As the harvest season winds down, in Bucks County, community supported agriculture farms—or CSAs—are going from fad to mature businesses. Thise time of year consumers are collecting their last pick-ups of fresh, homegrown produce.
That harvest ranges from lettuce and kale to tangy onions and dozens of other vegetables and flowers, provided to members for up to 35 weeks a year. In 2003 there was one CSA in Bucks County; today there are at least 10.
Some of the CSAs are also providing vegetables to restaurants in Philadelphia and other urban areas.
Members pay a seasonal stipend to belong and sometimes are also required to put in a little sweat equity–sometimes just four hours stretched out over the summer—helping out.
Bucks CSA farms range in size. The homey and cheerful Just One Seed in Pipersville operated by Eve Springwood Minson, only occupies an acre and a half. On a recent Saturday interns and members were busy picking up their weekly haul. Minson also teaches gardening classes.
The largest appears to be the 30-acre Blooming Glen in Perkasie, operated by Tom Murtha and Tricia Borneman.
At Blooming Glen, the 300 full-share members pay $780 a year for 24 weeks of produce. Prices at other CSAs vary widely but still reach into the hundreds of dollars.
That may seem like a lot, but Murtha says, until you add up the quantity and quality of the vegetables.
“You’re getting food at wholesale prices. It’s a pretty good deal,” he said. In fact, a full share might be more than a family can handle; half-shares at CSAs are common.
The 2007 Census of Agriculture from the U.S Department of Agriculture places Bucks County as the nation’s 20th biggest provider of “direct to market produce.” That category includes CSAs, farmers’ markets and direct sales to restaurants, where some CSAs also sell their crops.
Open Acres, a CSA right on the Delaware River across from the bridge to Frenchtown, N.J., supplies vegetables to The Ships Inn in nearby Milford, N.J. and in its second year in business has 75 members. Some come from as far away as New York City, about 75 miles away.
“I don’t want to call it a movement,” said Nate Walker who operates the three-acre Open Acres with his partner, Heather Brady. “But people are beginning to question—and value–where their food is coming from.” The duo moved to the Tinicum Township farm from Queens, though both previously apprenticed at a CSA in the Hudson Valley.
They seem typical of many other CSA entrepreneurs. They’re often first-time farmers, a young couple or a group of friends who are renting a small piece of land because buying Bucks land is far too expensive to buy outright.
One of the newest CSAs is Trauger’s Farm Market in Kintnersville. The family has farmed the land for at least eight generations and operates a successful market on banks of the Delaware River. It added a CSA this past summer—urged on by its customers. It doesn’t offer the traditional weekly bushels of vegetables. Instead Trauger’s gives a membership card available for special produce and discounts at its market and at its farmers’ markets where Trauger’s operates farm stands.
These small ventures add up. The organic and small farm movement in and around Bucks County and New Jersey is big enough that Mikey Azzara in 2008 started a business called Zone 7. It’s named after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s climate designation for this part of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
From its central New Jersey hub, Zone 7 distributes farm fresh produce from 40 area farms (not all of them CSAs) to organic markets and 100 restaurants in the region including Farm & Fisherman, Southwark, Water & Fig and Triumph Brewing in Philadelphia.
Azzara says he hasn’t had to make a “cold call” since he began—his business grows by word of mouth from chef to chef.
Marilyn Anthony, Eastern regional director for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), says an attraction for CSAs in Southeast Pennsylvania is its great soil—and its ideal location. “What’s happening here is market driven,” she says.
Alison Hastings, senior environmental planner at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission notes about a third of the nation’s population lives within a 12-hour drive from the Philadelphia area. And over 30 million people live in a 100 mile radius. Hastings and Anthony say that makes it a great location to base a farm-fresh produce business.
Anthony is working with PASA Executive Director Brian Snyder on a pilot program to encourage landowners with unused farm land to make rental deals with young farmers who want to start farms or livestock operations. PASA’s even organizing a Dec. 3 event matching landowners with would –be farmers, “speed-dating” style. (Check www.pasafarming.org for details.)
Anthony says some landowners just want enough rent from CSAs to pay the property taxes. Others are enthusiastic enough about CSAs that they’ll make a deal just for the opportunity to get vegetables from the farmers and have them keep the property in good shape.
Though PASA doesn’t care if the farms are organic, part of the process toward being certified an organic farm stipulates that no chemicals had been added to the land for at least the last three years. For often-unused land now held in preservation trusts, CSAs with organic aspirations are a perfect match.
In 2004, Anchor Run in Wrightstown in Bucks County opened, using just a small part of a 100 acre preserved farm.
With over 12,000 acres of farmland preserved in Bucks County and more acres otherwise not being used, Bucks CSAs have room to grow.
The farmers living the life seem eager to have that happen. “There’s an intangible value to this,” says Blooming Glen’s Murtha. “I love to watch the empty nesters we have come here and then watch the kids with their parents. But it’s hard work. I don’t see us retiring to the yacht anytime soon.”