Reaping local bounties

Farmers: Shareholders buy a stake in an organic farm in Cromwell Valley Park to gain the benefits of fresh produce.

August 25, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Ten minutes beyond the city line in Baltimore County's lush Cromwell Valley, Nora Olson and her two small children drifted through a hot August afternoon perfumed by fresh basil while selecting newly picked vegetables and herbs for their table in Rodgers Forge.

"My children learn that this is good use of the land, their family eats organically grown produce and they have fun visiting a farm so close to home," Olson said.

The Olsons are shareholders in Community Supported Agriculture, an innovative farming system that took root in Japan in the 1960s and spread to America.

At the 15-acre organic farm at Cromwell Valley Park, four full-time farmers grow and harvest the crops. About 120 shareholders paid $510 this growing season, or a few dollars less if they agreed to help work the fields a few times.

In return, they get to visit the CSA's distribution barn, called the "Apple House," once a week and choose from a harvest that includes an array of summer vegetables and berries. The tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet peppers are usually taken first.

The co-op style farming operation started in 1998.

Mary Jo Minton, a pediatrician who lives in Homeland, has been coming to Cromwell Valley's CSA farm for four years. She talks about how the emerald valley near Towson was once considered as a site for a condominium development and golf course. Now, the 375-acre park and farm are used as a learning center for schoolchildren, hikers, photographers and artists.

"Instead of standing here amidst all these wonderful vegetables, we could be on somebody's deck," she said.

For her and others in the CSA, the fee to hold a share in the farm is worth it because the concept is as much a commitment to the wise use of land as it is putting healthy food on the table. But she adds, "I am a proponent of organic growing. I love to cook with these delicious vegetables."

For Marion Frankenhauser, a nurse at Greater Baltimore Medical Center and a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, just driving into Cromwell Valley is, as she puts it, "therapy."

"For my four children, they are learning to eat in a healthy way," Frankenhauser said. "For the farmers here, growing the vegetables is a labor of love."

Two of the Cromwell Valley farmers, Ben and Becky Fischler, met while studying archaeology at the University of Michigan. After working several years in their specialty, they took up CSA farming last year. They live in a white cottage in the park.

"Essentially, the shareholders pay the fee to help us defray costs of growing and whatever salary we see," Ben Fischler said. "Being involved in the farming process also shows people that we are at the whims of Mother Nature, like the weather or insects."

There are about 900 CSA farms in America, according to the Web site of Future Harvest-CASA, a network of farmers, agricultural professionals, landowners and consumers from the Chesapeake region.

More than 50 of those farms are in Maryland, southern Virginia and the West Virginia panhandle, said Charles Kauffman, an adviser on small farms to the federal Department of Agriculture and vice president of the Accokeek Foundation in Prince George's County, which operates a CSA farm.

"As larger farms have taken over agriculture in America, smaller farms are popping up more frequently now and, with them, interesting people who work them," Kauffman said.

Dale Johnson, a farming management specialist at the University of Maryland, said the CSA philosophy appeals to a small, committed core of people. Especially, he said, when today's consumers can buy produce more conveniently in air-conditioned supermarkets.

"CSA farming is a niche market for those who want fresher and better-tasting produce, in a way like produce stands and farmers' markets," Johnson said. "And all three lift the local economy."

While some CSA farms remain successful ventures, the sustainability of other CSA farms is questionable, he said. "Some think they would like to try running one of these small operations but become surprised at all the dedication, hard work it requires. But while one might fold, another could be born," he said.

Beckie and Jack Gurley, former environmental chemists in the private sector, opened a CSA farm five years ago in the Sparks area of northern Baltimore County. In addition to having shareholders, as in a typical CSA operation, they also sell their vegetables to two Baltimore restaurants and at farmers' markets.

"Actually, we are doing quite well," Beckie Gurley said. "But it is a seven-day-a-week operation and something you really have to enjoy doing, which we do."

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