Feeding people and a social conscience Community gardens spread the risk and bounty of farming

April 12, 1997|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

EASTON -- The seeds fall from Mattie Shafer's hand like a soft spring rain, dropping gently into the freshly turned furrow at Pickering Creek Environmental Center in rural Talbot County.

It's a seasonal tableau you can find all over the state. From the mountains of Garrett County to Worcester County's sandy flatlands, gardeners are weeding and digging, hoping and dreaming as they put in the radishes, peas, broccoli, beets, carrots, lettuce, spinach and Brussels sprouts that are the first crops of summer.

But this Talbot County plot -- a Community Supported Agriculture project -- is more than a garden. The harvest from the seeds being planted now will be shared by 18 or so "subscribers," who will get a summer full -- at least 20 weeks -- of fresh produce in exchange for the subscription fee of $375. Subscribers may also help garden, but that's optional. "The risk is shared among the subscribers," says Alan Girard, agricultural coordinator at Pickering Creek. "If it's a good year, they'll get vegetables fresher than the ones from the store. Instead of a tomato from California, you get it that day, locally grown."

The CSA concept began about 40 years ago in Germany and Austria, says Steve Moore, director of the Center for Sustainable Living at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa. Moore's CSA is the only one to receive an EPA grant -- $48,000 for next year.

CSAs moved from Europe to Japan, then to the United States, where they flourished first in New England and California before catching on in the rest of the country. Moore says. Now, about 600 CSAs operate nationwide. Fifteen of them are in Maryland, most clustered in the southern part of the state near Washington. Girard's CSA will be the second one on the Eastern Shore -- Somerset County farmer Dale Johnson began the first nearly a decade ago as a sideline to his organic farming operation in Marion Station.

"We've kept it up because the local people like it so much," Johnson says. Girard hopes his CSA will have similar success in Talbot County. He says he has about 18 subscribers and hopes to pick up two more by the time he begins harvesting early vegetables in mid-May.

The CSA concept works well with the mission of Pickering Creek, he says -- the 300-acre environmental center run by the state Audubon Society works to educate local students and residents about sustainable land use. CSAs offer a lot of flexibility to their subscribers and gardeners, Moore says.

"The CSAs can range all over the board," he says. "They can offer a social or environmental agenda as well as a nutritional or cultural one. It can be generated by most any kind of group. Typically, CSAs are organic and follow the growing season. And they typically have some little component of social justice."

Examples of social justice, he says, include his own, which gives part of its crop to the Salvation Army for use in feeding the needy. Some subscribers give half of their share to a needy family; others will simply buy a share for someone who needs a helping hand. One plus for society at large, says Moore, is that CSAs may save a family farm or two by helping the farmer share the risk of farming.

"You can make a good, solid, honest living over a period of time," he says. "That's one of the main issues in modern agriculture -- almost no one is willing to invest in sustainable agriculture because they don't know if next year is going to be their last. How can we ask one man to bear all the risk alone?"

For the subscriber, Moore says, it offers a tangible link to the land that sustains us all. "It works to reconnect people, to get them grounded," he says.

That grounding could be seen yesterday, as Shafer, her husband, Cap, and Nancy Guile toiled at Pickering Creek. Gardening tips were exchanged, advice and experience shared, as they worked row after row.

"It's very tedious," said Guile, with a smile that belied her words, as she looked up from pouring vitamin solution on the Brussels sprouts seedlings.

"But if you're going to do it, might as well do it right."

Pub Date: 4/12/97

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