Chris Sullivan ‘09 Goes Back to the Land, Researches Community Farming - Hamilton College
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Chris Sullivan '09 (center, with sign) with Fairshare members in Kansas City.
Chris Sullivan '09 (center, with sign) with Fairshare members in Kansas City.

Chris Sullivan ‘09 Goes Back to the Land, Researches Community Farming

By Lisbeth Redfield
Posted August 16, 2007
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Chris Sullivan '09 (Shutesbury, Mass.) has a research grant for this summer, but he won't spend his time in a library. Sullivan, an environmental studies major, has been awarded a Levitt Fellowship to spend his summer traveling across the country on a motorcycle as he researches community-sustained agriculture in the U.S.

Sullivan is interested in environmental sustainability and this summer he focuses on community sustained agriculture or CSA. CSAs are associations or agreements between local farmers and residents in which the community members buy "shares" of the upcoming harvest and receive weekly amounts of fresh produce through the growing season. This arrangement guarantees customers excellent quality and farmers a secure market and money to fund season start-up costs.

Sullivan was quick to add, "in reality, a CSA is far more than a subscription farm." In some cases, the relationship may be simply one of money for fresh vegetables, but Sullivan hopes to prove that many communities receive social benefits from CSAs, such as the opportunity to work on the farms or allowing subscribers choose the produce to be grown. "It becomes more like a food cooperative," Sullivan explained. "People are much, much more involved...there's more connection to the farm and to the land."

Sullivan set out to explore CSAs as one of several possibilities for alternative food distribution based on local community involvement, with an eye to how the associations differed across the country. He is already familiar with the trials and triumphs of organic farming, both as an academic interest and because he spent part of last summer volunteering on an organic farm in Alaska. "I left Kenai [Alaska] with an appreciation of the difficulties of farming and a desire to find a better model for locally supported agriculture," he explained.

"It's great," said Sullivan of his first summer of research. "This is about as good as it can get." Although he had originally planned to do formal interviews with farm staff, Sullivan soon changed his tactic to a more hands-on approach. He drives his motorcycle across the country, staying several days at different farms, where he volunteers his time to work on the farm and chat with the other farmers and community members. Sullivan began his road trip in Amherst, Mass. and will drive all the way to the west coast and back before reaching his final destination, the local CSA Old Path Farm in Sauquoit, N.Y.

So why apply for a Levitt Fellowship? Not surprisingly, it has to do with food. Sullivan, who during the year works as a barista in Café Opus, is one of the students responsible for reforming the Woollcott CoOp. "It showed me the power of a group of dedicated individuals," he said of his experiences with the CoOp. As for the fellowships themselves, "surprisingly few people apply for them," Sullivan observed, and called them one of Hamilton's "phenomenal resources."

As last words, Sullivan emphasized his belief that community agriculture will play a far more important part in the future, as transportation becomes more expensive and the network becomes wider (one has only to remember last year's tainted spinach and the more recent faulty food products from China to understand Sullivan's argument). "People are going to be searching for a more local food source," said Sullivan, and CSA offers "a whole different dynamic between product and consumer."

Sullivan's research is funded by the Levitt Research Fellows Program, operated through the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center. The students spend the summer working intensively in collaboration with a faculty member on an issue related to public affairs. Sullivan has been working with Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Peter Cannavò this summer.

-- by Lisbeth Redfield

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