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Community supported agriculture could be the future of farming

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INDIAHOMA, Okla. (AP) _ A future for Oklahoma farmers might be growing in Barbara Stroud's tomato patch. Or in Gary Grose's beehives. Or in Cindy Sterling's fresh goat milk.

Or, so to speak, in the moonlight of the family farm.

Stroud, Grose and Sterling are part of a growing movement called community-supported agriculture. Farmers and prolific gardeners are learning to cut out the corporate middleman by selling straight to the customer.

Selling directly to customers is a long-standing tradition at some roadside produce stands and farmers' markets, but community supported agriculture operations, or CSAs, sell to customers by contract.

Already common in California and New England, community supported agriculture farms are gaining a foothold in Oklahoma. Six years ago, a national survey found no such farms in Oklahoma. Today, more than 40 are listed on various agriculture Web sites.

``I really think CSAs are about to take off here in Oklahoma,'' said Maura McDermott, communications director for the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Poteau. ``Consumers get the freshest produce, and it's a way for producers to attract a totally different market.''

Barbara Stroud, a special education teacher in Indiahoma, had been selling her garden produce on a small scale to the manager of a local vegetable stand. She left a Kerr Center workshop inspired by the community-supported agriculture method.

Stroud soon began distributing letters to prospective customers, or shareholders, who would pay $225 for an entire season of fresh produce. Stroud promised to deliver bags of vegetables harvested at her family's 280-acre farm.

Her confidence soared when shareholders began to sign up. She limited her list to 10 customers, fearing she would miscalculate her yield.

``They are buying a piece of the garden,'' Stroud said. ``People want that taste they remember from the garden when they were kids.''

Stroud and her family now are deep in the process. Rows of yellow squash and zucchini are piled high on their kitchen counter. Soon, ripe tomatoes and melons will be added to the harvest.

Framed by a thick tree line and golden wheat fields, Stroud's backyard also features a quilt of freshly tilled soil, various types of vines and patches of green corn stalks. And when the time is right, her four children will join her in the harvest. If all goes well, Stroud may expand to 20 shareholders next year.

``I was selling to a local vegetable stand in Cache,'' she said. ``But it's my sweat and my work, so I might as well make the money, too.''

Gary Grose ventured into community supported agriculture through economic necessity. He runs his Tipton Valley Honey Co. out of an old white church building in Tipton. He use to supply 56 Wal-Mart Supercenters with honey, but he said he couldn't compete with cheaper honey from China or large companies who could offer large volumes.

``So much of our food anymore is from foreign producers at the expense of local business,'' Grose said. ``A small company can't compete with the big boys.''

Family farms have been in decline since the Great Depression, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. There were 6.8 million farms in the United States in 1935, but about 2 million farms remained in 2002.

And the money Americans spent on imported food increased from about $512 million in 1992 to more than $1 billion in 2001, according to the National Agricultural Statistical Service.

Community supported agriculture farmers claim the demand for locally grown produce is expanding in Oklahoma as consumers realize where their vegetables are grown.

Sharon Miller, owner of New Beginning Farm in Pink, began one of the first community supported agriculture farms in Oklahoma in 2002. Her shareholders have access to her 75-acre farm, and many bring their families to enjoy the atmosphere. They pick up their weekly bags of produce, see the fields where their dinner is grown and even ride Miller's donkey.

``More people are looking to support the family farm, and they want to know where their food is coming from,'' she said.

Cindy Sterling, owner of Swinging Gate Farm in Norman, thinks the demand exists because people are more health conscious.

``The produce is better because it comes straight out of the ground,'' Sterling said.

When Sterling and her husband, Tim, began their community supported agriculture operation two years ago, they could not keep up with the demand for fresh produce on their five acre patch of land. Sterling now sells fresh goat and cow milk along with vegetables to about 20 regular customers.

Robert Waldrop, president of the Oklahoma Food Co-op, said food is about the only area where people have complete control.

``I have to buy my electricity from polluting coal-burning plants, but I can decide what to eat,'' he said.

Waldrop said for the past two years he has bought all his beef and pork through community supported agriculture shares.

``If we want to help rural Oklahoma,'' Waldrop said, ``we need to spend our money there.''
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