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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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Weekly Column
November 12, 2008


Deconstructing Dinner



As members of Canada's first community supported grain project receive their grains, what was the yield and the value to the farmers and eaters.


Jon Steinman


Canada's first community supported agriculture (CSA) project for grain is receiving a lot of space here within the Deconstructing Dinner column, and rightfully so. The excitement surrounding the project has even extended to readers of Canada's largest agricultural periodical, The Western Producer. An article about the CSA appeared in their November 6, 2008 issue.


So what were the outcomes of the project? The CSA model does after all carry with it some risks.


While CSAs support farmers by placing money into their pockets at the beginning of the season, if the crop faces lower than expected yields, it's the CSA members who feel the squeeze.


"The 180 members and one bakery who participated this year were all comfortable in sharing those risks with the farmers," says CSA co-founder Matt Lowe.


Upon conceiving the idea of a local grain economy in August 2007, Lowe was most concerned with being able to sustain farmers. A local food system cannot after all exist without the farmers to grow the food!


"The CSA model was chosen to ensure that this project would not replicate the food system models of the past, which have resulted in bankrupt farmers," says Lowe. "I wanted to ensure that the farmers would receive a fair price and be guaranteed a market for their product," he adds.


Without any marketing required, the CSA secured the 200 member shares in the project by early spring. Each share was expected to be worth 100 pounds of grain and the cost per share was set at $100 ($1.00/pound). The bakery's 20 shares were set at a reduced $75/share ($0.75/pound). That translated to $19,500 in revenues for the CSA.


The three farmers put 5 acres of their land into production for the CSA, and it was expected that 15 acres would satisfy the 20,000 pounds needed for the 200 shares.


Five crops were planted among the three farms; Red Fife wheat, Khorasan wheat, hard spring wheat, spelt and oats.


So how much $$$ did the farmers receive?


At the beginning of the season, the CSA agreed to put aside a percentage of each share's price towards the cost of seed, bags and other unforeseen expenses (such as the transportation of an oat de-huller from Alberta). What remained ended up in the farmers' pockets. That worked out to $1,000 per acre for each farmer to put towards their time and equipment costs. This is an exceptional price in the world of farming.


Even though the September harvest turned up about 2,000 pounds short of the desired 20,000, the farmers financial return per acre did not change.


The members on the other hand will be faced with a slightly higher price per pound. Instead of 100lbs as expected, members will be receiving 90lbs.


Regardless of the lower than expected yields, at 1.11$/pound for the members and $0.83/pound for the bakery, organically grown whole grains at those prices are spreading smiles around the table.

So why such a great financial outcome on both ends?


The shorter distance between the field and the plate is part of it, for sure, but it was the outpouring of community support that allowed the CSA to be as financially rewarding as it was. Volunteers have come forward to help organize the CSA, bag the grain, and provide weekly milling services to members.


Then there's the free transportation - sailboats!


With 75% of the CSA shares being purchased by Nelson members, four sailors approached Matt Lowe and volunteered to sail the grain on Kootenay Lake from the Creston Valley to Nelson; a 56-hour round-trip, fossil-fuel free. The entire 13,500 pounds for Nelson members was unable to fit on the four boats, but plans to expand the fleet for next year are already in the works.


The three farmers' are all willing to expand their production next year and Lowe expects that the CSA will triple in size for 2009. "We'll also be exploring the possibilities of accommodating the enthusiastic interest from local bakeries, restaurants and retailers," says Lowe. The farmers also expect as the years go by, and as they develop a better relationship with their land and the new crops, that their costs will decrease.


Sitting in a Nelson backyard sits a newly-constructed shed that now houses a small flourmill for CSA members. While the CSA has yet to set any future plans in stone until their next meeting, there is quite a bit of extra room in the milling shed and as the mill's owner/operator suggests that the extra room could be for the oil presses should the CSA ever head in that direction.


"We also hope to experiment with new crops next year," says Matt Lowe. "One of our farmers grew a successful one-acre test plot of lentils this year. The possibilities are endless."


Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. More information on today's topic can be found at (



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