Little Sprouts Micro-Farm Connects Eaters to Local Food
The box that sat on the counter in front of me one recent summer evening felt like a time capsule from a Christmas morning.
Red walnuts from Livermore, California; Creme Kefir from Sierra Nevada Cheese Company in Willows; raw honey from Sullivan Bees, in Redding; sablefish from Ashley’s Seafood in McKinleyville; beautifully roasted coffee from Northbound Coffee in Mount Shasta. A bundle of carrots with hints of earth still clinging to them, red-purple beets, a head of buttery lettuce, all from GRUB CSA Farm in Chico. Some non-food treats were a happy surprise: a sunscreen made from oils that produce SPF naturally and loofahs from a variety of gourd that GRUB grows. Not least of all, a quart jar springing full of rainbow-colored microgreens, from Little Sprouts Micro-Farm in Redding.
Heather and Rick Phillips, the farmers at Little Sprouts Micro-Farm, are responsible for the box that so delighted me. The couple is fairly new to farming—they started their microgreens farm in 2015—and in a handful of years, they have made their mark on the Redding food community. My box represented the couple’s most recent venture, what they market as Gather Collaborative CSA Boxes. The boxes are available by subscribing to four- or eight-week sessions, one box per week, of local, seasonal products Heather curates. A weekly box could contain up ten or more varieties of produce, one or two dairy or dairy alternative items, two or three meats, including fish, bacon, or sausage, a loaf of bread, a rice or dried beans selection, and some specialty items like honey, jam, flowers, ghee, coffee, kombucha, olive oil—even sunscreen—and always, a jar of their microgreens.
It wasn’t a big leap, the decision to put together weekly subscription boxes, the contents of which come from a number of local producers. The Phillipses already offered a weekly subscription of their microgreens. They call that subscription a “Microgreens Farmshare,” to reinforce the notion that subscribers share in the bounty from their farm. When they first sold their farm’s microgreens, they sold them through a farmers’ market they hosted right on their urban farm. They landed on a subscription model as the best way to connect with consumers and maintain that connection.
As Heather explained the methods they’ve implemented to make local food more accessible, she said, “Farmers’ markets aren’t it, at least for me.” She finds the market the perfect social event, the ideal Saturday morning, after-brunch stroll. But for sellers, the uncertainty of how much product customers might buy, the labor-intensive set up and tear down processes, and an overall inefficiency mark it as an imperfect option. Heather and Rick do participate in the local market, and you can find them most Saturdays selling their microgreens by City Hall. It’s an important event that should be supported and celebrated, Heather believes, but it isn’t the solution producers are looking for.
As Heather sought out other alternatives, she began to consider what it would take to design a local food box. She began putting together a plan to curate goods from the surrounding area and ultimately developed a program that dozens of families enjoy. She now connects with food producers she has found through commercial sales outlets, friends or family of people they know, and networks available because the Phillipses themselves farm.
Every week, Heather and Rick assemble dozens of boxes of goods, the contents varying each time. Heather explains, “There are often substitutions up until the bell. There could be a heat wave or frost and what we have in the field gets damaged. . . . Most everyone loves that [box contents] are a surprise.” Box subscribers understand that tomatoes might refuse to ripen or a shortage in goat’s milk from suppliers might pause the production of raw cheese. Such realities are a part of everyday life, but we have become blind to them through the ultra-convenience of supermarkets.
It became increasingly clear to me, the more I spoke to Heather, that I had not given the food industry as much scrutiny as it deserves, given its many dazzling flaws. I, and many of us, have largely glazed over the issues the modern food industry has introduced. Our hands have forked plastic money over to whoever serves us the largest helping of convenience.
My box represented the Phillipses’s most recent venture, what they market as Gather Collaborative CSA Boxes.
A particularly tragic shortcoming concerns food waste, as well as the waste from disposable packaging, and the devastatingly little we do to prevent waste. We also lack awareness regarding our personal relationships to food. Heather is saddened by the distance we have placed between ourselves and those who are responsible for growing and producing food. If we are to have any semblance of a whole, interconnected community, we must restore some of the sacred understanding of how the earth actually operates and how we can become more closely involved in that operation. The Phillipses work to bridge those gaps and help consumers make those connections. And because the produce and products aren’t traveling as far, box contents largely avoid packaging, particularly plastic.
In my conversations with Heather, we discussed how too many of us are perfectly content with bi-weekly treks to the grocery store, returning home laden with package-heavy goods of indeterminate nutrition and quality. These hauls include many of the same items we bought the week before, which will be replaced again the following week. This often mindless ritual, practiced by millions, isn’t serving us well.
Because people have the luxury of choice, stores are unable to perfectly predict how much of a particular item to keep in stock. Of course, there are seasonal trends and favorites, but the specifics will always remain blurry. Heather said, “The CSA, where you don’t get to choose, is hard for some people.” We have become completely reliant on the constancy that supermarkets provide, reveling in the ability to find apricots in January and Brussels sprouts in June.
It became increasingly clear to me, the more I spoke to Heather, that I had not given the food industry as much scrutiny as it deserves, given its many dazzling flaws.
This model lends itself to huge amounts of waste. Whatever is not chosen quickly enough is most often disposed of. Additionally, before produce even reaches the shelves, much of it is tossed out, because consumers demand clean and perfect fruits and vegetables. There’s a sense of entitlement that accompanies our demand, and one result, according to the USDA, is that grocery stores are responsible for 10% of food waste in the United States and that consumers are responsible for over 20%, because we never eat all we purchase.
