Miami Valley Community Supported Agriculture
By Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin
Photo: Typical assorted produce ready for delivery.
Whether you’re going full-on locavore or simply looking to add some healthful choices to your diet, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs provide a bevy of benefits, and not just to your dinner plate.
“CSA programs connect local producers of food with local consumers in a relationship that works for both,” said Erik Vasilauskas of Patchwork Gardens in Dayton. “CSA programs may be organized to support producers of fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats, dairy, eggs, wool or other artisan items. CSA programs are making it possible for people in the city of Dayton to source their food from within their own community and support a local business in the process.”
CSAs came to the U.S. by way of Europe in the mid 1980s, but were first developed in Japan in the mid 1960s where it is called “teikei” – which may be translated to “cooperation” or the aphorism “food with the farmer’s face on it.” By the count of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are more than 1,000 CSAs operating in our country today, of which the Miami Valley is proud host to nearly a dozen. What’s more, Five Rivers MetroParks is facilitating consumers’ efforts to become involved with the local food movement by offering classes on building gardens and partnering with organizations such as UpDayton to host the recent CSA Fair that was held at 2nd Street Market on March 13.
As our city makes strides to learn and grow in a healthy and sustainable manner, discover what is already in place and how you can become involved.
9057 W. Third St.
Patchwork Gardens, located on 24 acres on U.S. Route 35 in West Dayton, is owned by George Mertz, a University of Dayton graduate who bought the first portion of the property in 2008. The chemical-free garden has since expanded and grown under the care of its community from 35 members to 200. This direct farm-to-table program provides members with the freshest possible produce while also fostering the connection between consumers and farmers.
“The CSA program also promotes a strong sense of place,” Vasilauskas said. “CSA members eat with the seasons, from a garden they know is close to home. They learn to appreciate the foods that are unique to our Miami Valley, and they can appreciate the flavors of a spring, summer and fall … But even more than this, the CSA is special because it forges a relationship between the grower and consumer. We interact with our customers every week. When this happens, there is an exchange of knowledge, and we all learn more about producing and consuming healthy foods. For our part, we benefit from constant feedback. We learn what people enjoy most and can adjust what we grow accordingly. Positive feedback also keeps our working spirits high. It is particularly rewarding to present the produce of your labor to an individual who shows his or her appreciation. The relationship brings us close enough to customers where we may share our expertise in working with whole foods. We care a lot about food and think that people should eat only the best. We believe this means eating vegetables and whole foods. For some customers, cooking with whole foods is nothing new. They are comfortable spending time in the kitchen to prepare good meals. For many members, though, participating in the CSA brings challenges and growth. They benefit from exposure to a variety of produce and our guidance how to use it. Some, for example, have never eaten turnips. For us, turnips are a favorite and they are bound to appear a few times in the boxes. We can tell you about our favorite ways to prepare them, and with luck, you will enjoy them. It is a special thing when a customer returns the following week to say, ‘You know I tried the turnips like you said, and they are not bad,’ or ‘I love turnips now.’ We know we are doing a good thing if we can promote healthy eating in our community. Some of our favorite customers are young parents whose families are growing up with fresh food from our garden.”
This relationship with consumers means a unique approach to the business of growing food in large quantities.
“The CSA program provides us with a special means of distributing our produce: directly and regularly to our member-customers,” Vasilauskas said. “Without this, we could not commit to growing such a diverse selection of healthy vegetables, but would be driven toward those crops more suitable for wholesale. We love what we do in the garden, and we could not be more grateful for the CSA members we serve, who make it possible. By signing up members in the beginning of the season, we build a community of eaters we can depend on to put away the produce. We plant a large garden with confidence. Each week, as different crops reach their maturity, we evaluate which ones are most ready and select these for distribution in our CSA. In this way, we are made a highly efficient farm. Very little food goes to waste when we can plan for harvest and immediate distribution in this fashion.”
Patchwork Gardens’ approach to growing is ultimately good for the earth as well as consumers.
“Patchwork Gardens is committed to a sustainable agricultural practice, which promotes both the health of the environment and the health of the individuals who consume our foods. We are a chemical-free farm, which is to say we grow our foods without the use of chemical herbicides or pesticides. We place emphasis on the health of the soil in which we grow, which we see improves plant quality and yields, year after year. In any agricultural process, nutrients are depleted from the soil, which need to be replaced. The soil could be supplemented with chemical inputs, but we do not view this as environmentally sustainable. We use cover-cropping techniques and certain organic soil amendments. We add composted manure and mulch with wood chips, leaves and old hay. These add organic matter to the soil, which improves drainage, and increases the amount of nutrients available for plant life. These are materials which are readily available in our community. We recycle the wood chips brought to us by tree services who maintain the power lines. In time, these materials break down and become new soil. It is a healthy synergy. The most powerful testament to the sustainability of our method can be seen here on the surface of our garden, where there are changes taking place. The soil, whereas it started heavy and clay, is taking on a richer, looser character. With years of growing as we have, the soil is showing improvement. It is has greater “tilth” with the incorporation of organic matter, and it is darker in color. [There are] greater levels of nutrients available for plant life, and this is producing healthier, tastier plants.”
Patchwork Gardens’ 2014 season will last for 20 weeks from May 28 to Oct. 10 with deliveries made weekly to several locations in the Miami Valley. Participants can expect boxes full of tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, onions, summer squash, green beans, potatoes, salad mix, kale, basil, beets, flowers and optional free-range eggs and freshly baked bread. Share sizes are available in small for $18.50 per week and large for $26.50 per week.
For members, the benefits are seen immediately.
