‘Down to Earth’ CSA looks forward to fifth season

By Lauri Voter - Staff Writer
Stafford - posted Fri., Mar. 4, 2011
'Down to Earth' CSA members harvest crops during a previous season. Photos contributed by Rich Longmore. - Contributed Photo

In a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA, members purchase shares, and thus become shareholders. A CSA differs from a community garden, which offers specific plots of lands to its members, who then work on their own plots.

In a CSA, members buy into the whole farming plan, rather than buy, coordinate and work their own section of land. Working cooperatively, the shareholders in a CSA tend all of the beds and crops, shouldering a stake in the harvest. Once the crops are harvested, each member receives a distribution of the total yield. Usually, CSAs are run by full-time, private farmers, who designate a section of their farm to a CSA. The most common motivation for this is for the farmer to generate an income and to purchase seed stock and farm-related materials.

Following its own variation on the CSA model, the Down to Earth CSA, of Stafford, is not run by a full-time farmer. Instead, Down to Earth maintains 75 beds on property that it leases from Robert White's farm on Michelec Road.

The project is coordinated by Master Gardener Caroline Brown, who serves as the organization’s farm manager. In this capacity, she plans out the crops for the year and organizes the work schedule for shareholders, who each must contribute two hours of service every two weeks.

Planning the year’s crop is an involved process. “We don't have a full-time farmer,” said Brown.

Brown said she relies heavily on spreadsheets, and explained the process she follows each year. “I count all my leftover stock to see what I can still use. I use the previous year as a model, and I see if I want to order the same amount. I work out the crop rotation, and make a new spreadsheet. I determine how many plants I'm trying to grow, the size of the cells I want to grow them in, how many trays and pots. I have it all down in columns on the spreadsheet.”

According to Brown, the CSA out-sources the seed-starting to another grower. Brown provides the seed stock, the potting mix and the schedule to the grower. The group starts to prepare for planting the fields in April. This year, the CSA will hold an April meeting, to which all members will be invited.

“We invite the whole membership to come and learn how things work and how the schedule works,” Brown said. For her work, Brown receives monetary compensation and free produce.

The functions and tasks of the members are overseen by workshare members, who operate in a supervisory capacity. Workshare member Rich Longmore has been with this CSA since it began five years ago. In his capacity as a workshare member, he is not required to purchase a share. In exchange for his share and produce, he works eight hours per week, supervising the shareholders.

“Members pay $400, which is used to purchase seed stock, pay the lease and for equipment - the types of things the farmer would use that money for. The difference from a community garden is that we all work together, instead of working on individual plots,” said Longmore.

CSA members work six days per week, with two days per week being harvest days, when the crops are ready.

According to Longmore, there are benefits to being a shareholder.

“The participants get to work on a farm, so they know where their food is coming from. It teaches them about agriculture, good organic produce and how much work it is. We have a high retention rate compared to other CSAs. Shareholders like knowing they had a hand in growing the crops,” said Longmore, who feels that members receive a fair trade off for their $400, when compared to market prices for organic produce.

“We have a pretty diverse group of people who join - grad students, young people from town, people of all ages, retired people, big families,” said Longmore.

The Down to Earth CSA “core group runs the farm program, with consensus,” said Laura ‘Jo’ Judd, the farm coordinator. “There is a lot of planning, but it’s very timely and quick, then we move on to the next,” said Judd in reference to the work schedule.

According to Judd, the CSA grows standard vegetables - carrots, potatoes, leeks, tomatoes, onion, garlic, Swiss chard, spinach, Asian greens, scallions and shallots, just to name a few.

The CSA practices sustainable agriculture, which Judd described as a method by which soils are kept viable year-after-year through organic methods that prevent soils from agriculturally expiring.

Judd communicates regularly with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture. According to Judd, the NRCS is good source to consult about methods conducive to organic agriculture, and has also been a source of at least one grant for the CSA.

That grant helped fund the CSA’s irrigation system, which relies on a solar water pump to function.

“We have an irrigation system, which is ecologically sound, drip irrigation. It uses the least amount of water and puts it right where you want it. The pump in the well is based on solar. When the sun shines, the pump brings up the water needed to supply the crops,” explained Judd.

The Down to Earth CSA is currently accepting applications for the upcoming season. Those who are interested in learning more about the Down to Earth CSA should visit www.getdowntoearth.org, to find information about sustainable agriculture, view a list of the vegetables grown by the CSA, obtain a downloadable application and find contact information.

The CSA meets year-round, on the second Monday of each month at 7:30 p.m. at the Stafford Public Library.

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