Look around the produce department at any grocery store today and chances are signs for “organic” or “local” offerings are prolific in the mix of fruits and veggies. You might think, “of course they are. They always have been.” In truth, they haven’t. The USDA organic certification didn’t officially go into effect until October 2002, the result of growing awareness and concern amongst farmers and consumers to what big agriculture practices were doing to the environment and, in turn, the food system.
Angela Tedesco knows this history well—she was part of it. The author of the newly released Finding Turtle Farm: My Twenty-Acre Adventure in Community Supported Agriculture (University of Minnesota press, 2022), transitioned her own 20-acre farm to organic and ran one of the first community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs in Iowa from 1995 to 2012.
She was also one of the founding members of the Iowa Network for Community Agriculture. Such networks became key to farmers trying to meet the growing consumer desire for local fresh food. It was the hard work of individual farmers like Tedesco, and local and regional farm networks that set the foundation for organic and regenerative agriculture and the amazing local fresh foods available to us today.
Tedesco spent part of her childhood on a farm in Oklahoma, where she spent her days exploring outdoors and “collecting eggs scattered among the stacked hay bales in the barn.” The fourth of five children, she thought herself the least likely to embrace a life of farming. But the farm fostered in her a love for nature and the outdoors, and it was here, at a young age, that she learned how someone could grow their own food and how food should taste—fresh.
Still, it wasn’t until years later, when she was married with two young daughters that she began to grow her own backyard garden. Motherhood made her think twice about healthy ways to grow food. “I would look at the container of product for vegetable plant insects and think, ‘why am I putting these poisonous chemicals on this food that I’m going to be eating and feeding my children?’”
At this point in time the food system was changing dramatically. As Tedesco writes, “Pesticide use was growing, government farm policies encouraged mono-cropping, and genetic engineering was the latest panacea.”
Driven by a desire to make choices that would benefit people and the environment, she realized farming was where she could make a difference. “Everyone eats. I wanted to grow food that was as good for people as it was for the environment.”
When she returned to school to get her Masters in Horticulture at the University of Iowa, Tedesco found she was not alone in her thinking. Although there were no classes offered yet in organic agriculture, her advisor had just received a first of its kind Leopold grant, named after writer and environmentalist Aldo Leopold, designed to promote sustainable farming.
Tedesco spent her studies focused on alternative productive systems for strawberries, which included organic. She connected with students who were feeling the same lack in the agricultural system and made contacts with people outside of the university who were looking at local foods.
It was at an organic farming conference where she learned about the CSA concept—a model for farmers to provide food directly to consumers.
“I liked it, especially because it was based more on cooperation than competition,” she explains. “There was a resurgence of this movement of let’s eat local. We wanted to know why, as a country, we were importing 80–90% of our food when we had the best soils in the world. Why weren’t we growing our own food instead of just growing food for animals to eat or for corn syrup or other unhealthy ways.”
Upon graduating, Tedesco set to work creating her own CSA, first on leased land and soon after on her own farm that she transitioned to organic, which she felt offered a greater level of transparency.
“When I started, mainly the words were sustainable. We all thought we knew what sustainable was, but it became a diluted word after a while because everybody wanted to use the word sustainable,” she explains of her commitment to organic. “At least organic had guidelines and set parameters. For me, it’s like a baseline of where you want to be.”
The more she farmed the more she realized the importance of farming organic and even biodynamic or regenerative, which further take into consideration animal and human welfare and biodiversity.
“The more you farm, the more you learn about how important it is to take care of the soil and the interconnection of the diversity of the farm. It makes you more appreciative of the whole Gaia concept of the living earth and how we’re all interconnected and dependent upon each other.” She pauses, “And if we keep poisoning our home, then we’re going to be in a sad state. That inspired me to do everything I could to grow food in harmony with nature.”
When Tedesco started, nobody was looking for a CSA because nobody had heard of the concept. Between 1995 and 2012, word of mouth grew her CSA from selling 30 shares her first year to 180 shares. During this time, she came to appreciate how this way of farming was not only beneficial to the planet, but the CSA format was beneficial to farmers too. In her book, she refers to this with a triangle.
“It’s beneficial to the farmer because they have a ready market of people who’ve signed up ahead of time. It’s beneficial to the customer, because they know their farmer, how their foods are being grown, and that it’s the freshest food they are going to get. The third side is that it’s beneficial for the earth. If one side is absent, the triangle collapses.”
This type of thinking, she says, is the crux of supporting local farmers whether through a CSA or at a store. “It’s important to know your farmer and where your food comes from. To know you’re not depending upon systems of procurement that might get disrupted. If you’re shopping local that food dollar stays in the community.” She adds, “If you don’t support local farmers, then they’re going to disappear.”
Eating local can mean signing up for a CSA, shopping at the grocery store, or even starting your own backyard garden. “That’s the best local food there is,” says Angela Tedesco, author of Finding Turtle Farm. So where to start? Tedesco offers these tips:
The CSA concept developed in Japan in the mid-1960s in the form of agreements between farmers and families, who agreed to commit to purchasing from the farm. These contracts were called teikei, which translates to “food with the farmer’s face on it.”
Yet, the US CSA movement was influenced more by Europe in the early 70s where there was a movement to counter the industrialization of the food system and support local farmers. This included exploring different approaches to agriculture including biodynamic farming practices, referred to as “a holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food, and nutrition,” rooted in the work of philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner.
The first US CSAs were started in 1986 at Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire. While it’s hard to track exactly how many CSAs there are across the country today, in 2017, there were more than 7,300 CSAs and more recently, LocalHarvest listed more than 7,600 CSAs in the US