Tuesday May 21

Hess Arlan Hess is a Lecturer at Washington & Jefferson College where she teaches Literature and Creative Writing. She received her MFA from Vermont College and has completed research at the University College of Wales-Aberystwyth and University of Padua. In 2004, she founded Paper Street, an on-line journal of poetry and flash fiction.


Cherry Valley Organics: A Healthier CSA by Arlan Hess

When I became a vegetarian, I didn't like vegetables. I had never liked meat all that much--hated steak unless it was charred through and through—and had grown tired of chicken and pasta. At the same time I was transitioning to a plant-based diet, I was teaching an essay called "An Animal's Place" in which Michael Pollan contends that one's consumption of meat is cultural. In the West, one will eat a cow but not a dog. In the East, one will eat a dog but not a cow. Because I knew I could never eat my beagle, I decided to stop eating meat until I could figure out exactly why I was eating it. Suddenly with limited dietary options, I found myself trying vegetarian recipes that introduced me to dishes and flavors that were dependent simply on the freshness of the ingredients I used and the seasonings I added. In quick succession, I began buying organic produce at my local supermarket, then discovered Cherry Valley Organics, a local CSA based in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania. Within a year, having direct access to a farm and farmer gave me more resolute confidence in my diet and well being.

Cherry Valley Organics makes me feel like family. Located in Washington County south of Pittsburgh, the farm is only a short drive from my home. Approximately 40 acres total, but with less than 10 acres in production, the property has five paid staff members and caters to the customer not the farmer. Unlike more traditional CSAs, Cherry Valley lets subscribers order from a menu rather than just receive an unpredictable amount of produce every week. Such a business model is much better suited to the home kitchen in terms of selection, flexibility, less waste, lower overall cost, etc. Similarly, because I agreed to be the drop-off point for my local area, three or four large white coolers appear on my front porch every week--sometimes late at night, sometimes early in the morning. When people walk up the street to share in the spring harvests, I see neighbors I might not have seen since the previous fall. Because of Cherry Valley, I feel more connected to my community.

Cherry Valley actively limits its customer base to keep the operation manageable. As a result, the produce is of the highest quality. According to owners Jodi and Evan Verbanic, their current target is 150 subscribers, although that is often "a moving target, depending on demand from other (wholesale) accounts" they service. Past seasons have ranged from approximately 75 subscribers to over 300 subscribers but "more subscribers are not necessarily better," says Evan. "The tenure of subscribers ranges widely," depending on circumstance, yet core subscribers are typically with CVO for five or more years. Cherry Valley loyalty is regularly rewarded by a Customer Appreciation Day when city and suburban types like me trek into the fields and feel the dirt between our toes. In this way, farmer and consumer all take pride and share in the investment we've made together.

Unlike most CSAs, Cherry Valley is certified organic. Produce costs a little more than grocery store offerings, but as a result, I am less likely to waste food and have become a more active eater. The federal organic standard provides a scientifically sound and level playing field for a family-run farm to compete in a market saturated with meaningless terms such as "sustainable" and "local." The farm's third-party certifier (PA Certified Organic) provides a measurable standard of performance, similar to automotive inspection/emissions testing. Now, regardless of what is on my fork, I know where it came from and why I am eating it. This confidence extends beyond the kitchen. CVO offers an expanded product list that includes potted plants, cut flower bouquets, edible flowers, dried flower arrangements, herbal bath & body products, herbal teas, and herbal vinegars. By giving and using Cherry Valley gifts year round, I support my local CSA beyond its April to November growing season, and my family and friends have become more supportive of the dietary and healthy choices I have made.

Not every person or household is prepared for the commitment of a CSA subscription, however. Shopping at a local farmer's market provides enough satisfaction and sense of community for most people dedicated to providing their families with locally-grown, healthy summer vegetables. However, if someone is looking for a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship to family-owned farms, Local Harvest provides considerable resources about seasonal agricultural production, pricing, distribution, and CSA farming throughout the country. Even a little information about grocery stores and restaurants goes a long way when one is looking for peace of mind about food and nutrition, but belonging to a CSA makes me feel like a more responsible citizen and healthier person.