CSA: Community Supported Agriculture 2008.11.05


Give me some money up front, I’ll grow vegetables for you. Lots of vegetables, all summer long.

That, in a seed pod, explains the concept of community supported agriculture (CSA).csa.bev.jpg

Subscribers pay a fee before the growing season begins. Starting in early June with the first greens, they receive their share—a box of fresh vegetables each week into October.

The CSA concept isn’t for everybody, warns Beverly Ruesink of Needle Lane Farms on Tipton Highway northeast of Adrian. Members must be willing to broaden their eating horizons.

“You have to leave the tomato and sweet corn mentality,” she said.

Members will find some corn and tomatoes in their boxes when the time is right, but there’s so much more to the summer harvest.

From bok choy and celeriac to rutabaga and tomatillo, consumers might want to keep a cookbook handy.

Next summer could feature a different array—there’s just no way of knowing what the unpredictable weather will favor.

“Let’s say I need 100 cabbages,” Beverly said. “I’ll plant 200 and if everything works out, I’ll have extra to sell. This year we lost those 100 extra cabbages.”

More than a month’s worth of rain fell in the first week of July and flooded out several parts of the farm.

“That was pretty much the story for the summer—weather,” she said. “Eight inches of rain in two days. I cried for three days.”

Fourth season

Ruesink roots grow deep on Tipton Highway. Beverly’s grandfather, Lewis, was an apple and potato farmer. Her father, Lorne, was a dairy farmer and also sold Christmas trees. He still raises Holsteins for sale.csa.packing_station.jpg

After high school, Beverly attended Michigan State University to earn a degree in horticulture.

“I’m one of the rare horticultural graduates who is actually farming,” she said.

In her first CSA summer, she had the backing of 44 members. That increased to 60 the second year, more than 80 the third year and reached 110 this past summer.

She’s turned away a lot of potential customers, but she doesn’t expect to grow any bigger. Expansion would require an increase in the scale of production that she doesn’t find attractive. As long as her CSA stays profitable, she aims to remain a small family farm.

Seventy-seven Needle Lane members live in Ann Arbor, choosing either family or individual size boxes for the entire growing season or only for the summer.

Shares are delivered to Ann Arbor and to the Adrian and Tecumseh farmers markets. Several customers pick up their weekly allotment at the farm.

The CSA concept has been around for at least a quarter century, Beverly said, and the appeal is growing in this area. The reason is obvious to her: “People are supporting their local farmers and they’re taking an interest in where and how their food is grown.”

Beside, not everyone has the time or space to grow a garden, and many people lack the desire and know-how.

Expanding her customer base would require an increase in labor—the biggest expense for the CSA. Last summer, three interns were hired and a lot of friends came to volunteer time. Beverly also hires some local, part-time workers.

“I prefer to keep the money in the local economy rather than hire migrant labor,” she said.

Beverly sees a significant potential for growth in CSAs—promising economic development through agriculture. She’s had requests for food from Toledo area residents and other areas in Michigan. The demand for organic produce exists and is growing, she says.

She figures her farm is feeding about 500 people on five acres of land during five months of production. That’s a miniscule portion of the region’s population.

With the final shares boxed up a week ago, Beverly might consider herself on break, if only she could get away from the farm.

There’s always something to do, such as the last row of garlic to plant. It’s difficult to stop harvesting, too. There’s a surprising amount of crops despite the cold weather.

“For me to truly have a day off, I have to leave this place.”

In two weeks she’ll be making wreaths and grave blankets, then it will be time to order seeds and start the early planting. She’ll look at supply needs and the condition of tools, and she’s always reading and thinking about changes and improvements.

Maybe she’ll even take a little vacation.

Organic? Yes; Certified? No

Is Needle Lane produce organic?

Yes and no. You won’t find a Certified Organic label on any products, but that doesn’t mean the farm strays from organic production methods.

“We’re not certified,” Beverly Ruesink said. “Honestly, I don’t think we ever will be.”

She doesn’t think it’s worth the annual thousand dollar certification fee through the federal government, and besides that, federal standards are changing.

“Big Ag lobbies hard to lower standards,” she said. “I’m very well schooled in the regulations. If customers see us and see what we do, I’m satisfied.”

The farm website (www.needlelanefarms.com) lists a Beverly’s grower’s statement explaining production practices and inviting members to visit and observe what’s done.

“On this farm I haven’t sprayed any herbicides, pesticides, fungicides—not any cides—in five years,” Beverly said.

She said the farm has never passed the threshold of insect infestation where a pesticide was needed. There’s a strong human desire to intervene, she said, but her farm has reached a fairly good balance through bio-diversity.

Pest control is one of the reasons a large variety of plants is grown.

“By planting a little of everything, the biological diversity is tremendous on these five acres.”

For example, sweet alyssum attracts a parasitic wasp that attacks cabbage worms. Praying mantis egg cases are seen hanging in shrubs, ready to release hundreds of tiny predator munchers next spring.

“Our job as stewards of the land is to encourage these natural relationships and to keep things in balance,” according to the farm grower’s statement.

Eat your vegetables

What are we supposed to do with a bag of fava beans? What about these tomatillos?

I can’t even pronounce this one: mei quing choy? Is kohlrabi truly edible?

How can there be so much swiss chard?

Beverly Ruesink has two answers to the what-can-I-do-with-this? question. First, recipes are included in the weekly newsletter.

Second, buy a copy of “From Asparagus to Zucchini: A guide to cooking farm-fresh seasonal produce.” The cookbook was produced by a coalition of CSAs in Wisconsin and Needle Lane has them in stock at the farm’s roadside stand.

The book contains 11 kohlrabi recipes, along with cooking and storage tips. There are four suggestions for tomatillos (husk tomatoes) and 11 ideas for fennel.

And all those greens early and late in the season…there’s a dietary change that needs to happen.

“All those veggies staring you in the face every week,” Beverly said. “It’s almost like force feeding. But once you cross that bridge, you crave your greens.”

She’s heard comments from many members that follow this same pattern: “We tried things that we’ve never picked up in a grocery store.”

Swiss chard and kale are mainstays of CSAs across the country, Beverly said—cool weather crops that are among the first and last to be harvested. Needle Lane produces six varieties of kale.

She chooses some plants because of her horticultural background, as in, “That looks cool; let’s try it.” Others are chosen because of their likely success.

“A lot of these plants grow really well in Michigan, organically,” Beverly said. “They don’t have many pests.”

She planted cilantro three times last summer and never got a crop. It was a disastrous year for garlic, as well.

Bok choy, on the other hand, came through fine. It’s one of Beverly’s favorites and it’s even better nutritionally than kale.

Flea beetles will create small holes in the leaves, however, but that doesn’t harm the food from a nutritional standpoint. It only damages people’s assessment of the crop.

“As consumers, we’re trained to look for perfect produce,” Beverly said. “I’m not perfect. Why do you expect my produce to be?”