The New England landscape may appear cold and desolate, but small farmers across the region are growing seedlings in hoop houses and planning summer harvests.
As a means of obtaining “seed” money, many of these farms set up CSA –Community Supported Agriculture — programs that allow customers to invest in a share of the business in advance of the growing season. Farmers then use the invested money in the winter and early spring months to buy seeds, supplies and equipment. In exchange for sharing the upfront costs, shareholders later receive produce during the summer and fall months.
Now is the time to sign up for a CSA, but with so many farms offering so many plans and price points, we visited six area farms to find out what’s available for our readers.
Provider Farm (Salem)
Farmers Kerry and Max Taylor are in their ninth season offering a CSA.
“We focus on our CSA. We are first and foremost CSA farmers. It’s our passion,” said Kerry. “We’ll wholesale off extras, but we don’t do markets. This is our focus.”
The couple raises vegetables and grass-fed beef. The farm is not certified organic, but uses a compost-based fertility system and a practice of crop rotations to control disease and pests organically without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
“We really know our land now,” she said. “Our fields are unusual, very variable, but some crops really prefer certain fields.”
The farm’s CSA includes about 260 to 280 shareholders, the largest CSA of the farms CT Examiner interviewed. The program offers small ($505), Medium ($630) and Large ($755) share sizes and two pickup locations: at the farm in Salem on Tuesdays and Fridays, and at Coogan Farm in Mystic on Saturdays. The CSA season runs from early June — the start date depends on the weather — to the beginning of November.
“The way we feel about CSAs is people have made a very important commitment to us so we try and commit to them by providing them a reliably good, high-quality valuable product,” said Kerry.
Provider Farm, 30 Woodbridge Road, Salem, CT
Stone Acres Farm (Stonington)
After two years of running a conventional CSA that included pre-packed bags of vegetables and specific weekly pickup times, Jane Meiser, farm co-owner and director of operations, and Andy Meek, Stone Acres’ farmer, decided to try something different last year.
“One thing we were seeing with our CSA members is that they were really excited about supporting a small farm, but they were not signing up for a second year because it just didn’t fit into their schedule,” she said. “We thought about how to make this more customer-friendly, but also what our main mission is — for people to eat healthy delicious food.”
The farm tried a new model that allowed CSA members to pick up on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday during normal farmstand hours. And, instead of picking up a pre-selected bag or box of vegetables, shareholders had a weekly allowance between $10 and $100 per week, paid up front in a lump sum for the 12-week season, to spend on anything the farm produces, including vegetables, herbs, eggs and flowers. The amount had to be spent each week and could not be rolled into another week.
The new CSA structure, which will continue this year, produced unexpected positive social interactions, Meiser said.
“Instead of just coming in once a week and grabbing their CSA bag and leaving, people were wandering around the farmstand, having conversations with the staff and each other,” she said. “It became a kind of community hub or what you might consider a grange hall or an old New England farm in a way that you did not see two years before.”
Last year the farm had just over 200 CSA members and about 175 have already signed up for this summer. Two years ago, the farm would have had fewer than 100 signups by this time of year.
“That’s a huge jump from where we were two years ago. It’s pretty amazing that those 175 people are pre-buying a summer share and thinking that far forward,” Meiser said.
Stone Acres Farm, 393 North Main St., Stonington, CT
Four Root Farm (East Haddam)
For their sixth CSA season, the four owners of the farm — Rachel Berg, Elise Cusano, Aaron Taylor and Caitlin Taylor — created a “market share” model that allows shareholders to pay up front and spend down their account in any increments with no weekly commitment at the farm’s three farmers’ markets: Madison on Fridays, Wooster Square (New Haven) on Saturdays, and Edgewood Park (New Haven) on Sundays. An East Haddam location is also in the works.
The farm sells organic vegetables and cut flowers. With the new model, customers choose their own produce instead of receiving a pre-packed box.
“We had all worked on traditional CSA farms in the past,” said Berg. The new model allows the farm more flexibility because a specific number of each vegetable is no longer needed each week for the CSA shares. Customers also have more flexibility to pick out produce when and where they want it without penalties for going on vacation or for missing a pickup.
“We’ve had a bunch of people sign up every year. They get to know us at a farmers market and they can sign up next year once they know us,” she said.
The 40-week CSA includes about 40 members per year, each paying $500. More than half come back every year and the upfront investment provides funding for seeds and equipment needed, Berg said.
“Our specialty is our diversity, so we grow many different varieties of crops and flowers. We try to grow unusual things, like shishito peppers, fairytale eggplants, mexican sour gherkins, Chinese broccoli, lemon grass. We’re growing 24 varieties of hot peppers,” she said.
