Betting the farm on CSA

Tuesday, April 26, 2005 at 10:00pm

Tuning out the Interstate 840 traffic that whizzes past their farm in rural College Grove, Cindy and Hank Delvin admire the blooms on the 4,000 strawberry plants they recently planted in nine neat rows. By the first week of May, each plant should yield a quart of Chandler strawberries.

Meanwhile, the Delvins are nurturing seedlings for 38 varieties of vegetable crops in two greenhouses. From May to November, the 65-acre organic Delvin Farm will produce a bountiful harvest of 62 varieties of vegetables.

At least that's the hope. The Delvins are crossing their fingers that Mother Nature will cooperate. If something goes awry, their investment isn't the only one at stake. Their customers will each be out hundreds of dollars as well.

The Delvins have signed up 140 customers committed to buying organic produce directly from them this year. Hours after the vegetables are picked, they'll be delivered to customers at various locations in Nashville each week.

About 90 percent of their customers have paid $700 in advance to receive 28 weekly shipments of half-bushels of produce as they come into season. Other customers are on monthly payment plans.

That's the price they're willing to pay to help sustain small farms through a new business model of farming called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

A growing number of small farmers are turning to the CSA model to survive in the era of big agribusiness. By getting customers to pay in advance, farmers are able to grow food they claim is far superior to that available in typical grocery stores.

In effect, their "shareholders" are underwriting the farming operation, allowing the farmer to budget for equipment and staffing before the first seed is ever planted. The customers are also sharing the risk.

"This [farm] is totally dependent upon God and nature because you're putting a crop in and you don't know what's going to happen. Anything could come through and destroy it," Cindy Delvin said. "So the people who invest in a CSA have faith in the farmer that he's going to do his very best to produce it."

"But you're also taking the risk that if something happens, and this crop doesn't produce, than you're OK with that," she added.

Dale Vinicur and her husband, John Janis, of Nashville have agreed to pay the $700 upfront fee, despite Vinicur's layoff from a job last year. She said the couple's love of fresh, organic vegetables makes the expense worthwhile, as well as the knowledge that they are supporting a couple who is passionate about their work.

"They're just real devoted farmers. We give thanks every day for them," Vinicur said. "We feel like they've contributed to our health. They work so hard."

The Delvin Farm is among about a half-dozen CSA operations in Tennessee and Kentucky that deliver food to Nashville consumers through various pickup sites (see box). One of the farms, Peaceful Pastures in Hickman, delivers grass-fed beef, pork, lamb, goat and poultry products to East Nashville locations the second and fourth Mondays of each month.

The CSA concept first took hold in the United States in 1986 and has grown to an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 CSA farms in the United States, said John Hendrickson of the University of Wisconsin's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems.

Hendrickson was one of the authors of the first comprehensive study on CSAs, done by the universities of Wisconsin and Massachusetts Amherst in 1999 and updated in 2001. The survey found that 96 percent of CSAs practiced organic or biodynamic farming techniques, and 72 percent operated fewer than 50 acres.

Some farmers have used CSAs to keep their family farms from succumbing to development pressures - as illustrated by the recent documentary The Real Dirt on Farmer John.

The film, which chronicles Illinois farmer John Peterson's fight to save his Angelic Organics farm with the CSA model, received a special honor from former Vice President Al Gore when screened at the Nashville Film Festival April 16.

Robin Verson worked as an intern on Peterson's farm 11 years ago and met her husband, Paul Bela, there before the couple moved to Edmonton, Ky., and started a CSA that serves the Nashville area.

"It turned my life around," Verson said. When they and another couple, Chris and Christie Korrow, started their cooperative CSA, Hill and Hollow, in 1999, word got out quickly following a newspaper article, Verson said. The CSA movement to serve the Nashville market started gaining momentum.

Jeff Poppen, also known as the "barefoot farmer," was one of the early CSA proprietors. He has operated the 300-acre Long Hungry Creek Farm in Red Boiling Springs since 1974, employing the biodynamic farming method that emphasizes a self-sustaining farm using compost and other materials generated onsite.

Poppen said he was doing well selling directly to natural grocery stores in Nashville when organic gardener Dan Strymer of East Nashville convinced him to set up a CSA by offering to handle the truck deliveries to Nashville for a year.

Now Poppen has ceased being a supplier to the resale market and focuses entirely on the CSA, which grew from 32 members the first year to about 80 now.

His new delivery person, Mary Rusener, shuttles 60 to 70 varieties of produce during the year to two Nashville locations each week. Customers pick up their half-bushels full of 20 to 25 pounds of food for an upfront fee that basically amounts to $25 a week.

"Customers are so tickled to get the vegetables [because the vegetables] have dirt all over them and they're not all prettied up," Poppen said.

For him, the CSA gives him the opportunity to do what he does best: riding the tractor out on the field, planting the seed and harvesting the crop.

"It takes the burden of selling and marketing off of the farmer," said Poppen, who has neither a phone nor computer on the farm.

The Delvins, farmers for 30 years, are now in their fourth season of CSA, although they still get some of their income from selling to natural food retailers like Wild Oats.

"For us, the CSA is not totally our whole income, but it's certainly been a huge bonus in survival," Hank Delvin said. "By direct marketing, we're able to get more for what we produce, better prices than the wholesale markets."

Like the other CSAs, the Delvins' business has spread mostly through word of mouth. A big part of that is the educational outreach that they and most of the farms do, sponsoring frequent social gatherings, seminars and other events to promote the purchase of locally grown foods directly from the source.

Verson and Bela, of the Hill and Hollow farm in Kentucky, maintain a nonprofit group, The Rural Center, that does educational outreach on organic and biodynamic farming and gives advice to people wanting to start a CSA.

Though Verson predicts that CSAs will continue to grow, she said it's not for all consumers because of the lack of choice. The shareholders are getting only the produce that's in season and harvested by their particular farm.

"There are some people who can't make the commitment to eating with the seasons," she said. "But do I think there's a growing number of people who are concerned about what they are eating? Absolutely."

CSA directory

Seventeen CSA farms operate in Tennessee, according to the Web site www.localharvest.org. Some of the CSA farms, including three in Kentucky, that deliver food to the Nashville area include:

Delvin Farms

6290 McDaniel Road

College Grove, Tenn. 37046

www.delvinfarms.com

395-4566

Long Hungry Creek Farm

P.O. Box 163

Red Boiling Springs, Tenn. 37150

barefootfarmer.com

699-2493

Peaceful Pastures (Meat and dairy)

69 Cowan Valley Lane

Hickman, Tenn. 38567

peacefulpastures.com

683-4291

Sylvanus Farm

5980 Salt Lick Road

Burkesville, Ky. 42717

geocities.com/sylvanusfarm/

270-433-6068

Hill and Hollow Farm

8707 Breeding Road

Edmonton, Ky. 42129

hillandhollowfarm.com

270-432-0567

Bugtussle Biodynamic Farm

950 Rack Creek Road

Camaliel, Ky. 42140

270-457-2847

Eaton's Creek Organics

5570 Eaton's Creek

Joelton, Tenn. 37080

ecorganics.net

299-0979

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