Farm fresh

neighbors

Schools, farmers connect to provide better eating

April 05, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Bonnie Sorak can't wait to sample a romanesco this summer.

The Ellicott City resident and her family are vegans and eat only plant products, but she just recently heard of the pale-green vegetable that's a cross between broccoli and cauliflower.

As tantalizing as the prospect of tasting the unusual cruciferous vegetable is the satisfaction of knowing it will be just one of an array of farm products that will be delivered to her at peak freshness all season long.

Sorak's family and 84 other area households have contracted to try a symbiotic concept called "community supported agriculture," in what organizers believe is the first-ever arrangement between a county farm and a trio of school PTAs.

Fresh food is only half the appeal of the CSA program. The other half is revealed in its name, which calls for a community to band together to support a local farmer by pre-ordering produce, eggs, bread and other products.

A CSA feels like "buying a piece of the farm," said Beth Berkeley, another parent volunteer who helped coordinate the partnership of Centennial district schools and Breezy Willow Farm in West Friendship.

The 35-member PTA wellness committee of Centennial Lane Elementary School brokered the agreement and included Burleigh Manor Middle and Centennial High families, neighbors and friends in their effort.

On March 25, the first day to place orders, the line at Burleigh Manor was out the door, Berkeley said. The high demand prompted her to inquire about adding shares next year.

"Many of us don't really know what fresh produce really tastes like," Sorak said, because much supermarket produce is trucked in from other states, taking days to arrive.

"Our food supply is also safer when it comes from local growers," she said. "Theories that terrorists could get to us through our food supply really aren't far-fetched when you think about how centralized our food system is."

While CSAs are not new, none of the three county farms that offer them has ever contracted with a school, said Kathy Zimmerman, agriculture marketing specialist with the Howard County Economic Development Authority. The other two are Shaw Farm in Columbia and Jasmine Farm, also in West Friendship, she said.

CSAs are "bringing people back to their roots," said Zimmerman. "Most of us are four generations removed from farming."

There are 335 farms in the county, she said, though many are horse farms. According to the state Department of Agriculture's Web site, 57 farms across Maryland offer CSAs.

"We have already gotten calls from other schools interested in this program," Zimmerman said. "I believe it's going to be very successful now that a model has been set up."

A CSA has benefits for both parties, said R.J. Caulder of Breezy Willow, who has a 24-week contract to deliver 79 orders of farm-fresh products that will feed a family of four for $34 a week. There are 85 households involved because some orders are being shared.

The wellness committee added to each order a $9 surcharge, which the three schools' PTAs will split evenly, bringing the total to $825 per order. The farm is guaranteed about $65,000 in sales.

Caulder said she can plan her crops accordingly from June through November and has working capital to use at the beginning of the season to purchase seeds and supplies. In return, the buyers get the best of the farm's harvest week after week.

She also has hooked up with five other farms to assist her so she can offer her CSA customers a wider variety of goods.

Sharp's Farm in Glenelg has started some seedlings for Caulder in its greenhouses, and she travels 100 miles to an Amish farm in Pennsylvania to get mushrooms. She has also gotten goat's milk from Clark's Elioak Farm in Ellicott City. In return, she gives those farmers some of her handmade soaps to sell.

"This takes a lot of coordination, and I am constantly juggling to come up with a nice assortment," said Caulder, who has been farming for 25 years and took part in her first CSA in 2004. "But there's peace of mind in having guaranteed sales.

Another objective of the wellness committee is getting involved in Maryland Homegrown School Days, a weeklong program designated by the state legislature in which local farms supply fresh produce to school cafeterias, said Lisa Regnante, committee chair.

The second annual event is scheduled for September.

"We want cafeteria foods to reflect what schools and parents are teaching our kids," Regnante said.

Taking on the CSA program demonstrates the committee's commitment to making fresh foods available to children, she said:

"We are mommies on a mission, and we're passionate about healthy living and eating."

neighbors

Is there a noteworthy person or event in your neighborhood? Contact Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg at jholzberg76@msn.com or 410-461-4150.

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