It’s an early August morning, the sun has barely crested the oak-studded hills, and on a small farmstead just west of Paso Robles, the workday has already begun. Sharpened knives slice through crisp, tender stems as the harvest bins fill up with large succulent leaves of spinach, aromatic bundles of basil and cilantro, and a medley of tender young salad greens. Crouched on either side of the gently sloping rows, the farmers take advantage of this time to connect with one another, sharing conversation punctuated by bursts of laughter as they work.
Once full, the bins are carried to an open-air packing shed near the house, where a baby plays on the ground as his mother washes freshly-harvested salad mix in a metal sink. As the morning rolls on, the shed fills with more bins of greens, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, and broccoli, in addition to the bounty of tomatoes, watermelons, rainbow chard, carrots and plums pre-harvested the evening before.
The aroma of cooking food and sound of children’s voices waft up the hill from the house below, where another family member looks after the smaller kids and prepares breakfast. Around mid-morning, everyone takes a break to gather around the kitchen table for a hearty meal of eggs and ham raised here on the farm, sauerkraut prepared from surplus homegrown vegetables, and toast smothered in jam from last year’s fruit harvest. The conversation is spirited and lively, the room buzzing with the typical energy and momentum of harvest day.
After breakfast, the shed once again becomes a bustle of activity as vegetables are washed, sorted, and packed carefully into wooden baskets lined up in rows on the long tables. The packing area becomes a vibrant mosaic of color – bright green leaves and shiny red bell peppers, deep purple eggplants and a whole array of orange and yellow heirloom tomatoes – the baskets brimming so full that it’s an effort to fasten on the lids. Once all sixty baskets are loaded into the nearby van and pick-up truck, along with a dozen freshly cut and arranged flower bouquets, the morning’s harvest is finally complete and ready for delivery to town.
About sixty local families support this farm and in turn are supported by it, receiving a basket of fresh organic produce every week from April through October. The increasingly-popular model of Community Supported Agriculture, or “CSA,” is a relationship in which community members subscribe to a farm by purchasing an entire season’s worth of fruits and vegetables, thereby committing to share in both the bounty and risks of the farm operation. If snap-peas produce exceptionally well one spring, there may be an extra large share of peas in everyone’s baskets, along with recipes for suggestions to use the abundance. And if abnormally-cool weather causes tomatoes to ripen later than usual, members may have to wait a couple weeks longer to get tomatoes in their baskets. But because the farm is so diverse, with about forty different fruits and vegetables, it’s basically guaranteed that a setback in one area will be balanced by abundance in others.
The Kiler Canyon CSA farm and homestead includes three acres of rotated vegetable gardens, two acres of densely planted fruit orchards, a variety of animals raised for the family’s own sustenance, and 150 acres of wild land as a shelterbelt for wildlife. Quill and Dan Chase, the two brothers whose families live on and steward this land, grew up just over the hill from here during the 1970’s and have been coming over to work on this family-owned piece of property since boyhood. For many years, the family sought out ways to create a livelihood off their land as an alternative to the increasingly popular norm of just living in the country while working outside jobs. They experimented with many ideas, from producing charcoal to planting vineyards and pistachio orchards, committed to ideals of preserving the land and soil through ecological practices. In 1989, the land was certified organic through the state organization CCOF. But in spite of the family’s efforts, obstacles such as gophers, deer, arid summers, and lack of infrascture thwarted each attempt at a viable enterprise on the land. It wasn’t until the year 2000, when Quill’s partner, Chaponica Trimmell, began selling surplus produce from her garden to several friends and neighbors as a small weekly “vegetable route” that a new possibility began to take shape. This time, the project started small, based on the resources and infrastructure available at the time. With a spirit of learning, experimentation, and flexibility, it grew to its present size gradually and—no pun intended—organically.
At first, this meant hauling watering cans up the hillside to a few beds of vegetables, but as the garden expanded it eventually called for a new well and water-efficient drip irrigation system. Chaponica’s sister-in-law, Kaleen Perlich, began working beside her in the garden and running the CSA, and eventually the whole family became part of the operation, coming together as a team to produce high-quality food while preserving their land. Through experimentation, they gradually developed effective systems for water use, chemical-free pest management, crop rotations to ensure a steady and diverse supply throughout the season, and a streamlined harvest method so that more members could be served. The keys to success, in the farmers’ eyes, have been in keeping their operation a manageable size and remembering to prioritize the health and happiness of the farmers themselves, having fun together even while working hard.
For Chaponica and Kaleen, running the CSA has meant the opportunity to stay home and raise their young children while earning income for the family and pursuing an endeavor they enjoy. Quill also describes the pleasures of being able to work at home and take care of his own place, and of the peaceful “quietness” he gets from being outdoors weeding a long row of plants. In addition, he is pleased to have found a way that he and his family can support themselves on the land while preserving its natural state. Having never cleared wooded areas or put in vineyards, they could stop doing the CSA any time and the property would be essentially the same as they first encountered it, a wild place of grassy meadows of oak woodland.
The family also takes great satisfaction in providing healthy food for people, recognizing that the longest-term CSA members have been nourished by this farm for a significant portion of their lives. And of course there’s the benefit of fresh, homegrown food for the farmers themselves, coupled with the opportunity for their children to grow up seeing how food is produced and having the experience of picking their own vegetables for dinner.
Members of the CSA can choose between two share sizes to meet their needs: a full bushel basket for larger families and a half-bushel for smaller households. Members also receive a weekly newsletter with recipes, an invitation to the annual potluck and open-farm day, and the chance to participate in occasional workshops (such as canning and sauerkraut-making) to learn new ways of using the vegetables from the farm. Other benefits include cost savings compared to purchasing a similar quantity of organic produce at the store; high quality food that’s hand-selected, fresh, and well cleaned; and the opportunity to increase the quantity and diversity of vegetables in their diet.
Kathy Myers, a member of eight years, says the CSA has motivated her to become more innovative in her cooking, bringing in a variety of vegetables and herbs she never would have used before. She looks forward to the surprise of picking up her family’s basket each week and discovering what’s inside, and she appreciates the freshness of produce picked within just twenty-four hours of delivery.
The CSA model offers people like Kathy a more direct relationship with the food on their plates, while providing small farmers the stability of a guaranteed market and outlet for their produce. At Kiler Canyon Farm, this has allowed the creation of a nourishing home environment and viable family-run enterprise while simultaneously nourishing others in our community. It’s a system of mutual support in which everyone—members, farmers, and land—is able to thrive.
Kiler Canyon CSA is currently accepting new members for the 2011 season. For more information: www.kilercanyonfarm.com or (805) 239-9503.