“Participating in the Patchwork Gardens CSA is a way to always have fresh vegetables in the kitchen and is a supplement shopping from the grocery,” Vasilauskas said. “Customers enjoy only the best of what is fresh and in-season, all the while knowing exactly who and where their food comes from. More than just a buying club, the CSA is a relationship to a working farm. Members see their farmers every week to pick up their food, and they receive a weekly newsletter with information telling how their food is produced and how it can be used in the kitchen.”
E.A.T. Food For Life
14360 Mangen Rd.
E.A.T. Food for Life is a certified organic family farm in northern Darke county. Patriarch Dan Kremer, a former corporate man and sufferer of chronic illness, has experienced a quantifiable improvement in the quality of his life since making the decision to take on his family farm. Now, with his wife Nancy and their six children, Kremer is living healthy and offering his community the opportunity to participate in the local food movement.
“Our goal,” Kremer explained, “is to make fresh, nutritious and healthy fruits and vegetables available to the [area] every week.” He added that, of course, the food will be non-GMO and chemical-free.
As to the whys and hows of CSAs, Kremer said, “When an economic depression occurs, food may not be available from a non-local source. Also, all the science clearly points to the fact that the fresher, the better. Our world is going to be changing dramatically. When the bubbles of the U.S. dollar and stock market crash later this year, quality food will be in great demand and very scarce. We will serve those people who have chosen to support us by buying local food. The time to choose your farmer is NOW! We are committed and will serve those who are committed to US!”
To participate in E.A.T. Food for Life, members pay an initial deposit of $100, and then $100 per month from May through October. The deposit may also be used to pay the last month of deliveries. Enrollment must be completed by May 1, and distribution will take place May through October every Saturday at 2nd Street Market. Members can expect 10 to 15 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables packed in bulk each week. This year, Kremer is planning for apples, strawberries, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, potatoes, radishes, spinach, squash, tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, beets, broccoli, cabbage, kale, onions, garlic, peas and sweet corn.
“We have been producing food for 15 years and because the economic picture is going to change dramatically in our nation very soon, we want to encourage all families to do everything within their capacity to start growing their own food. Food will become the most valued asset in life as we know it. It will become a matter of life or death. Do not delay your plans to apply your time, treasure and talent to this mission,” Kremer said. “Want more life? We will have it for you!”
555 N. Lutheran Church Rd.
While CSAs and community gardens are in abundance, there are still relatively few CSAs that offer meat. Keener Farm, located near New Lebanon, offers consumers the opportunity to secure shares of the farm’s annual meat production.
“Our 160-acre farm has been in the family since 1830,” Matthew Keener said. “I am the fifth generation to farm this land. With farming changing so drastically in the past few decades, where a few farms are getting huge and medium farms are dying, we are truly blessed the local food movement has breathed new life in our family farm. We thank each and every one of our consumers everyday for helping us get to where we are today!”
Consumers can rest easy when considering the source and quality of the product they are buying.
“The consumers expect the highest quality of our product,” Keener said. “Pasture raised, nutrient dense, steroid free, hormone free meat that has been raised in a happy healthy environment. We raise the meat as organic as possible, but will never become certified due to red-tape and bureaucracy. We are non-GMO on all of our poultry food.”
In addition to meat, Keener Farm also offers 100 percent pure maple syrup, made right on the farm.
Due to the fact their products can be frozen, Keener Farm is able to operate year-round. Consumers can anticipate beef, pork, and whole chickens. Deliveries are made on the first Wednesday of the month in Dayton and the first Saturday of the month in Yellow Springs. Shares range from 8 pounds at $65 to 15 pounds at $100 to 20 pounds at $125 per month. Fees are paid every three months.
“It’s an exciting time on the farm,” Keener said. “Graham Meriwether, who produced the documentary ‘American Meat,’ was here filming for a new documentary about young farmers, and we are going to be a part of that. We also bottled our first maple syrup of the season. Life is good and we are blessed!”
Five Rivers MetroParks
409 E. Monument Ave.
When Luci Beachdell was hired by MetroParks in 2007 to supervise the Community Gardening program, there were only about 18 active gardens, primarily allotment vegetable gardens where people rent a plot for a season to grow food, herbs and flowers. During her time with MetroParks, that number has grown to approximately 80, with several people now selling what they produce.
“The gardens, which are out in neighborhoods or at churches or other organizations, are operated and maintained by volunteer groups,” Beachdell said. “Late last year, my staff and I moved to Possum Creek MetroPark Farm, where we are focusing on small-scale, ecologically-friendly food production. Our big push for 2014 is to build and use garden beds for our youth programs. We’ll also be doing a variety of classes around food – growing, raising and using food, primarily in your urban or suburban small space areas, and what kind of positive impact you can have on the ecosystem.”
Individuals like Beachdell are key in the education of our community.
“My job is to provide support to new and existing community garden groups in a variety of ways,” Beachdell said. “I might initially talk with a small group about the process – both mental and physical – of starting a new garden; or run a heavy metal soil test; or help them gather resources to build raised beds; or bring a tractor in to till and plow. I offer classes and networking opportunities for community gardeners, and provide other miscellaneous assistance, when possible, upon request.”
Putting together events to shed light on what is being done in the Miami Valley is another important part of Beachdell’s job. The CSA Fair at 2nd Street Market on March 13 was a first, but most certainly not a last. “The fair gives us an opportunity to expose more people to ways to get fresh local food, spotlight local farmers and connect gardeners with people selling their own food,” Beachdell said.
As for her goals for the future, Beachdell said, “I want to see more home and community gardens, more small farms and generally more environmentally-friendly small-scale food production throughout the region, and then make sure people know how to access that food and know what to do with it once they have it!”
Whether you’re buying from a local farmer or getting nourishment from the bounty of your own garden, your involvement will help maintain a sustainable community and a better quality of life for you and your loved ones.
Reach DCP freelance writer Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin at JenniferHanauerLumpkin@DaytonCityPaper.com