Farmers and their neighbors
link up for mutual benefit

American News Service

Schenectady, N.Y.

Crates of carrots, potatoes and cabbage weigh down the tables in a church hall every other Tuesday afternoon. Adults run in to weigh and bag produce, often with the help of children eager to see what has come from "our farm" this week.

Roxbury Biodynamic Farm is about 60 miles away from here. But the consumers enjoying farmer Jean-Paul Courtens' harvest say they feel as connected to the production of their food as if they lived just down the road.

Many had picked strawberries in the fields, helped dig up carrots and socialized at farm potlucks. Throughout the season, they eagerly read farmer Courtens' written reports on the rain following the summer's drought and on the cattle - suppliers of the farm's chemical-free fertilizer - now ready for slaughter.

"It's so nice to go down and visit the farm that's giving you food," said Karen Crosby, coordinator of the Schenectady pickup site. "My children love to see the animals and run around and see the vegetables when they're grown."

Roxbury Biodynamic Farm is part of a growing movement, called community-supported agriculture, that seeks to link farmers looking for a stable market with consumers hungry for organic produce.

The number of community-supported agriculture farms has risen almost 40 percent in the past two years, to a total 552 farms in the United States and Canada, according to Jean Yeager of the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association in Kimberton, Pa.

"The small family farm is very much in a precarious situation, and has been for many years," Yeager said. "This may be a way for them to stay in."

In a community-supported agriculture farm, consumers pay a set fee before spring planting to cover the cost of seeds, equipment and farmer salaries and benefits for the season. In return, they get a share in the bounty of a good harvest - or, in bad years, in the disappointment in a poor crop.

Consumers, many of them worried about pesticide and herbicide residues on supermarket-bought produce, say they appreciate the ready supply of fresh organic vegetables and fruits. Many also express an interest in preserving agricultural land and ensuring that farmers receive fair compensation for their labor.

Farmers say the concept frees them from marketing concerns - not having to worry about finding customers - and lets them concentrate on growing produce and maintaining the health of the soil.

Elizabeth Henderson of Genesee Valley Community Supported Agriculture Project near Rochester, N.Y., recalled losing half of her crop to floods in 1992. She said she offered refunds to her members, but they held to their agreement to share in the risk of the farming operation, even if it meant they would get only one crop a week.

Community-supported agriculture thrives most in the Northeast, where the concept arrived from Europe in the mid-1980s, say people who have followed the movement. But farms are developing partnerships with consumers throughout the country, and the types of arrangements vary widely.

Some farms offer just cut flowers, said Melody Newcombe of Mt. Tremper, N.Y., who publishes a newsletter on community-supported agriculture. Others have branched out beyond vegetables to meat, eggs, fish, honey, maple syrup, poultry, cheese and yogurt.

Share prices also vary widely, from as low as $120 a year to $600 or $700, depending on the variety and the quantity of produce and how frequently it's distributed.

Some farms have experimented with sliding-scale shares, or lower-priced shares in exchange for labor, to make the produce available to lower-income families, say those involved in the movement. Others bring produce left over at pickup sites to area food pantries.

Farmers, however, often don't fully figure the cost of doing business when calculating share prices, leaving the arrangement financially unstable over time, Newcombe said.

"I've compared a lot of budgets, and some are just inadequate," she said, explaining that farmers sometimes don't account for the expense of running equipment, for instance, or the prices of fuel, manure and labor.

Other farmers have dropped out of the arrangement because they lost the lease on their land or found they didn't like working as closely with consumers as a successful community-supported agriculture operation demands, Newcombe said.

The emphasis on community is one of the successful ingredients at Roxbury Biodynamic Farm, the farmer and members say.

A group of members coordinates produce pickup sites and sets the annual budget for the farm that serves 450 households in the surrounding Hudson Valley towns and in New York City, Albany and Schenectady.

A budget committee takes into account all farm expenses, from telephone calls and machinery maintenance to the costs of produce delivery and of producing a monthly newsletter. The committee also figures in a "living wage" for the farmer, setting aside $31,000 in this year's budget for his family and another $13,000 for the mortgage on his home.

"We felt that was a social justice issue," said Frank Scheib, a retired engineer who with his wife, Joan, promoted the farm through the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany. He and others also want to keep the farm "sustainable," or productive for a long time. "So, rather than look at the competitive price (of vegetables in the supermarkets) we look at the true cost to run the farm," Scheib said.

This year's share price is $488, which members figure supplies enough vegetables for two vegetarians or four people who also eat meat.

Courtens delivers his harvest to central sites in each participating community - weekly from early June through Thanksgiving, and then every other week through mid-February. The available produce follows the growing seasons: early spring greens and strawberries, summer zucchini and fresh herbs, fall tomatoes and eggplants, and, at this time of year, storage crops such as carrots, potatoes and rutabagas.

Members say they joined for the organic produce but remain for the community that has developed around the farm, which hosts twice-yearly potlucks and tours.

Courtens, who was convinced by a group of New York City residents to try community-supported agriculture five years ago, said he considers this cooperative spirit one of the farm's greatest assets.

"The quality of life has improved," Courtens said. "I'm growing for friends. I'm not growing for markets."

The farmer said that with member support he has experimented with non-commercial vegetable varieties and tended to soil preservation. He's also fulfilled a dream of operating a biodynamic farm, which involves careful non-chemical soil preparation.

Courtens discouraged farmers from entering the arrangement as merely a marketing tool or way of shoring up a struggling farm. He said farmers need to get into the spirit and foster close relationships with the community, but not all do - "I've seen things go very wrong."

Having heart, though, is not enough. Small farms have particular difficulty earning more than a small income from community-supported agriculture, as with any farm venture, Courtens said.

To ease the financial crunch, some farmers are banding together to supply members with a wider variety of offerings and to share equipment and other expenses, say those who follow the trends. They cited informal bartering among farms throughout the country, and more formal community-supported agriculture coalitions in Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Other farmers and members are working on ensuring the long-term viability of community-supported agriculture by figuring in retirement plans for farmers and securing agricultural land for future generations.

"The biggest problem we see everywhere is the land is not secure," said Joan Scheib, referring to pressures to sell off farmland to suburban real estate developers. "Sustainability is what we're interested in."

For information on farms that are part of community-supported agriculture in the United States and Canada, call the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, 1-800-516-7797. American News Service stories are available free of charge to newspapers.Call 1-800-654-NEWS or e-mail

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