Sharing risk, bounty of land

Community: CSA farms allow members to get close to the land while enjoying harvests of organically grown food. The joint investment of time and money helps them weather difficult times, too.


The 40-year-old red tractor won't start. Flea beetles attacked the cabbage. The broccoli was stunted and bitter. Drought killed all but 50 of 2,000 newly planted strawberry plants, and the would-be new well came up dry at 510 feet.

It has been the kind of season that might send a conventional farmer into debt and despair. But except for long days in the hot sun, there's not much conventional about Cromwell Valley CSA. Not the four full-time farmers, children of the suburbs who include a former clinical psychologist. Not the vegetable varieties, such as Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter Tomatoes, so-named by a fellow whom they rescued from foreclosure. Not the electric fence, powered exclusively by solar panels.

"In a way, having a difficult year brings people together," says farmer Brian Hughes, taking a break from cultivating bush beans on a muggy July morning. "You learn a lot and you get more invested in the place."

Hughes and the other three farmers don't have to shoulder on their own the crushing risk that comes with the vagaries of weather, pests and disease. That's because the three letters attached to the farm's name stand for community-supported agriculture, a fast-growing, newfangled way of organizing the production of food.

Located in a Baltimore County park just off the Beltway, Cromwell Valley CSA is supported by 180 members who pay $345 in advance -- $600 for a big family's double share -- to receive a season's worth of fresh, organic produce. Members stop by weekly to pick up whatever the fields have produced. They provide a little labor -- five hours per season per membership.

There are at least a dozen other CSA farms in Maryland and about 700 nationwide, up from 500 last year, according to Shana Berger, CSA coordinator for Just Food, a New York City nonprofit group that tracks the movement and has helped organize nine CSA farms around the Big Apple.

The concept originated in the 1960s in Japan, where women concerned about pesticides offered to pay farmers up front if they would grow produce organically, Berger says. The idea spread to Europe and reached the United States in 1985, when the first CSA opened in South Egremont, Mass.

This summer's drought, occurring in the second season of Cromwell Valley CSA's operation, has demonstrated the advantages of community-supported agriculture by spreading the cost of the drought among all the members. The four full-time farmers -- Hughes, 28; Jenny Siebenhaar, 26; Matt Hicks, 33; and Dick Frost, 50, the psychologist -- get paid a modest but guaranteed $7,000 a year apiece, plus free housing in one of the old farmhouses and all the vegetables they can eat.

Loads of tomatoes, beans and squash are imminent. But members have had to put up with a relatively skimpy harvest so far this year, with two of six scheduled weekly produce pickups canceled. The last pickup, July 16, offered each member one head of lettuce, three-quarters of a pound of Swiss chard, 2 pounds of beets and bunches of parsley, basil and dill.

Still, there has been little grumbling, farmers and members say. Most members have chosen to pass up the unseasonal -- and often tasteless -- bounty of the supermarket because they believe in the goals of the CSA movement: avoiding chemical pesticides and weed killers; preserving farmland and older, nonhybridized seed varieties; and getting in closer touch with the food they eat.

"If these were regular farmers, they'd probably be out of business," says Shelley Morhaim, a writer and filmmaker and active member of the CSA from the beginning. "I live in Owings Mills, where the land is being eaten up by subdivision after subdivision. If we want to keep open farmland, we have to make it possible for people to live off the land."

Since joining, Morhaim says, her family has tried such novel greens as purslane -- delicious sauteed with garlic -- and coped last year with the late-summer tomato glut by making gazpacho and freezing tomato sauce.

But the CSA model is not for everybody. Irene Skricki, a South Baltimore resident and active member who keeps the rolls, says nearly half of last year's members did not renew for a second year. Even in long-established CSAs, annual turnover can run as high as 30 percent, because of false expectations, mobile families, picky eaters and busy lives.

"It's not like going to the grocery store and picking out what you want," says Skricki, 33, a program associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. "You get what grew that week. Some people will say, 'Oh my God, not more kale!'"

Ken Lentz, a Towson roofing contractor, dropped out of the CSA last year after a few weeks, unhappy with the modest early-summer production. "It's a lot of money, and you have to consider the time going out there," he says. "We made out better going to the supermarket."

Yet Lentz says he would love to get a CSA going himself on his 110 acres near Hereford. "It's a great use of the land," he says.

Information on Cromwell Valley CSA: 410-592-6163.

Pub Date: 07/28/99

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