and into development. Ben and Lisa Sippel want to make sure their son Charlie, born in February, has a chance to continue working their farm if he chooses.

While the typical farmer plants and harvests a henful of crops, the Sippels plant 120 varieties of 40 crops. They harvest at least three times per week so they can deliver to their 175 subscribers. Harvests and deliveries go on for 30 weeks each year.

Looking over the acres of carefully cultivated produce and peering into greenhouses where hundreds of tomato, pepper and other plants flourish in the ground, it's easy to imagine how exhausting and isolating this work is. But standing with Ben Sippel at a farmers' market where he visits with subscribers and carefully measures out this week's produce, it's equally easy to see the connection between grower and consumer.

These consumers are sharing the risks of food production. But in return, they know how and where their food is grown. They're encouraged to visit the farm. They know if the produce is organic. And they know Ben Sippel is aware of the impact his farm has on the environment. This year, shareholders paid 560 dollars for their produce from the Sipple Family Farm. Shareholder Andy Ingraham Dwyer puts that in perspective:

INGRAHAM DWYER: It's a little more expensive, but I honestly think that expense is worth it, so long as I can actually look the farmer in the eye when I'm taking it from him. That means a whole lot to me.

Ben Sippel says closer ties to consumers are an important part of overall sustainability. In turn, some of the subscribers are happy to find a local grower, so they don't have to contribute to the burning of fuel to ship food from other states or other countries. Isiah Harris says buying local produce saves energy, and he thinks it also means better food for his table:

HARRIS: Oh yeah, it's right out of the ground. I mean, some of this stuff was probably picked this morning. The nutrition is going to stay in tact a lot better when it's not shipped so far.

Ben Sippel says some people come to realize that the weather on the farm as a direct impact on the produce they receive:

BEN SIPPEL: On their computer desktops, they have our zip code in to check the weather, they know where the farm is and they'll look at the weather on the local news and they'll say, 'We didn't get rain but it looked like you got rain, did you get rain?'

Community Supported Agriculture is complex hard work -- with benefits. Consumers receive fresh, quality food and a better understanding of what goes into growing that food. Farmers Ben and Lisa Sipple have a chance to get to know their customers and the freedom to seek solutions for some of the many problems facing agriculture.

For the Environment Report, I'm Christina Morgan.

Music Button: Chet Atkins, “Sweet Alla Lee” from the CD Almost Alone (Sony records)

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