People are going back to the basics—directly to the farm to get the experience of interacting with the land—not to mention getting that inimitable taste of truly fresh produce.
If you can’t have your own deer-proof vegetable garden (and the expert gardener to go with it), a community farm share is a great way to get fresh ripe local tomatoes, endless cucumbers, beans with snap, herbs galore, and squash of every description. Instead of shopping, you stop in at “your” farm and pick up—or in some cases actually pick—your share of the crop. Your kids learn where food comes from and that you can pick and eat a fresh organically grown bean (rinse it off first). Even city residents can enjoy local food farmed on formerly unused vacant lots now dedicated to agriculture. It is amazing how much food can be grown in just a bit of well-tended sunny space.
Farm day happens once a week or more for those families who take part in community-supported agriculture (CSA). CSA farms can be publicly or privately owned. You join and pay for your share at the start of the season, which supports the cost of running the farm. Shares sometimes are so desirable and scarce that they are distributed by lottery until the fast-growing farms increase in size. Most CSAs adhere to organic farming principles and are located near the people who get food from them, saving the energy involved in long-distance transport and lengthy refrigeration of food. Some of the farms include livestock, chickens, and eggs, while some have vegetables, herbs, and fruit only.
CSA members take baskets and bags to their distribution center at the appointed time. Usually there is a sign-in sheet and a list posted to tell them how much food they are entitled to that week—say four onions, two cabbages, five beets, 10 tomatoes, eight cukes, eight zukes, a watermelon, a pumpkin, and unlimited beans—oh, and pick those yourself in field number two.
In most cases, the freshly harvested allotments are laid out and ready to grab. Some of the crops that are more time-consuming to harvest are on a pick-your-own list. Rules vary from farm to farm, but the end result is the same: CSA members go home with their baskets and bags fully loaded with really great produce. Food that is left over at the farm is donated to food banks; this is part of the CSA mission. In a few cases, the public can come at certain times and purchase items left over after distribution to members. There’s room for volunteers to help with planting, weeding, trimming, and harvesting, under direction of farm managers. That’s a good way to get farm experience even if you don’t have your own CSA farm share.
Conservation trusts such as the Brandywine Conservancy, the Willistown Conservation Trust, and the Radnor Conservancy are actively developing community farms on open-space acres that have been protected from commercial development. I visited Rushton Farm CSA last year during its first year of operation, and it was already amazingly productive. It is situated in Willistown, Pa., on a lovely country road. Only a fraction of the land had been cultivated for the farm, part of it in raised beds and part in farm fields. The semi-formal herb garden buzzed with bees, while corn and tomatoes stood ready for the next harvest. It looked so friendly and fruitful. Although there is a waiting list for memberships, the growth will be rapid and more people will join each year. It stands as a great example of what can be done, and was instrumental in inspiring nearby Radnor Township to provide a portion of its open space to the Radnor Conservancy for a similar community farm which just began operations this year.
In this way, the Rushton Community Farm program is fulfilling its mission to be a good example of a sustainable farm and to share the joy of working on the land and enjoying the bounty of fresh food with as many people as possible.
The group, which will hold workshops and other events, states: “The ideal sustainable farm has healthy and productive soils, produces wholesome uncontaminated foods for the community, preserves and enhances surrounding natural areas, and operates at a profit. Sustainable farming serves the needs of the present generation without compromising the opportunity for future generations to enjoy the same benefits of healthy food and a rich and diverse environment.”
The community farm and CSA movement is just part of local farming and local eating. The idea of being a “locavore” is catching on. More people are growing luscious veggies at home or in community gardens where each participant gets a plowed plot. Herbs and other edibles can blend into most garden plans, and are especially easy to accommodate around the house in containers.
Success is sometimes overwhelming, so people share surplus with food banks in nearby communities where it is needed. There’s a wonderful program called “Plant a Row for the Hungry” for this, with local dropoff points. Master Gardeners and horticultural groups are also involved in supplying food to those who need it, and everyone benefits from the fresh local harvest.