CSA is a fairly familiar term these days—many of us know about community-supported agriculture. But how about agriculture-supported community?
That’s precisely what Missoula, Montana is, according to Jeremy Smith, author of Growing a Garden City. While a CSA is “like a subscription to a farm,” he says, an ASC is a place where gardens and farms unite to feed the people around them.
Full disclosure here: I went to college in Missoula, and I’m headed back there this fall. I love the town, I always have. To me, it’s a little piece of paradise with a river running through it.
Missoula has changed a lot in the years since I lived there. But some things haven’t: it remains a small town with open minds. It still sits in a valley, hugging mountains full of big wildlife and great hikes. It’s still a place where people look out for each other.
And that’s where the gardens come in. These days, a map of Missoula is crisscrossed by a network of active community farms. Many operate under the umbrella organization, Garden City Harvest, involving, one way or another, just about every citizen in every stage of life. Take PEAS Farm, for example. It sits in the Rattlesnake Valley on land leased by the public school system. University of Montana environmental studies students work there, earning credit (and knowledge) growing vegetables. Education students guide youngsters through the farm on field trips. Thousands of kids have spent school hours on the farm, learning how carrots grow and gaining an appreciation for leafy greens (so much so, Smith says kale has become the number-one snack!). The farm operates as a CSA, and neighbors buy the goods. Much of the food also goes to the local food bank.
That’s but one of many arrangements aimed at putting fresh, organic, local ingredients on plates across Missoula. Other community gardens around town employ wayward youth in lieu of detention. The teenagers get a job, they get experience, and they get to deliver the food they grow to low-income seniors who have little other access to healthy food.
In other neighborhoods, locals can work in a garden for an hour or two (or more), and take their pay in fresh produce.
The system works, Smith says. It’s testament to the potential of local agriculture. “We have a lot of working poor,” Smith says. “We have one of the lowest per capita incomes in the country…. The frost-free growing season is less than 100 days…. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”