In Massachusetts, farm shares offer local produce without the labor
SUDBURY (AP) >> With its rocky soil, freezing cold winters and expensive acreage, New England isn't exactly a farmer's paradise.
Despite the obstacles, it's possible to gather a bounty from the soil here.
"At first glance it's hard to see how one can eat locally from a New England vegetable farm on a year-round basis, said Chris Kurth, owner of Siena Farms which grows crops in Concord and Sudbury. "And that was our own assumption for many years, but as we started to target that as a goal for our production, we have found more and more ways to achieve that."
This past winter was a gift after last year's record-breaking winter when farmers were constantly challenged, clearing off plastic hoop greenhouses and dealing with losing many more substantial structures that collapsed under the weight of snow and ice. This year, Kurth said, he was able to sow the first seeds an entire month earlier than usual.
"It's a great swing from last year's spring which ended up a couple weeks late from first planting and first seeding dates," said Kurth.
That's good news for clients of local farms that offer Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm shares. Their land will be full of fresh spring greens that much sooner.
CSA shareholders pay farmers up front or on a weekly or monthly basis and in return receive part of the farm's bounty of products. Often it is vegetables, but shares sometimes include flowers, fruit, herbs, or meat and milk products. Massachusetts is sixth in the nation in the number of CSA farms with 421 as of the 2012 USDA Census, according to the state Department of Agricultural Resources website.
And for community-supported agriculture, the loyalty of those farm share customers can be crucial, said Jason Hill, general manager for the Charles River portfolio of the nonprofit group Trustees of Reservations which manages the 131-acre Chestnut Hill Farm and many other historic properties.
For Chestnut Hill Farm, the relatively new farm share operation is less about supporting the land than the message.
"There's always been sort of a historical significance for us to support the agricultural protection of land," Hill said.
Last season, Chestnut Hill started its farm share program with just 50 shares, about 90 percent of which were from Southborough, Hill estimates. This year, they're hoping to get 200 shareholders, and perhaps grow an additional 100 to 150 shares over the next five years, although nothing is concrete yet.
That sort of growth is a pattern across local CSA farms.
In 2012, Laura Davis and her husband, Don, began their first CSA share program at Hopkinton's Long Life Farm with 25 families. Now, they have about 85 who buy shares of the farm's bounty.
"We kind of dove right in," said Laura Davis, who became a farmer almost by accident.
"I decided I was going to try and find a way to increase my yields in my front garden," Davis recalled. "I started going to some soil chemistry classes to learn how to make my soil more fertile."
She met a farmer looking for volunteers in Barre and was "immediately hooked."
Increasing the number of shares means increasing land or land use and extending the season. It can be tricky with unpredictable weather and the possibility of leased land being sold, as has happened to Davis.
Kurth credits the partnership with his wife, chef Ana Sortun, as a launching point for ways to expand their harvest. For instance, he said, at first the farm just grew bulbs of garlic that were cured after harvesting. But later, Sorun pointed out other uses for garlic, such as using it fresh and cooked down like leeks, garlic scapes made with the flower of the plant that is cooked like green beans, or fresh-pulled bulbs that have an extra sweet onion flavor.
"We are considering having a fall/winter share this coming season since we've just put up an additional greenhouse," said David. "That has enabled us to stretch the season to a little bit closer to Christmas."
Root vegetables that store easily, locally sourced preserves, and animal products can all be part of the CSA shares, too. Some farms cater to specific crops offering shares of tomatoes, for instance. Others might cater to smaller families, offering half-shares. Each farm has its own way of sharing its bounty.
Some farms include work shares as a requirement for participation or a way to decrease the cost of their shares. And CSA farms often attract folks who want to lend a hand.
"They all wanted to learn how to grow their own food— they're really now part of the crew," Davis said of her volunteer shareholders.
Regardless of size or season, that passion for locally grown food unites the farmers who offer CSAs. Some farms offer food-related activities and events, like farm-to-table dinners, maple sugaring or foraging walks.
"We've created these farms where it's sort of one part production, but the part two being the engagement piece," Hill said.
The more the community gets to experience the fields and the farmers, the better they understand "why it's important to have a local food system," Hill added.
Information from: MetroWest Daily News (Framingham), http://www.metrowestdailynews.com
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