Yielding a bounty for farmers and foodies
Each CSA member at Caretaker Farm in Williamstown works for at least two hours during the season, and a number of them help with harvesting and distribution.
Photo by Caretaker Farm
A two-year-old hands her father her cookie so she can pry open a peapod. The earth is mounded under the vines, and she sits between rows, popping peas into her mouth. A stream runs through the middle of the farm, and families play in the water on this warm afternoon.
In the barn, bins hold oak-leaf lettuce and romaine, garlic scapes and early turnips. Students, young parents, and a professor talk over a recipe for brownies made with shredded beets.
Don Zasada and his wife, Bridget, have been running Caretaker Farm in Williamstown since 2004. They feel a responsibility to deepen the experience of those who come there by connecting them with the land, and their community of supporters have responded warmly. “So many people have told me it’s their favorite part of living here,” Don says.
Caretaker follows a Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) model where CSA members buy a share in spring (a family with two adults and however many children would give $675)—essentially paying farmers in advance for an allotment of produce during the summer and fall. The Berkshires adopted that model early—and it has grown and spread, especially in the last few years. In 1969, Sam and Elizabeth Smith bought Caretaker as an old dairy farm and launched the CSA in 1991 with 50 members. When Don and Bridget came to Caretaker in 2004, it was the only CSA farm in the northern Berkshires. Now 270 families are members of Caretaker, and many of the original 50 founders still belong, including the Smiths, who live nearby.
Barbara Zheutlin recalls five CSAs when she became Berkshire Grown’s executive director in 2004. Linking local farmers and the community, Berkshire Grown’s map shows 17 CSAs in the county and more than a dozen near the borders. “The way this country grows and promotes local food has changed dramatically,” she says.
Throughout the region, CSAs have expanded in range—from garden produce at Hancock Shaker Village to shares in meat, cut flowers, cheese, mushrooms, and more. Caretaker Farm grows 40 kinds of vegetables, herbs, flowers, and fruit in more than 175 varieties—squashes, potatoes and sweet potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes. Longtime members joke about having their friends taste-test the carrots— purple as well as orange, many-legged, vigorous, and sweet.
“I know the people who eat the food,” Zasada says. “When I’m choosing varieties and seeding, I’m thinking of different faces. And it allows us to focus on growing the food.” Because CSA members come to the farm, he does not have to select varieties that will transport well or last indefinitely. He can choose for taste instead.
The CSA also gives stability, Zasada says. Often farmers have to take out a loan in winter for seeds, equipment and labor, and then pay back with interest. But because of the CSA, he and Bridget know what their income will be for the season. They can plan ahead, within each growing season and also over many years. That stability is central to the CSA model, and it keeps the farm running.
Many key parts of the job take time: Building up the soil, and putting up tunnel houses in the fields to expand the growing season and to protect against blight, drought, or early frost as the weather grows more erratic. The Zasadas fertilize and compost with help from their chickens and pigs, and they combat pests by nurturing the soil and their seedlings, even picking off bugs by hand.
“We don’t spray anything,” he says—no conventional or organic sprays, no fungicides or insecticides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. “We have 800 people in the fields any day but Sunday, and we want people to feel comfortable putting anything in their mouth.”
Beyond health and flavor, the CSA can have a good effect on the cost. People would pay twice as much to get this food at a retail outlet, Zasada says. Caretaker provides weekly shares to the Berkshire Food Project in North Adams, in partnership with Berkshire Grown, and also allows members to contribute to farm shares for families with lower incomes.
Each member works at the farm, too, for two hours during the season, and many help with harvesting and distribution. While spending time there, people have met new friends, separating garlic cloves or picking beets on a Saturday morning. The farm holds events and workshops on canning, pickling, drying, and cooking with kids. Don runs volunteer programs with students and community groups. Bridget is in charge of education programs, and she has run classes at Williams College as well. Each season the couple trains young farmers in an apprenticeship program with a network of ten farms in the region.
“I never know what to say when people say they think it’s beautiful, that it’s one of their favorite places to be,” he says. “So do I.”
Finding a CSA That Suits You
Some CSAs have a limited number of shares and may sell out before the growing season begins, but people come and go every year. Each farm also has its own arrangement for the cost of a share, how and when to collect it, and what’s in it. Talk with the farmers to learn more. To help you get started: berkshiregrown.org, farmfresh.org, localharvest.org