WILLIAMSTOWN — When asked where their produce comes from, most Americans will say the supermarket. In northern Berkshire County, however, 270 families can watch their vegetables grow right before their eyes through Caretaker Farm's CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, now celebrating 25 seasons in South Williamstown.
Each week from June to October, families fill reusable cloth bags with a dizzying array of fresh-picked produce such as lettuce, leeks, cucumbers, carrots, spinach and squash. During winter months, a root cellar provides beets, potatoes, parsnips and more.
CSA shares cost $455 and cover the farm's up-front costs. Adults pay a $110 membership fee and volunteer two hours each season on tasks from onion and garlic harvests to weekly weeding parties. They walk the land, meet the farmers, and know their food is grown using best organic practices.
In 1969, Sam and Elizabeth Smith bought 36 acres of an abandoned organic dairy farm and named it Caretaker.
"We had three children and were interested in the lifestyle and values," Elizabeth said.
They opened a farmstand in 1974 and supplied restaurants and co-ops throughout New England. "It was a time of tremendous creativity and energy," she said.
They raised pigs to churn the compost, sheep, cows, chickens, bees, even hairy Highland Cattle "who loved zucchini and would eat anything but a fence post."
"A biodynamic farm is a self-contained organism where the farm produces its own fertility from within as much as possible," Elizabeth explained.
Inspired by Jan Vander Tuin, a Swiss farmer who introduced CSA farming to the U.S. in 1986 in Great Barrington, the Smiths sold 75 shares their first season in 1991.
When ready to retire, they placed the land in a Community Land Trust with a State Agriculture Preservation Restriction and transferred the farm to Don Zasada and Bridget Spann on St. Patrick's Day, 2006.
Sam, 80, and Elizabeth, 78, still live at Caretaker in a little house originally built for the farmhand.
Lee Venolia joined the CSA 20 years ago and chaired the committee, which raised $239,000 for the Caretaker Trust.
"It was great taking the little kids there," she said. "They would eat vegetables because they could see them growing. When the cherry tomatoes were in full force, they just couldn't get enough. Now my daughter is a vegetarian."
Zasada and Spann, both 46, met as community volunteers in Chile and live with Gabriela, 12, and Michah, 9, in the rambling 19th-century farm house dotted with baskets of dried popcorn ears and colorful winter squash.
Trays of 2-inch high onion seedlings grow under lights in the wood room.
"The seeds get started in the warm furnace room in the dark," Spann said. "Instead of heating a greenhouse in February, you're starting things slowly and saving a month of fuel."
"Environmental sustainability is huge," she said. "I have a profound appreciation of the environment and the need to take care of it."
Zasada became drawn to farming while in South America.
"The best way to integrate what I was learning about the world and myself was to be involved in small scale sustainable agriculture," he said. "There was something about it, not just the physical aspects, but the connection to the land, the mental challenges and emotional acrobatics one goes through, that was incredibly stimulating."
He farmed at the Boston Food Project for seven years. When their first child came along, they looked for more rural opportunities.
"The only things we could afford were in very isolated communities up in Maine," he said.
The Smiths' lease arrangement lets them farm at Caretaker without having to buy such a vast piece of land. He grows vegetables, berries, herbs and flowers on seven out of the 34 acres, surrounded by ponds, streams, wetlands, forest and an orchard. A portion goes to a hot meals program in North Adams.
Alongside the business of farming from bookkeeping to seed buying, Zasada writes a weekly newsletter, sharing day-to-day farm life and seasonal recipes, and organizes community events such as solstice celebrations.
"We don't just grow nutritious vegetables for people, we connect them with the land," he said.
Each year, he chooses three apprentices out of 80 applicants from around the country.
"Our hope is to train them to be the next generation of farmers," he said. Some 130 apprentices have helped over the years, along with hundreds of community volunteers from local schools and members ranging from toddlers crawling around the fields to people in their 80s.
"We encourage people to carve time away from their car and device and get down in those fields," Zasada said. "We have people with many different abilities and skills."
Members self-harvest labor-intensive crops like beans and cherry tomatoes. The Smiths deliberately planted raspberries, the most popular U-Pick crop, far from the parking area.
"You go down the hill, through the field, over a bridge, through a meadow, over another bridge and another meadow," Zasada said. "When you're there, it's a whole other world: you see mountains, cellphones don't work well. And people really want their raspberries."
"This will be a farm for many generations," he added. "We've been here 12 years and hopefully will be here much longer. But we're just a blip on the radar of what has happened in the history of this land. We try not to take that for granted."
For more information about Caretaker Farm CSA shares, call (413) 458-9691 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.