Community-supported agriculture offers a season of organic crops
May 28, 2002
BY MARTY HAIR
Stephen and Carol Molle's jobs keep them too busy to raise many vegetables in their yard in Holly. And when the Molles, both vegetarians, go grocery shopping, they have to search hard and pay top price for organic produce.
So the Molles were intrigued to hear about Rocky Gardens, a farm not far from their house in northwest Oakland County, where people put up $300 in the spring to share the vegetable and fruit harvest all season.
Carol Molle, who owns a travel agency, and Stephen Molle, a veterinarian, are concerned about the amount of toxins in commercially produced vegetables and fruits. Learning that Rocky Gardens' owners would use no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers motivated the Molles to join.
"If it had not been organic, I don't think I would have been drawn to it," says Carol Molle. "This will impact people's health and lives."
Concern about health and nutrition are among the main reasons people give for joining community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms. In these operations, farmers sell subscriptions or shares to people in the spring. In return, shareholders get weekly loads of produce starting in June and continuing through September or October.
Some CSA farms, like the 300-shareholder Maple Creek Farm in Yale northwest of Port Huron, have no work requirement and deliver the produce to members' homes and offices as far away as Dearborn, Detroit and West Bloomfield.
Others ask members to pick it up -- and even to help harvest it.
That will be the case at Rocky Gardens west of Davisburg. John and Diane Franklin decided just a few months ago to start the CSA on 1 1/2 acres of their pastoral, 5-acre property.
Diane Franklin already knew she could raise produce in quantity successfully and was eager to continue. Last summer, she sold her home-grown vegetables and fruits at a roadside stand and loved the experience.
"It would just thrill me to hear someone say, 'These are the best tomatoes I ever tasted,' " she says. Her remote location was a problem, however. After all, she wondered, "How many people would come down that dirt road to buy vegetables?"
Then Franklin attended an organic conference in March in East Lansing and heard a speaker describe community-supported agriculture.
"It was electrifying," she says. Diane Franklin immediately called John and told him, "I have the answer to our location problem."
The Franklins, who are master gardeners, held two orientation meetings for prospective members, showed them around the property and described jobs they might be asked to do to satisfy their four-hour-a-month work requirement per share or family.
Within weeks, they reached their capacity of 13 other shareholders, with several on a waiting list for next year.
Some joined not only for the food but also to learn more about vegetable gardening. Karen Steinberger of Lake Orion wants hands-on experience growing produce, as well as a place where she and her husband, Brian Jendrusina, could spend time outdoors with sons Shea, 7, and Bo, 4.
"It's a place where kids do fit," she says. When the family visits the farm, the boys' job is picking rocks and stones from the garden and putting them in a bucket. Steinberger hopes the exposure to planting and nurturing vegetables will ignite Shea's interest in eating vegetables, too.
Growing in popularity
Community-supported agriculture farms are becoming more popular in Michigan. About four years ago, Laura DeLind, a senior academic specialist in anthropology at Michigan State University, did a survey and found nine CSA farms in Michigan.
Now, she estimates, there are more than 30.
The cost for a seasonal share ranges from $275 to about $700. Some farms also offer shareholders the option to buy other farm products, such as honey, eggs or beef.
"CSA has a certain charm to it that's very appealing," DeLind says. "To be able to relate to a farm or actually involve themselves in the process -- there's a human dimension that that's missing in so much of our food system."
Seven years ago, DeLind was among six founders of Growing in Place Community Farm, a community-supported agriculture project that now has about 34 shareholders and raises produce on two acres in Mason. Its members work 10 hours a month.
"That way, we all begin to learn what it means to grow food and be mindful of the natural environment," DeLind says.
Sharing the work encourages members to "think differently about our own patterns of consumption," she adds.
For small farmers, CSA is a way to earn a guaranteed income at the beginning of the season and spread the risks posed by uncertainties about crops and weather.
"You're really providing an income and ability for a farm and a farmer to stay in business," says Jim Sluyter, who with Jo Meller runs Five Springs Farm near Bear Lake, about 50 miles outside Traverse City. They have 28 two-person shares ($275 a season, no work requirement) and a half-acre under intense cultivation in raised beds.
"We're in a very rural area. We don't advertise at all and we always have a waiting list," says Sluyter. "It's more interesting than a lot of other small farm ideas. It catches people's fancy."
A summer of veggies
Michelle and Danny Lutz moved from Detroit's east side in 1994, bought a farm 30 miles northwest of Port Huron and got into community-supported agriculture because they figured it was a way to make farming work. They started Maple Creek Farm in 1995 with 13 family members and friends.
It now grows vegetables on 45 acres, accommodating 300 shareholders who pay $500 a season to have produce delivered to homes and offices in Detroit and its suburbs once a week.
They also have several social functions for members each summer, such as farm tours and potlucks.
A typical summertime box or week's delivery might include a pound of carrots, a dozen ears of sweet corn, 3 pounds of tomatoes, several pounds of greens, a head of cabbage, an assortment of herbs, a few heads of garlic and several onions.
The harvest depends on the season and weather; last year's drought reduced yields, Michelle Lutz says.
"People are starting to find out that there are a lot of hidden toxins in food and they're looking to support local farmers," Lutz says. "This is a critical marketing tool for farmers. You can be successful this way."
Joining CSA appeals to certain people and not others, Sluyter says.
Some opt to shop at farmers' markets or stores where they can buy exactly what and how much they want.
With a CSA, shareholders have to accept whatever is in the bag for that week and eat seasonally with food that is grown and harvested locally.
"We're certainly not going to have tomatoes in early June. We never do. But it gives people a connection to what can be grown in this region and in the weather we're having," Sluyter says.
They may also be encouraged to try different foods, such as kale or turnips, that they would not have prepared unless it was part of their weekly share.
Diane Franklin, 48, is enthusiastic about CSA -- so much so that she plans this fall to retire from her job with a credit union to concentrate on Rocky Gardens, promoting CSA and teaching people how to raise vegetables.
John, 54, continues to work as an engineer.
Earlier this spring, the Franklins raised 800 plants from seed in their basement so the farm will have their favorite varieties, such as Stupice, Park's Whopper and Ida Gold tomatoes, Costata Romanesco zucchini, Zephyr summer squash and Walla Walla Sweet and Candy onions.
Diane Franklin is pretty sure that lineup will wow shareholders at harvest time. But she says members are looking for more than food.
"If they want to come out on a Sunday afternoon and sit out among the flowers and enjoy, I want them to feel that they can do it. I want them to think of it as their farm," she says.
They will also share the work. Among the jobs shareholders will tackle this season will be sowing seeds, planting transplants, weeding, cultivating, rock picking and harvesting. Youngsters can plant onion sets and help handpick insects.
Carol Molle, who, like her husband, is in her early 50s, says the fresh air and exertion are welcome but real.
"I do like working outside," she says. "It is very physical. We were all really tired" after spending four hours one Saturday this month spreading mulch, weeding and thinning radishes.
John Franklin hopes shareholders enjoy the experience of helping raising their own food.
"I'm hoping that, when October comes around, all of them are content and feel they got their money's worth -- the produce, the work they did, the coming out here, whatever.
"That they got their money's worth and that they made new friends."
Contact MARTY HAIR at 313-222-2005 or firstname.lastname@example.org