On a Thursday morning in March, I squatted by an irrigation valve on my farm waiting for my husband’s voice to direct me. “Okay, try turning it back on again,” he yelled across the field. Tom was repairing an irrigation leak with electrical tape. “Looks good. You can leave it on for now, ” he called. As I stood up, I heard the faint sound of a car turning onto our half-mile driveway. Through the trees, I saw a black jeep- a vehicle I didn’t recognize. Annoyance bubbled up in me. We live twenty minutes from the closest town. If strangers travel here, they are either lost or going to stay a while. I had not planned on entertaining random visitors that day.
Near the house, a tall, skinny man dressed in a suit pulled himself out of the drivers seat. He turned around in a full circle, leaning back slightly as if off-kilter. “It’s so beautiful here!” he called out in a nasally voice. As I made my way over to him, I could see his suit was brown polyester, the kind you might find at Goodwill, the kind you might use for a Halloween costume, not one you’d wear to work. He wore coke-bottle glasses and supportive brown shoes, one heel a half inch higher than the other. “I just can’t believe what a beautiful drive that was and how nice this place is,” he said to me. My annoyance dissolved immediately. Most visitors, even the regulars, step out of their rigs and remark on the windy roads that induce carsickness or exclaim something about our remote location. This stranger was focused on our farm’s rugged beauty. I liked him at once.
After turning around in circles twice more, he stuck out a hand and introduced himself; “Charles Smithey from the USDA, here for an inspection of your store. “ I momentarily panicked. What store? What the hell is he talking about? And then my brain clicked into action and I realized my predicament.
Months earlier, an email had landed in my virtual clutter announcing that farms with Community Supported Agriculture programs would be allowed to accept food stamps from customers. My husband and I run a small, organic produce farm and coordinate a cooperative CSA program that delivers weekly boxes of seasonal produce to 235 families. While I love our work– stewarding land and providing high quality, locally produced food, I also struggle with the inherent elitism of the organic food movement. I spent a lot of time volunteering at soup kitchens as a kid, and remember well the slop we doled out onto pink plastic plates for the hungry of Washington D.C.; our goal simply to fill hungry bellies. As an adult, I sell heirloom tomatoes and mesclun salad mix for a premium, well beyond the price range of most people. More than a third of the population in my county live in poverty, with about 20% using food stamps. I thrilled at the chance to bridge these two worlds; to bring an element of social activism from my youth to the sustainable food movement.
Within the hour, I was on the phone with Deborah Stills from the Food and Nutrition Division of the USDA. Her voice sounded hoarse and weathered as if she had been screaming into the wind all morning, yet she was excited to be breaking new ground with me. If we succeeded, our CSA would be the first in Oregon to accept food stamps. We spent the better part of the next two months exchanging phone calls and messages. I waded through reams of dense federal protocols and cajoled the eight farmers in our Cooperative, who live miles down different dusty roads, to leave their tractors in spring, sort through their disorganized desks and scan forms off to me. Finally, I had all the paperwork in hand and faxed it into the USDA. The next obstacle required more angling: food stamp recipients need to swipe their cards and punch in a pin number to purchase food. This meant that our CSA members would have to drive over an hour each week to pay for their shares at our farm. Deborah and I racked our brains for solutions. At the time, she seemed as determined as me to push this through. In each scenario we conceived, the logistics seemed insurmountable. It finally dawned on me that the only viable option would require deceiving Deborah. I would have to get both the EBT card numbers and the four-digit pins from members and punch in the numbers at home. Food stamp recipients are told explicitly to keep their information private and businesses are not allowed to ask for their numbers. After a few soul-searching moments, I opted to disregard the law. Meanwhile, Deborah stopped asking me specific questions about payment, turning a blind eye and becoming my silent accomplice. We were making slow, but steady progress.
The last application form befuddled me. In the eyes of the USDA, our CSA was now considered to be a store; the application questions related to inventory, staffing, square footage and hours. We don’t have store hours. But we do deliver CSA boxes on Thursdays between 10 am and 3 pm. I filled in the application to the best of my ability, and here I was, three weeks after submission with Charles Smithey at my doorstep ready to inspect our store on a Thursday morning at 10 am.
“So, where is the store?” Mr. Smithey asked, his tone genuinely excited. I explained that we didn’t have a brick and mortar store, since we deliver our produce to drop points all over the Rogue Valley. His demeanor remained friendly and enthusiastic. “Well, great! So, um, where is the inventory?” The inspection required photo documentation. Not quite sure what else to do, I led him out to our fields.
“Well, we just planted lots of carrots and beets in these beds, which we’ll be harvesting and delivering in June, “ I explained as he snapped away and squeaked with pleasure at the tight rows of lacey green. I silently considered what else might be considered “inventory.” We walked passed a hundred-year- old apple tree in bloom. I pointed, “We’ll be harvesting and delivering fruit from this tree in the fall.” More clicks from his camera. We strolled over to our refrigerated trailer, which held several boxes of sprouting potatoes harvested last fall. “And here are some root crops,” I chirruped. I kept my voice hopeful and bright, trying to hide the ridiculousness of describing rotting potatoes as our inventory. Mr. Smithey played along. I had no idea whether he was in on the charade or simply kind-hearted and clueless. Either way, I felt immensely grateful that he was our inspector that day.
A week later, Deborah called me. “I got the photos.” Dead silence. “What were you thinking? These won’t work!” She sounded incredulous but also slightly amused, which gave me hope. I explained the challenge of showing inventory in March, when most crops had just been planted. She sighed. We were back to fitting a square peg into a round hole. “Okay,” she said. “Take some photos of the boxes on your first delivery day and email them to me and I’ll see what I can do.” She sounded like a worn-out mom.
I realized after hanging up with Deborah that change takes place through the persistence and creativity of individuals working in large, unrelenting bureaucracies. Deborah and Mr. Smithey, unknown to each other but collective cogs in a huge machine, had given me the benefit of the doubt. They were willing to wriggle through the turnstiles of business as usual to make good food available to the people who need it most.
In June, I snapped a few photos of our first CSA box , which was filled with new potatoes, kale, salad mix, radishes, carrots, herb bundles, and strawberries, and emailed them to Deborah. A week later, she called with good news. “I got the new photos and we are sending along your EBT machine next week. Congratulations! We did it!”