Though sources disagree on exact numbers, overall food waste in the United States each year totals roughly 100 billion pounds—nearly 40% of our entire food supply. This is an amount the magnitude of which we cannot comprehend. It is crucial to acknowledge the part we play and to look at where we can support solutions. A significant benefit of the CSA model, one which Heather and Rick strongly stand behind, is the reduction of food waste at the farm level too. When farmers know how many mouths are expecting food, they can plan accordingly, since sign-ups for CSA boxes are sometimes months or weeks in advance, and subscribers tend to stick around. Because people pick up boxes each week, and the portions are predetermined, it’s much harder for consumers to accidentally accumulate more than they will consume.
Not only subscribers enjoy and appreciate this model; the producers and contributors do too. Ashley Vellis and her husband Travis own and operate Ashley’s Seafood in McKinleyville, selling fish they catch from their own boat and the catch of other local fishers as well. Ashley’s Seafood is where Heather sources the fish often included in weekly boxes. Ashley shared, “When I connected with Heather, I found a lot of the same values, like getting to know our fisherman, and having a direct impact from producer—or in this case, fisherman—to consumer.” Every two weeks, Ashley’s Seafood sends over enough fish, for example, California halibut and miso-marinated sablefish, for the next two boxes that will go out to subscribers from Redding and the surrounding area.
We have become completely reliant on the constancy that supermarkets provide, reveling in the ability to find apricots in January and Brussels sprouts in June.
Sierra Nevada Cheese Company is a midsize operation based in Willows, California, and its products might also be in a weekly box. Megan Rogers, marketing director at Sierra Nevada Cheese, recalled being approached by the Phillipses. “They were interested in our products and they had a real passion for connecting the community to local producers and growers. It fits in well with what we do at Sierra Nevada Cheese. We’ve taken on small family farms and connected them to their consumers. The farms take pride in where their products are going.” Sierra Nevada buys milk from seven farms and dairies, in order to create cheese, yogurt, and butter. I was beyond delighted by the Creme Kefir I tried after finding it in the box. Megan’s connection with Heather and Rick goes beyond the curated boxes, too. “I so believe in what they’re doing, and I’m also a microgreens subscriber. We’re addicted to them.”
Heather says, “Through our experience as food producers, as we connected with our peers in the local agricultural industry, we noticed many other ‘successful’ producers ship much of their product to large markets in places like San Francisco, leaving their neighbors and neighboring communities shopping at grocers who truck the food we get from hundreds of miles away.” Notes Heather, “Our mission is to keep local food local.”
By curating weekly boxes of food from local producers and by offering subscriptions for those boxes and for their own farm product, the Phillipses do keep local food local. They bring their subscribers along on small steps in the direction they wish the food system to go. It’s a direction that moves towards forging connection between growers and consumers, consumers and the earth, individual humans and our communities at large, small steps towards change on a grand scale.
WHAT DOES CSA MEAN?
The acronym stands for community-supported agriculture, a model that began in 1986 at two farms, one in Massachusetts and one in New Hampshire. Although the programs at the two farms differed, both were influenced by the economic ideas of Austrian Rudolf Steiner, who envisioned a producer-consumer relationship linked by mutual interest. As the two northeast farms worked out applying this notion of mutuality, both began in the dirt—with the land that farmers would use to produce their crops.
Even today, the exorbitant cost of land is one of the biggest impediments young farmers face. The two New England farms entered into a relationship with interested community members, formed a trust, and combined money to lease farmland and to finance the work of its farmers. For their part, the farmers tended the land sustainably and shared each year’s harvest with the community. Thus, the community shared the farmer’s risks, benefited from her stewardship of the land, and stayed in the relationship for the long haul. It’s clear to see this model as community-supported agriculture.
In the three-plus decades since these CSAs started, the CSA term has been appropriated for many different kinds of farmer/consumer relationships, including subscription sales of vegetables directly from farmer to local consumers; national, online vegetable subscription services, with vegetables sourced from many farms; aggregated/ curated boxes like the Phillipses’ Gather Collaborative CSA Boxes; and food hubs. In the original meaning of CSA, however, there was no middleman between the farm and the community. If you didn’t chat with your farmer, you weren’t part of a CSA. The more recent, local food businesses that aggregate goods from several producers do meet a need and provide a service. They also replicate a system where food processors and distributors make money off a farmer’s work and where subscribers have no relationship with a farmer or investment in a farm.
It’s likely the term CSA will remain muddled. For what it’s worth, the State of California, by law in both its Food and Agriculture Code and its Health and Safety Code, has defined CSA so that if there is a middleman, it is not a CSA. The CSA definition requires direct marketing between a producer/farmer (or a group of farmers) and consumers who “pledge or contract to buy a portion of the future crop, animal production or both.” The USDA defines CSA as “a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.” Both these definitions (more so the one by the USDA, with its emphasis on community farmland) stay true to the original meaning of community-supported agriculture.
—CB, from information gleaned from rodaleinstitute.org
Eythana Miller is a transplanted Montanan who has fallen in love with Redding over the last three years. Currently in her second year at Shasta College, she enjoys the Redding Saturday Farmers’ Market, a good literary discussion over bubble tea, and experimenting with taco recipes at home.