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Conn. farms selling shares to survive, CT

Sun, 05/24/2009 - 11:07am
SHAWN R. BEALSAssociated Press

SUFFIELD, Conn. (AP) — Griffins have farmed the fields of this small northern Connecticut town for more than 350 years. But none of them might have worried as much as Harrison and Carol Griffin over this question: Would they be, after nine generations, the last of their line working the soil in Suffield?

Their three grown children — Jonathan, 34, Sheri Mandirola, 31, and Sarah-Jean, 22, each with an agriculture degree from Cornell University were concerned enough that they sat their parents down in March and delivered a three-word message: Community Supported Agriculture.

The phrase describes a process that has swept the country and is now ensconced in Connecticut: The Griffins would be the latest to sell shares in their farm to community members at the start of the growing season at $425 a share in exchange for fresh vegetables that shareholders pick up weekly throughout the summer.

The family members hashed out a plan. They would buy a new tractor, plow the land, plant vegetables, advertise and start a Web site.

By this weekend, they had plowed two fields, about 3 to 4 acres combined, and planted a good number of seeds and seedlings. The Web site was finished and a mailer sent around town. A few shares even sold through word of mouth.

"For us, it's a lifestyle that we grew up with," said Sarah-Jean Griffin. "That's the main reason we all wanted to do the (Community Supported Agriculture), to be able to keep (the farm) open."

The Griffins are taking advantage of what some say is a virtual revolution in Americans' relationship with the food they eat.

Consumers are clearly paying more attention to where their food comes from, a change driven by several factors, including the seemingly unending recalls of food products and produce from the shelves of U.S. grocery stores. At the moment, for example, peanut products are on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory for possible salmonella contamination. Tomatoes and spinach were on the hit list last year.

The movement also is being pushed along by such celebrities as California chef and eat-local guru Alice Waters, and Connecticut resident and award-winning food philosopher Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto."

The state's farms already supply food to local grocery stores, and the Connecticut Department of Agriculture estimates that about 40 farms have started selling shares, although precise numbers are hard to come by.

The Griffins' entry into this direct-to-consumer farming model is well-timed.

"It's a model that works," said Steven Reviczky, director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau. "People really want to know their farmer."

Shareholders not only get weekly batches of fresh produce for their money, they join the farmers in taking a chance on crops.

"The risk is shared between the farmer and the consumer, so if it's a really wet year and the tomatoes don't grow, they just won't get as many tomatoes," said Bill Duesing, director of the Oxford-based Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut, a coalition of organic farmers that promotes local, sustainable food production and farmland preservation.

The upfront money is valuable to farmers at the start of the growing season, Duesing said. It pays for equipment, seeds, supplies or young plants to line the rows, "so they're not doing anything on speculation."

Reviczky said that Community Supported Agriculture has taken some time to catch on in Connecticut, but that he expects it to keep expanding. Shareholders, he said, are excited about participating in New England's roots and supporting local agriculture.

"I meet a lot of people from urban or suburban areas that proudly tell me they are a member of a CSA," Reviczky said. "They enjoy their weekly trip to the farm."

Fresh vegetables are a real commodity in the summer. Consumers during a good harvest can save a lot of money over grocery store prices, especially on certified organic products, Duesing said.

And the number of CSA farms is barely keeping up with demand.

"Shares are selling out everywhere," Duesing said.

At Oxen Hill Farm on a recent Monday, Harrison Griffin was racing a rainstorm to get the first few rows of the family's new enterprise plowed. He ran his new John Deere through the soil as the family watched, excited after so much preparation to see the start of their new effort. They chuckled as Harrison got the tractor hung up on a 3-foot-wide rock; his son, Jonathan, jumped forward to shove it out of the way.

"I was thinking, 'This is a monumental moment,'" Sarah-Jean said. "It felt great. The whole family was there. It meant a lot to see that the land is being preserved."

She admitted to being a little nervous. The farm work will be time-consuming, and none of the younger Griffins has the option right now to become full-time farmers with their own jobs and families and, in Sarah-Jean's case, school.

The Griffins have named the property Oxen Hill Farm after their two pair of oxen. The 120 acres have always been used to grow hay, and the soil hasn't seen chemicals for at least 30 years.

As the farm has been developed, so have the family's plans. They are offering 30 full shares in the first year, and will grow about 20 vegetables from broccoli to squash through the summer.

The family members are cautiously optimistic, but they feel they have little choice.

"Owning farmland just to own it doesn't do a lot of good," said Jonathan Griffin. "You've got to make it productive and worthwhile to own."

Experiments such as the Griffins' are going on all over the state, although with variations.

Community Supported Agriculture "is a really good way for farms to stay viable," said Duesing. "I keep hearing of new people that are starting."

He said that a typical share in a Connecticut farm sells for $500 to $600. Some farms sell half-shares; some offer to let shareholders do some of the work themselves.

Linda Piotrowicz, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, said that although some farms are certified organic, others take what's referred to as the "farmer's pledge," in which "they use the organic practices, but they don't have the piece of paper."

Oxen Hill, at least at first, will operate as a traditional full-share CSA farm. It will "embrace the organic principles" with the pledge, Jonathan Griffin said, but won't pursue the lengthy and expensive organic certification process yet.

Farms that feature Community Supported Agriculture come in many sizes. Two of the largest in the state are Holcomb Farm in West Granby, which offers more than 350 shares, and Fort Hill Farm in New Milford, which offers 400.

Although Community Supported Agriculture has many benefits, said George Purtill, owner of Old Maids Farm in South Glastonbury, it's not the solution for every establishment. He decided at the end of last summer to stop offering shares. He had plenty of business, he said, and turns away potential shareholders every week, but decided to focus on a market for organic grain corn for livestock feed.

"Besides my 120 shareholders from last year, I'm turning away every week probably 10 to 12 people who want to do CSA," Purtill said. "There certainly is a huge demand for CSA."

Christine Rothe, of Rothe Homestead Farm in Ellington, said that a CSA farm was perfect for her family. They started their operation to diversify, instead of relying on a small number of crops and taking a risk that one might not do well. Now in its third year, her family's operation has grown to 40 shares.

"It's a good way for people to help support local farmers," Rothe said. "People don't have to go 3,000 miles to get good vegetables. We have them right here in Connecticut."

Waiting lists for shares at the major Connecticut CSA farms are growing substantially there aren't enough farms in the state to support the demand, Duesing said.

In addition, farms in western Connecticut are starting to see business from New York City residents as tapped-out farms north of the city reach their limits.

"We would like to see a CSA farm in every town," Duesing said. "We're nowhere near that; we really do need more farms."

Jessica Chittenden, a spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, estimated that New York has about 150 CSA farms. She noted that in addition to driving into Connecticut for fresh produce, New York customers are also moving south into New Jersey.

"This buy-local trend and understanding where your food is coming from is rapidly growing," Chittenden said. "It's really contagious. CSA is a real bright spot in the agriculture industry."

The Griffins said they see the industry shifting in a way that gives small family farms a chance and, in their case, allows a 10th generation to keep farming.

"This is what the consumers want now," said Sheri Mandirola. "Farmers need to change and agriculture needs to change."

___

Information from: The Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com

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