“I was – and continue to be – surprised by the quantity of rutabaga consumed in Wisconsin,” says Kiera Mulvey, her freckly face widening to a grin. “It seems to hearken back to some kind of Wisconsin ancestral history.”
The rutabaga: a root-vegetable in the figurative as well as literal sense, and a pretty good metaphor for the work Mulvey does as the Executive Director of FairShare CSA Coalition: find ways to transform a very old tradition into something fresh and innovative, by connecting the region’s farmers to the region’s eaters through community supported agriculture (CSA).
At its core, CSA goes something like this: local farmers have delicious produce to sell, and local mouths have bellies to feed. Why not get everybody together? But rather than simply bringing the goodies to market, the hungry stomachs ante in with a financial or labor commitment, up front, in exchange for several weeks’ worth of ruffage, packed by the farmer and divvied up as “shares” based on the overall harvest and relative investment by the consumer.
“[CSA] is a reliable, predictable food source for the consumer and a reliable, predictable source of income for the farmer,” Mulvey says.
Dedicated to making sure farmers are paid full market value for their goods, while ensuring that those of all economic backgrounds have access to quality food, FairShare has retained the “revolutionary” aspect intended by its original moniker: Madison Eaters Revolutionary Front.
This regional “revolution” was well under way by the turn of the 21st century, when the organization changed its name to Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, or MACSAC. The local food movement was beginning to find ways to amplify its presence and its impact through coalition building – and maybe that really is something new under the sun.
Today, Mulvey and her small team brokers relationships between 50 farms and 25,000 individuals in the region. As both those numbers grow, the CSA movement gains greater potential to influence policy and partnership by demonstrating value.
“Farmers are the original innovators; tinkering, coming up with solutions to problems, sharing that information,” says Mulvey. “It’s a collaborative network that is uplifting the movement and taking it to the next level. We, as a network of farms and consumers, can leverage that in ways like health insurance rebates – we can approach organizations and say ‘Hey, this is a great movement, don’t you want to get on board.’”
Another of the pillars of the Madison CSA movement has been a desire to ensure individuals of all economic backgrounds have access to wholesome, real food. FairShare’s “PartnerShares” program collects funds (through donations and fundraisers like the eminently popular Bike the Barns tour) to underwrite families who can’t afford full-price CSA shares.
“Food is really expensive,” says Mulvey, “and lots of the stuff that is less nutritious is artificially cheap. Part of our work is education, is saying, ‘Hey this is what it costs to produce food.’”
Mulvey’s own education has taken her from northern Connecticut to rural England to Ireland to a community garden in Providence, Rhode Island, where she says she saw for the first time the community impact of local agriculture.
“I saw stuff I’d never seen before,” she says, clearly still inspired by even the recollection. “Crazy melons from Southeast Asia, cool tropical heat-tolerant spinach varieties from West Africa, just these cultural histories of food that were beyond my wildest imagination. So that’s when I really fell in love with the food movement, life stories and food stories, and how all that interacts to create social change.”
And, of course, Madison is only the most recent stop on this educational circuit. Which is perhaps why Mulvey has some valuable, high-level perspective about the hard won gains the region has made in the “locavore” world.
“Twenty years ago there was no CSA movement in Madison. We still had lovely prairie top soils and all the things that challenge us to push the envelope, but there is a possibility that Madison could, if we don’t all pick up the charge, could become complacent and pat ourselves on the back and just say, ‘Nice work everybody!’”
Mulvey lightly pounds the table with her curlicue-tattooed arm.
“It’s our responsibility is to say, ‘Nice work isn’t good enough — what’s the next horizon? We’re the leader now and encouraging everybody to catch up, but we should still be the leader when they catch up. What’s the next innovation?’”
So, what keeps Kiera Mulvey grounded?
“The most exciting season is greenhouse season, especially in Wisconsin. You’re just coming out of winter, crawling out of hibernation, just starting to remember your social skills, everything’s warm and wet and smells like earth and you’re in your t-shirt planting little seeds and it’s totally full of hope, no machines have broken yet…
The hope is kind of inspiring that time of year.”
“Plus, the dirt smells good.”
Stay tuned to our site each week to meet a new Badger Bioneer! ~ SD