Ten years ago, the closest Central Oregonians could get to buying local, organic food in the winter was to drive three hours to greenhouses in the valley. Even just a year ago, locavores who lived for their summertime weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) bounties were stuck buying veggies and meats from aisles under fluorescent lights.
Not to say that grocery stores are inherently evil - I love Newport Market as much as the next person - but the option of directly supporting local farmers seems to all but disappear come November. That fact frustrated Andrew Adams, a sustainability minded local who last January started Agricultural Connections, a year-round CSA.
Agricultural Connections isn't your everyday CSA. Instead of having members buy in at the beginning of the season to fund the bulk of a farmer's expenses for the year, Agricultural Connections has pooled multiple farms within 100 miles of Bend to offer an array of foods, from produce to meats and dairy. Instead of season-long memberships, members can buy anything from a box of produce to a pound of ground buffalo meat weekly through the company's website at bendcsa.com.
"It gives people the ability to actually have a reference to where their food is being grown," says Elizabeth Weigand, manager of Agricultural Connections. Weigand says that while there may be organic or local food available in grocery stores, consumers aren't always informed about which specific farm their carrots are coming from and whether the free-range chicken they're buying were allowed to roam outside.
"Large-scale organic farms are different than small-scale organic farms," she says. "It isn't just the product itself but the farming operation. It's a different relationship between the people and the land."
Weigand says that every farm they work with, including an egg farm in Prineville, Sand Lily Goat Farm and Pine Mountain Ranch in Bend, is a small, organic operation.
Still, a year-round CSA raises questions for those familiar with the high desert 90-day growing season - namely, how can you offer produce after the freeze?
"It's definitely seasonal," Weigand says. A good portion of Agricultural Connection's winter produce hails from the greenhouses at Cinco Estrellas Farm in Junction City, where root vegetables, herbs, potatoes and kale dominate the winter take.
All of Agricultural Connection's foods can be purchased on their website and in addition to a traditional weekly produce share ($28/week for a family share), a wide variety of local products are available, apples from Kimberly Orchards in Kimberly, Ore., mushrooms from Mycological Natural Products in Eugene and even cheese, yogurt, whole wheat flour and pancake mix from Norris Dairy in Crabtree, Ore.
Weigand says that Agricultural Connections is also working toward accepting EBT (food benefits).
All of this adds up to Central Oregonians now having the option to eat a local diet year-round. That's an important development not just for your stomach, but also the environment. For example, a regionally based diet requires 17 times less oil and gas than a typical diet based on food shipped across the country, according to Agricultural Connection's website. Year-round CSAs may not be replacing grocery stores any time soon, but the option to buy a bundle of locally grown salad greens and buffalo meat in January is not just a novelty, but a step toward sustainable eating for everyone.