Savvy in the Soil
With farms becoming increasingly popular, farmers business juices are starting to sizzle
Imagine if a local farmer delivered a bag of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables to your office once a week and your employer helped foot the bill. Or maybe you’d prefer home delivery? What if this year you could get your hands on freshly harvested vegetables in the dead of winter?
February is high season for CSA sign ups. With CSA membership, families pay an annual fee for a share at the start of the growing season and get a season’s worth of whatever grows on the farm, to be picked up weekly. Farms say interest for fresh, local produce is strong; however, one of the constraints on CSA membership is flexibility. This year farmers are looking for ways to make buying locally grown produce convenient for more families, more weeks of the year.
“When running a CSA in Fairfield County, the fact is that people are so busy it is difficult for families to pick up on the right day, let alone any day,” says Joe Keller, owner of Ridgefield’s The Garden of Ideas, which is entering its sixth year with a program and has about 100 members. So last season, after a Darien customer approached him on the idea, Keller piloted a home-delivery program to 33 Darien homes. Keller delivered the local produce in a cooler bag left in a specified place outside each home, and charged an additional $3 each week. “It worked well,” he says. “If people are willing to pay for fuel costs, it is good for them, and it helps me maintain the members.”
Simpaug Farms, in Suffield, has found the same need for flexibility. “Some people can’t get away and can’t do weekends,” says Jennifer Trillo, Simpaug sales and marketing manager. The farm has CSA pick-up points in Ridgefield, Redding, and Suffield, for its 125 members. The goal this year is to expand into workplace delivery by partnering with local businesses. A company will offer employees CSA shares and Simpaug will deliver the produce to members at work weekly. Some companies even plan to subsidize the share price, Trillo says. “Though the commitment will vary from company to company, they are looking at it as part of their wellness programs.”
In addition to making local produce more convenient to buy, farmers are looking for ways to extend their growing seasons. Veronica’s Garden, in Ridgefield, offered its first CSA plan last season. Owner Bob DiNucci says they kept it small, with 20 members, in order to “under-promise and over-deliver.” This season they have added two hoop houses. A hoop house is a tunnel-like series of metal hoops covered in heavy greenhouse plastic. It uses solar energy and insulation to keep plants warm. This will allow Veronica’s Garden to extend the season and add more crop variation, he says.
Litchfield’s Waldingfield Farm has similar plans. They have added a high tunnel, which is like a hoop house only taller, so they will be able to start crops earlier in spring, and grow them well into fall, says Waldingfield’s Patrick Horan. Last year the farm sold 145 shareholders a 20-week season, and then offered a five-week extension. This year the farm plans to extend its season further. “Our goal is certainly to do an all year round CSA,” Horan says. “By 2014-2015 we will offer a reduced-size winter CSA.”
The Garden of Ideas has five hoop houses, and while they allow some farming of particular crops, a heated environment is required for active growing and harvesting, Keller says. For this reason, he spent this winter looking into geothermal heating systems. While outdoor temperatures fluctuate with the seasons, underground temperatures, insulated by the earth, are relatively stable. Geothermal technology uses an electric pump and tubing buried below the soil to draw heat from the soil and direct it into the hoop house. It requires a pump, which will use “pennies” in electricity, costing much less than a traditional greenhouse heated with propane. He plans to add one next winter.