Standing along a dusty lane on Navy-leased land in Imperial Beach, feeling the heavy thump of helicopters strutting out on drills, you might mistake this farm for a militarized zone. But ignore the sky and walk the rows of gorgeous beet greens, broccoli, spring onions, Swiss chard, and strawberries and there’s no confusion. The welcoming smile of Lucila De Alejandro, “Head Weed Puller,” of Suzie’s Farm affirms you’re in the right place.
“I love to share the farm,” says De Alejandro. “I want people to know us, and to know where their food comes from.”
Suzie’s Farm belongs to a growing number of small-scale producers that bring a personal touch to food by offering a share of their crop. The phenomenon, started only 40 years ago, is known as Community-Supported Agriculture, or CSA for the initiates.
The concept is simple. Customers pay the farm a flat quarterly fee, and in return they get a weekly box of locally grown, and usually organic, goodies. Pick-up locations are sprinkled throughout the city.
“Participating in a CSA is very much like investing in a stock,” says Jonathan Reinbold, of Tierra Miguel Foundation, a nonprofit organic farm in Pauma Valley. “People invest money, and they get whatever the return is.”
The “return” in this case is not just limited to immaculate produce. The CSA experience also delivers on a bushel-full of core values that make participation attractive: supporting local economies, encouraging sustainable agriculture, reconnecting us with our food and community — not to mention the sublime pleasure of opening a box full of fresh produce, grown and picked by people you know from a farm you can visit. Way better than rifling through the fire-log stacks of wax-covered tastelessness found at your local Gargantuarium. As a result, CSA offerings and participation are blossoming nationwide.
“The numbers have skyrocketed,” says Reinbold. “Right now we have 13 CSAs in San Diego — about twice the amount we had even two years ago.”
But, even with the boom, there is still some sense of belonging to an exclusive club. According to De Alejandro, for San Diego County’s 3.5 million inhabitants, there are only about 2,000 CSA shares to go around.
For those looking to join, Reinbold says finding a good fit is important. “They should really weigh the pros and cons of each CSA relationship by talking with the farm.”
“Tierra Miguel provides a big box, and people like the fact that they’re getting so much produce. Other CSAs, like Be Wise Ranch, do not offer farm visits, but you will get a regular supply of local organics. If a person is interested in supporting a multi-generational family farm, J.R. Organics is a great choice.”
Back at Suzie’s Farm, De Alejandro is ticking off a list of 20 cucumber varieties her customers will enjoy this season. If enthusiasm imparts flavor, they’re in luck!
“It’s a really exciting time to be part of this movement,” she says. “A lot of people are getting into it. They want to know where their food is coming from, they want to have relationships with their farmers, and they want to have relationships with the food. It’s just not so anonymous anymore.” (619/662-1780, www.suziesfarm.com) PAUL STUART