New concept thrives down on the farm

CSA: That's short for community-supported agriculture, a concept rich with rewards for farmer and consumer alike.

April 29, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The fava bean plants at Beckie and Jack Gurley's tiny farm in Sparks stand only 6 inches tall. The crop won't be ready to harvest for another five weeks, but the bulk of it has already been bought and paid for.

It's all part of a different approach to farming known as community-supported agriculture, CSA for short. CSA can be traced to 1960s Japan, and it didn't make its way to this country until a Massachusetts woman tried it in the mid-1980s.

CSA works like this: By making an investment of about $450, the consumer buys a share of a CSA farmer's weekly harvest. Usually made in January or February, the payments provide farmers with upfront money for seed, equipment and any other items needed to get crops in the ground.

"The main thing it does is spread the risk between the farmer and the consumer," Bradley H. Powers, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said of CSA, a concept that is growing in Maryland and the rest of the country. "That's the big factor."

Farmers don't have to shoulder the full risk, for example, of a severe drought, a hurricane or a vicious attack of squash beetles, Powers said. And consumers are guaranteed the freshest fruits and vegetables all summer while farmers are assured a market for their produce.

"Shopping at a CSA farm has become more of a recreational thing, an educational thing, a fun thing," Powers added. "Families bring their kids to the farm and they get to see where their food comes from. It's a chance to sample country life."

Valerie Berton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education group, said there are about a dozen CSA farms in Maryland and nearly 1,000 in the nation - most in the Northeast near large population centers.

Jack and Beckie Gurley have used the CSA technique to earn a living off the two backyard acres of their Yeoho Road home and 3 acres of rented land.

They named their operation Calvert's Gift and, as is the case on most CSA farms, all the produce is organic - grown without chemical fertilizer or pesticides.

"We're not getting rich," said Jack Gurley. "But we're profitable enough to support our family. We have no off-farm income."

"And we get to stay home with our two daughters," interjected Beckie Gurley, referring to Emma, 5, and Taylor, 4. "With us, that's very important."

They say the farm had sales of "more than $60,000" last year, including sales to restaurants in Baltimore and Washington and at two farmers markets.

They declined to discuss net income, other than Jack Gurley saying, "We kept more than half our sales in salaries."

The couple launched their CSA operation in 1997 after quitting their jobs with EA Engineering, Science and Technology Inc.

At first they had eight members or investors. Last year they had 30 - "enough to keep us so busy we couldn't see straight," Beckie Gurley said.

They grow more than 60 types of vegetables, including eight kinds of summer squash, asparagus, green beans, beets, chard, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, pumpkins, potatoes, sweet peppers, eggplant and sugar snap peas.

A notable exception is sweet corn. "It takes up too much land," Jack Gurley said.

Members pay $400 for a share of the farming operation, $375 if payment is made before Feb. 15. Members who put in 15 hours of work at the farm receive a 50 percent discount.

For that, each week of the 25-week growing season they receive a box with about $16 in produce, enough for a family of four for a week.

During periods of the season when certain crops, like spinach and chard, are plentiful, members are encouraged to take extra at no cost.

It's not looking to cut her grocery bill that brings Christina Chambreau, a veterinarian who lives in Sparks, to Calvert's Gift each week for vegetables.

"I go where I can buy the best food I can get," she said. "Their food tastes better than what you can get at the supermarket. It's more nutritious. It's fresher. Some of the things I take home were picked earlier that morning."

Jenny Siebenhaar is one of five partners who operate Cromwell Valley CSA in a Baltimore County park just off the Beltway.

Now in its fifth season, it serves 125 members, most of them in Baltimore City and along the I-83 corridor to Hunt Valley. Some come from as far away as Hickory and Belcamp.

Members pay $475 for a share and pick up fruit and produce for a 27-week period beginning in early May. As do most other CSA operations, Cromwell Valley takes an organic approach to farming, although it has not yet been certified by the state.

There have been times in the past, Siebenhaar said, that members have had to skip a week or two because of drought. "That's the chance that members take," she said.

It offers a wide variety of vegetables along with pick-your-own flowers.

Powers said that while CSA offers a good chance for a small farm to be profitable, it isn't for everyone.

"It is almost like tourism," he said. "If you can't put up with Mom and Pop and all the kids running around your farm, it might not be for you."

"A lot of farmers don't have the mind-set for getting down off the tractor and getting involved in direct marketing. Sometimes, dealing with buyers one-on-one can be difficult," he said.

Turnover is fairly high. Nearly one-third of the CSA farms in Maryland have gotten out of the marketing approach in recent years and been replaced by others.

Powers said some farmers discovered that running a CSA was a lot more work than they expected.

Siebenhaar agrees that it is a lot of work, but she is not complaining. "I enjoy the physical work," she said. "This was the first thing I got into that really felt right. I feel like I'm making a contribution to society."

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