Cultivating a market for fresh, local crops

Cooperative: A group of area farmers will provide a weekly supply of fresh produce and more to subscribers to their program.

March 16, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

A group of Howard County farmers think they have found a way to make more money and foster a deeper appreciation for locally grown food.

Four farms and a baker, working together as the Howard County Growers, LLP, are expanding their subscription service this year, in which customers sign up at the beginning of the season to receive a prepared bag of vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers, bread and other items every week for 16 weeks. All of it is planted, picked and prepared locally.

"We thought, especially in Columbia, convenience is a huge thing for people," said Carrie Minard, the Howard County Growers' administrator. Many of the participating growers offer their produce at the farmers' market or at their farms, but the subscription program provides fresh vegetables and fruit wrapped up and ready to go.

This year, the Howard County Growers subscription program will include three pickup sites: Mount Pisgah AME Church in Columbia, the George Howard Building in Ellicott City and Triadelphia Lake View Farm in Glenelg. The cost is $450 for those who sign up by April 15 and $475 after that date.

The group is hoping to attract about 100 customers from the area. Last year - the group's first - it served 16 families with one distribution site at Howard County General Hospital.

The growers have also received a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will help them purchase advertising, packaging, supplies and other services.

Community Supported Agriculture groups, or CSAs, have been gaining popularity in the United States for nearly two decades, according to the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources in Pennsylvania. The idea got started in Japan and traveled to Europe before the first CSA in this country started on a Massachusetts farm in 1985.

CSAs receive payments in advance, and community members get a share of the total harvest or a predetermined amount of produce. Some farms offer a discount to members who help with planting, harvesting and other chores.

More than 1,000 CSAs are active in the United States today, according to the center, and about 25 are available in Maryland. One of the largest is the Mountains to Bay CSA, which casts a wide net with 13 farms participating and pickup sites in Columbia, Sunderland and the Annapolis area. It is run by the Maryland Certified Organic Growers Cooperative, which started in 1996.

"It is a useful planning tool for farmers," said Ginger Myers, agricultural marketing specialist with the Howard County Economic Development Authority. The producers decide what to plant knowing they have an outlet, and they receive money up front to offset costs, she explained.

"It is very comforting to know at least part of the crop is sold," said David Shaw of Shaw Farms in Columbia.

And, he said, "It gives [farmers] a chance to market in the off-season." Shaw Farms, which grows organic produce, has had its own subscription service since 1998 in addition to participating in the Howard County Growers.

Ghassan Neshawat, who farms organically on his Jasmine farm in Glenwood, was grateful for the cooperative's initial efforts. Neshawat recalled that the hot, humid weather of last summer and fear of sniper attacks in the area limited attendance at the farmers' market last year.

"During those weeks, we had an outlet for our food" between the Howard Growers CSA and the one he has started on his farm, he said.

Traditionally, there are no contracts in the produce business, because Mother Nature is too unpredictable, Shaw said. But in a CSA, producers and customers share the risks and the rewards.

In the case of the Howard County Growers, that risk is diminished by the cooperative nature of the group. Shaw Farms and Jasmine Farm are working with Sharp's at Waterford Farm, based in Brookeville, which will provide mainly herbs and flowers, and Triadelphia Lake View Farm, which grows popular produce such as tomatoes, peppers, corn, strawberries and pumpkins.

The Breadery in Ellicott City is a fifth partner, providing fresh whole-grain bread each week. The cooperative will also consider buying certain items - such as fruit - that the member farms do not usually have in abundance.

"It's great you can kind of rely on each other," said Linda Brown, who owns Triadelphia Lake View Farm with her husband, Jim. If their farm has a bad week, or weather problems, someone else is likely to have a strong harvest of something, she said.

"We all grow such different things, it adds a lot of diversity," Linda Brown said.

That diversity can mean an adventure in unusual tomato varieties or a family's first rutabaga, but it can also be disconcerting to consumers who like a few items and give up their choice to the growers.

"I was always kind of surprised about what you got," said Melanie Rubin, a registered nurse at Howard County General, who participated in the Howard Grower's pilot year. But, she said, "I never had anything that did not taste good."

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