Future vegetables are current bargain

Contracts: Maryland farmers reach deals with groups of consumers that provide growers with cash now and families with fresh food later.

January 06, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Charlotte Staelin is months away from planting tomatoes and other vegetables in the fields of her Eastern Shore farm, which is now producing more mud than anything else. But she's selling her produce anyway.

For a fixed payment of about $400 during the winter, she will provide families and markets with a share of whatever her weekly production of pesticide-free vegetables turns out to be next spring.

There are close to 1,000 other mostly small family farms taking payments for food they haven't yet grown as part of a movement called consumer-supported agriculture, or CSA.

Farmers say the programs help them share their risks - and their bounties - by taking money up front. They also help keep chemicals out of the ground, educate people about where food comes from and, maybe most important, do something to save the farmers.

"Family farms are disappearing at an alarming rate and land on which we grow food for us is disappearing, and there are programs in the works to somehow turn that around," said Staelin, who took over her family's 345-acre Colchester Farms in Georgetown on the Eastern Shore about 14 years ago.

"But it makes no sense to conserve the land if each individual farm can't make money off it. It makes saving farms just a lovely idea."

The consumer-supported agriculture movement is gaining in popularity. Fueling its growth, agricultural experts say, could be socially conscious ideals of consumers and diet trends, as well as the widespread use of Internet marketing.

There also might be a little fear. In the most recent example of tainted foreign-grown food, green onions imported in October from Mexico and served at a Beaver, Pa., Chi-Chi's restaurant were linked to hepatitis A that killed three people and sickened more than 600. Other states had smaller outbreaks.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking steps to reduce the threat of food sabotage, in addition to accidental contamination of produce not currently inspected closely at the border.

`Test run' last year

Staelin entered consumer-supported agriculture last year when she set aside about 5 acres to grow vegetables for people under federal rules for organic farmers. Like many American farms since the 1950s, most of her land is dedicated to crops that are used to feed animals.

She and a partner signed up about 20 people, most of whom they knew, to pay $100 each during a "test run" last year. Heavy rains damaged some of the crops, but members still received a bevy of just-picked vegetables such as tomatoes, beans and cucumbers. They were delivered to a central drop-off point each week.

According to a study headed by a University of Massachusetts's researcher, the consumers generally got the food more cheaply than if they had bought an equivalent amount of organic vegetables at a market. The study also found in 1996 that a full share of about 400 pounds of food provided from about May to October for $460 was less costly than the same amount of vegetables bought at a regular supermarket.

But the study said farmers were generally able to profit only if they did not pay salaries to farm laborers. That hasn't stopped farmers from trying.

Reduction of risk

A few years ago, there were just a few hundred farms with CSA programs, said Valerie Berton, who works for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville. The programs were appealing because they reduced farmers' risk, she said, by guaranteeing payment no matter the weather or insects that could ravage their crops.

There are 977 farms today on a database publicly searchable on the USDA Web site.

Farms come and go each year as farmers discover they lack interest or abilities to market or plan for such a program. Generally a solitary bunch, farmers also didn't like trying to please so many people with an uncertain bounty of vegetables that might not look picture-perfect.

But the arrangement sounded good from Berton's view. A full-time working mother of two, shehelped recruit about 18 of her coworkers last year to become members of a Howard County program so the farm would deliver to her office.

"It was a really tough year because it rained constantly, but the growers did a great job and we got lots of tomatoes, blackberries, peppers, some melons, cut flowers every other week and lots of greens in the spring," she said.

"Some people balk at the cost up front, and it is a very large check to write for vegetables when it's still wintertime and you don't know exactly what you'll get, but it ends up being a deal."

As each season produces different results, each farm interprets its program somewhat differently.

Some consumer-supported agriculture programs are sponsored by universities, such as Rutgers in New Jersey.

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