To say Future Harvest CASA, commonly called CASA, has helped foster the new cropping of small-scale farmers in the Chesapeake Bay area would be a dramatic understatement. The majority of small-scale farmers leverage their various workshops and training methods, along with the network of contacts they provide. What’s more, they’ve expanded their advocacy efforts to include the Mid-Atlantic region. I had the opportunity to speak with Sarah, a contact I found through Priscilla, who has worked with the organization for a number of years. Like many involved in native food movements, Sarah’s career did not initially begin in food let alone the Maryland area. Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, her first exposure to alternative food sources began in high school when she worked in an organic coffee shop. Before college, she also interned with an organic farm but focused her higher education on law and advocacy. She eventually became a public interest lawyer, working with a number of different efforts including immigration, LGBT, and HIV advocacy.
Her career eventually brought her to Maryland, where she started volunteering at Claget Farm. The marriage of advocacy experience and rediscovery of alternative agriculture is what brought Sarah to Future Harvest CASA. She believes food and farming serve as a form of social justice since farmers, at present, are not able to make adequate livings off production and thus food is less accessible. To build a farmer is a four to five year endeavor, she tells me. It’s an all-consuming effort that requires immense capital upfront and constant evaluation at every step. What’s more, the profit model for farmers is in a state of flux, where community-supported agricultural (CSA) systems prove more beneficial for wholesalers than direct consumers and farmers markets are still primarily confined to affluent neighborhoods. Moreover, the emergence of various fresh food delivery services further perpetuates the distancing of producer and consumer. It is inevitable that American food systems will evolve, but will it be towards a more localized and intimate production system, or a more externalized culture of convenience? And what does this mean for food accessibility?
CASA has a multitude of initiatives that hope to ensure the success of more small-scale farmers. The most comprehensive of these is the Beginner Farmer Training Program (BFTP), a three-tiered program that spans a number of years but provides comprehensive exposure to farm management and continued mentorship. Along with the advantage of virtual and in-person guidance and support, the program also helps formalize the connection between farmers. There is also the Food Shed Field School, an initiative that educates the public on regional sustainable agriculture through onsite farm visits. The program focuses on specialized practices and innovations, which concludes with a community potluck to further the interpersonal connections. The communal meal serves as a means to further promote cohesion between producers and participants, as shared taste serves as a dialogue in and of itself. Lastly, CASA hosts an annual conference in mid-January to over 800 people in College Park, MD. Over a three day period, the conference is composed of intensive workshops and various panels on relevant topics pertaining to the farming community. While there is widespread support for the various initiatives worry still exists over the funding environment, since most of CASA’s financial support comes from the USDA and state grants. What is certain is that CASA plays an integral role in the success of newcomers in the agricultural community, but how can you secure the future of organizations like CASA? According to Sarah, this depends on the answer to one question:
“How do people in the local area value food?”