THOUSANDS of Americans who feel divorced from the earth by asphalt, desk jobs, and other modern intrusions are returning to farms for a rich communal harvest.
The would-be farmers are proponents of a program that has become a growing national trend. It is called ``community-supported agriculture'' (CSA). Early each spring, city dwellers who ``subscribe'' to CSA pay a fee to small farms in return for weekly deliveries of fresh vegetables that continue until the first killing frost.
Urban subscribers visit the farms on summer weekends to quaff the fresh air, delve into the good earth, and rub shoulders with their hired farmers. At sunset, they return to the city laden with a fresh, organically grown bounty.
Since 1985, when the first community-supported agriculture farm in the United States was launched, these farms have swelled in numbers to roughly 400 in the US and Canada, according to Robyn Van En, director of CSA of North America in Great Barrington, Mass.
In some areas, CSA is rapidly becoming fashionable - the stomping ground for poseurs of ``barnyard chic.''
``It's becoming cool to be a CSA subscriber,'' says Frederick Buttel, director of the Agricultural Technology and Family Farm Institute at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Although CSA produce is sometimes called ``yuppie chow,'' subscribers represent all income groups. Moreover, most subscribers embrace CSA for its moral and nutritional substance, rather than for its rustic style, CSA supporters say.
CSA farming promotes fellowship, basic values, fair economics, and a wholesome diet, CSA supporters and agronomists claim.
Although it is not especially lucrative, CSA offers farmers a stable income and a buffer against risk. It is also a way to help reverse the decline of US family farms, which have long been the keystone of rural society, these CSA supporters and agronomists say.
``It's a good and healthful natural environment for a family,'' says Alvin Warren, a resident farmer at Prairie Crossing Garden, a CSA participant in Grayslake, Ill. His family has tilled conventional farms for six generations.
CSA farming manages to avoid some of the problems that large, conventional farms pose to people and nature. For one, the community-supported agriculture farms forgo synthetic chemicals and rely only on organic farming to naturally replenish the soil.
Moreover, CSA farmers claim they offer fresher, tastier, and more nutritious produce than large agribusiness, although at prices that range from 10 to 20 percent higher than produce found in supermarkets.
Unlike most conventional farming, CSA brings people together by directly linking those who grow the food with those who eat it. The plan sidesteps distributors, marketers, and other middlemen, who profit from the separation of farmer and consumer.
``CSA is a device for building communities,'' Ms. Van En says. It is similar to flood control, shared harvesting, and other collective efforts that have strengthened rural America in past decades, CSA supporters say.
CSA North America promotes community gardens for apartment complexes, hospitals, and prisons. It aims to help launch some 10,000 CSA farms before the year 2000.
Still, these farms won't nudge agribusiness produce from the American larder any time soon. Instead, they will probably carve out a solid niche in metropolitan areas, Dr. Buttel predicts.
``CSAs have great growth potential; they have only scratched the surface in terms of getting subscribers,'' Buttel says. Currently, about 50 CSAs are operating in Wisconsin and Minnesota. By 2000, he estimates that the number will increase to several hundred. Moreover, all kinds of farming enterprises could convert to CSAs, he adds, including producers of poultry, meat, and dairy products.
Despite their promise, CSA farms are no easier to manage than conventional farms, and they have yet to lead to riches. Most CSA growers do not earn more than $20,000 a year. And many of the farm managers hold down other jobs as well to make ends meet, Buttel says.
``Nobody is getting rich doing it, but it provides a guaranteed income, which gives farmers much more financial credibility and security,'' says Van En, who launched a CSA program at her farm in 1985.
Although the six-acre Prairie Crossing Garden has operated for just two seasons, it already has 117 subscribers who pay $350 for weekly bags of produce over a 20-week period. Thirty-five people are now on the farm's waiting list.
Delivering a cornucopia
From early June until late October, the farm delivers its shareholders a cornucopia of 35 fruits and vegetables ranging from arugula to snap beans, potatoes, and watermelon. Atop a pile of victuals, ranging in weight from six pounds to 35 pounds, depending on the time of year, Prairie Crossing sets a bouquet of zinnias, sea lavender, delphiniums, yarrow, and other flowers.
The farm delivers the produce to designated places, or, for an extra $35 a season, to a subscriber's doorstep.
A CSA farm appeals to growers because it offers income during seedtime rather than just after a harvest. CSA farmers share the risk of farming with subscribers.
And by diversifying their produce in order to satisfy subscribers, they often thrive even if some of their crops do not. In contrast, conventional farms often suffer if just one of their few crops fails.
Many subscribers hoe, pick, or volunteer their labor in other ways. Subscribing families gather at the farm for a spring ``kite fly,'' summer solstice potluck supper, and hayride during a fall festival.
To some urbanites, the farms offer a taste of a purer life. ``I'm living out my farming dream vicariously,'' says Bob Scheffler, a graphic artist who lives in a Chicago apartment and subscribes to the Prairie Crossing Garden farm.