Theo Ciszewski is a friend and Whitman classmate. He graduated in 2015 with a degree in Politics and French, and immediately started his own farm business on rented land. Now in his second season with Nothing’s Simple Farm, he supplies CSA, restaurant and market customers in Walla Walla, Washington. He began work on the farm property as an intern during his junior summer at Whitman, and has now been running the farm’s day-to-day operations for a nearly two years. He hopes to move on to work for a few farms in Western Oregon this coming season, and is planning to return to his own operation some day. He wrote this piece about his time with Nothing’s Simple.
When I first approached my farm’s landowner with ideas for a business name, he was standing on a ladder, cleaning out the chimney flue. It was a fall day, and although it was still pleasantly warm in the afternoon sun, it was time to prepare for cold nights when the wood-burning stove would be necessary. “What do you think about Nothing’s Simple, for a farm name?” I asked, positioning my back to the sun so I could see up the ladder. Leaning against the uppermost rungs, Bob considered my idea with a short laugh and passed his judgment down from on high. “Well, ain’t that the truth!”
In naming the farm, I wanted to strike a balance between reality and idealism; I wanted a name that connected where I was to where I wanted to go. It had to represent my commitment to sustainability and my ideals about land stewardship, but also be approachable to potential customers and the restaurants that might feature it on their menus. Finding a compromise under four syllables was tough.
Interpreted plainly, Nothing’s Simple sounds like a complaint, or the ever unhelpful but popular summation: life is hard. Farm work is tough, and to the consumer who is ever more distant from their food and from piecework professions in general, the business of farming can be rather obscure.
The name Nothing’s Simple came about in response to a pervasive narrative that depicts millennial, first generation farmers as happy-go-lucky people who choose the hard but rewarding lifestyle of farming and find ways to make it work. There are far too many sunny documentaries, shorts and magazine articles that feature these storylines but do little to educate the consumer about sustainability from a food justice or community access perspective. My goal in starting a farm was to become a voice in the conversation on food system sustainability, and to do this through operating a successful business.
Before my farm got its name, I had to know who would buy my produce. A “Field of Dreams” model is not the way to go for any business, even one where the product being sold is as essential as food. Inspired by other models I had read about and my observations of other growers, I decided that most of my production would supply a weekly produce subscription program (often called a CSA, short for Community Supported Agriculture) aimed at meeting the needs of college students and the elderly.
These groups have a few things in common that support my market model and my ideas on sustainability more generally. Both college students and the elderly often lack access to transportation, so my CSA program includes delivery. Both students and the elderly are likely to be buying food just for themselves, so I made each delivery sized and priced for an individual diet and budget. Finally, I also outlined several payment options so that customers could break the program down into manageable commitments.
Many CSA programs ask for payment in full, upfront, are sized for families, and require access to personal transportation or pickup during specific hours. All of these aspects accommodate the farmer, but not necessarily the customer. Starting out, I built on this opportunity to serve a network of my peers and community members in a manner that fit the commitments of the Nothing’s Simple name, going the extra miles to make my farm an accessible and meaningful choice.
It was in the transition between my first and second seasons that Nothing’s Simple really began to live up to its name. My first season, I made most of the CSA deliveries by bike after driving from the farm to a central location in town. This season, I drove every CSA delivery, and it was spread out over two weekdays instead of one. This meant more gas consumption, but it also allowed me to pick up compostable scraps from my customers to bring back to the farm, eventually generating compost to spread over the vegetable beds.
My two seasons have taught me that sustainability must be a moving target. Working on rented land with existing infrastructure set my operation to work in a particular way, just as targeting a specific customer base shaped my growing decisions. When I am observant to my context, I can continually set new goals and make the choices that best align resource conservation with human organization.
For example, we have a walk-in cooler that is essential for preserving produce that we pick at peak maturity, but it is not best positioned for energy efficiency with the path of the sun. We have an irrigation set-up and time use agreement with our neighbors that only lets us irrigate on certain days of the week, instead of being able to time our water use more appropriately to plant needs and weather. In both cases, our choices lie at the confluence of many needs–not least of which are the human relationships that complicate our collective desire to conserve resources.
This last year has also reinforced for me the importance of give and take in consumer relationships. The CSA model can give a farmer increased security and convenience by providing upfront payment and helping with season planning, but I have also found that I need to adapt to my niche consumer’s needs. Throughout both CSA seasons I have tried to cultivate a relationship of mutual responsibility, such that the consumer feels like they have choice and are satisfied, but are also willing to be flexible and adapt, just as plants do, to seasonal changes.
It has been a long time since consumer-producer relationships were commonplace in America. Today, it would be impossible to know all the people who grow, process and package our food. This is due in part to rapid advances in farm technology in the wake of the Second World War, which left a huge gap between expensive, high-production equipment and chemicals, and Amish-style hand and horse tools. There was little space left for small, direct-market farms to make a larger impact, because these farmers lacked the tools and markets to make operations of this scale profitable.
In a farm culture centered around technology and fossil fuels, the commonplace approach to growing food became increasingly reactive. If there was a bug, disease or drought, it could be sprayed or drilled and pumped. With sales contracts made up well in advance of harvest, industrial-scale farmers have an incentive to meet quotas for specific products. They often do not cultivate the diversity of plant species to compensate for a poor season of production in one area. This early contract model usually puts the purchaser in control of land and animal management decisions, holding farmers to a certain regimen of chemical application or engineered feed.
The small-scale agriculture model to which I subscribe operates preventatively. We look to anticipate pests, diseases and climate change, instead of treating these factors as they arise. We create diverse plant habitats and practice regenerative soil management; these measures complement the growing season, foster a strong microbe community and give us more resilient soil, more resilient plants and a more resilient bottom line.
Local, sustainable consumption continues to grow in popularity and market share. I believe that it is important that our food systems foster this scale of cultivation and marketing; climate change is forcing adaptation across all types of agriculture, but small-scale, regenerative crop production is best equipped to meet the needs of our communities in a holistic manner that considers generational equity and sustainable consumption.
First generation food producers are asking important questions, the effects of which will reverberate through both urban and rural communities. Conversations with other growers, food sellers, distributors and producers over just a few seasons have shown me that accountability and engagement need to exist across all levels of our food systems to motivate sustainable practices at scale. This means considering sustainability in any context related to food, not just the narrow fields of cultivation and green-product consumption. CSAs and other direct sales models champion this approach, obliging consumers and producers to engage in a more intimate relationship with each other and with the consequences of their resource management.
We are so used to having immediate and virtually endless variety in our modern diet that it can seem imposing to ask customers to subject themselves to a seasonal assortment of weekly produce items. But I believe that some version of the CSA model is at the heart of a food system that can address the collateral damage to human, animal and soil health that is the byproduct of an impersonal, industrial food system. It is important that we ask ourselves, and by extension our communities, to be more accountable as consumers. This may mean taking certain items out of our diets, and replacing them with seasonal, locally grown foods. And it certainly involves building an equitable system of resource management, so that young farmers can get started on growing food that matters.
As a new producer and a young consumer in a small farming community, my relationships with chefs, farmers market customers, and CSA members contribute to my understanding of what I hope local food systems can be. Nothing’s Simple is shaped by these relationships, but it remains above all a personal commitment to starting a dynamic and necessary conversation between the generations, one that will help us navigate compromises and move towards sustainability in our communities and our changing landscapes.