Four Root Farm, 257 Tater Hill Rd, East Haddam, CT
Bitta-Blue Farm (Killingworth)
“It started with the family. I have five kids, and I wanted to provide or raise pretty much what we ate, so I got goats and chickens and I always was growing a family-size garden,” said farm owner Susan Willis. “We are a vegetarian family. I’ve been doing this either as a family farm with family consumption or selling produce for 45 years.”
Willis said her CSA is $400 for a pre-packed box of vegetables, for 20 weeks beginning in mid-June. The CSA generally has 25 to 30 shareholders each year. Pickup is at the farm on Wednesdays at 5 p.m.
‘I’ve always just done one size for what I call a family of four,” she said. “What I notice is that, if you are vegetarian you would want double that amount, but most people really just have vegetables as a side not as a main course, in which case it’s sufficient for four people.”
She also sells produce at two farmer’s markets: Madison and the Dudley Farm Market in North Guilford.
Willis said joining a CSA is a commitment to maintaining farms in the community and encouraged customers to think ahead the way farmers do.
“Farmers have a growing schedule — right now I’ve got a lot of seedlings — I need to know numbers now. I want people to sign up now. I really need to budget what I’m planting and this is true for all farms that have CSAs,” she said. “It’s about how much is going to a farmers’ market, how much is going to a CSA, how much is going to commitments to restaurants or food stores. The budgeting happens now and yet there’s a lag because the people that we’re trying to entice as members begin to think about summer vegetables maybe in May or late April.”
Bitta-Blue Farm, 228 River Rd, Killingworth, CT
Hunts Brook Farm (Quaker Hill)
Farm co-owner, Robert Schacht, known life-long as “Digga,” said that having a CSA is crucial to the long-term health of his farm.
“In our model, it’s part of our business and what it really does for us is it seeds us with the startup money to get the farm up and running every year,” he said. “It helps us buy all of our seeds, buy our supplies, pay for our insurance for the year, pay for the first couple of months of labor costs before other income starts flowing in.”
The farm has a 60-65 member CSA that has been in operation since 2008, making it one of the oldest continually running CSAs in the area, he said.
The 18-week CSA costs $650 for a full share and $350 for a half share. The half shares are a full-share size and are picked up every other week. Members pick up their pre-packed box on Wednesdays from 3 to 7 p.m. at the farm.
Schacht said the farm will sell produce at the Waterford farmers market on Saturdays and the Chester farmers market on Sundays once the season begins in June. The farm also has a CSA program for families in need.
Once the season starts, the CSA program brings people to the farm where they can see and experience the results of their investment, he said.
“I call CSA our backbone, it’s literally our spine, it’s the thing that holds us up, because I couldn’t imagine having to save or borrow $30,000 to $40,000 every year,” he said. “It brings the community here to the farm. I like to make people feel like our farm is their farm.”
Hunts Brook Farm, 108 Hunts Brook Road, Quaker Hill, CT
Long Table Farm
When Baylee Drown decided to rename her farm this year, she asked all of her CSA families their opinion and gave them an opportunity to vote.
“We went with the name that had the most votes,” she said. Formerly called Upper Pond Farm, the new name, Long Table Farm is based on the proverb, “If you have more than you need, build a longer table not a higher fence.”
“We really believe in inclusivity and this is a place for all people and all people deserve healthy food,” she said. “We try really hard to make our share affordable so that it’s a good return on investment for shareholders. People sign up in advance and they get a return on investment of 30 to 40 percent, so that means if you buy $20 of vegetables, you’ll get $28 to $30 of vegetables.”
Drown said that the optimal number of shareholders for her farm would about 100 for her 19-week CSA, which is offered in three share sizes: large $775, medium $500 and small $275. The small size is the same as medium but the pickup is every other week. So far about 60 families have signed up, she said.
In season, shareholders have plenty of flexibility for pick up, with four options: St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Old Lyme on Fridays, Long Table Farm on Saturdays, the farmers market at Tiffany Farms on Saturdays and at the Chester summer farmers market on Sundays.
Shareholders also receive a weekly newsletter that contains recipes and an explanation of the nutritional value of that week’s vegetables. Customers also get “face time with their farmer” when they pick up their weekly share.
“If they’re like, hey, I’m hating radishes, I’ll be like, have you roasted them yet? Have you made them into a salad with lemon juice and olive oil and parsley and hazelnuts? They’re getting one-on-one feedback on how to use their share and how to be inspired by the produce we grow,” she said.
Long Table Farm, 256 Beaver Brook Road, Lyme, CT