The Howard County Conservancy’s Montjoy Barn in Woodstock will serve as a distribution point for organic food sold by Sandy Spring Community Supported Agriculture, a small business owned and operated by Erin and Dan Johnson of Montgomery County.
Beginning on May 9, Ellicott City area families who have pre-purchased weekly deliveries of produce, known as shares, grown by Amish farmers in Pennsylvania, will begin picking them up at the Conservancy.
“We have a standing offer to any local farmers in Howard County or elsewhere that they can distribute locally-grown food on our property. This is not limited to organic farmers,” said Meg Schumacher, executive director of the Conservancy. “There is no financial benefit to the conservancy; it’s just part of our mission to support local agriculture.”
Farmers' markets are far from a new concept. In fact, selling surplus food is one of the oldest forms of commerce. What’s different with a CSA, however, is that buyers pay in advance, before any planting is done, so that farmers know what the demand will be and can farm their land accordingly.
“CSA commits participants to eating fresh produce every week throughout the growing season. Because participants pay farmers upfront, independent family farms fare better financially,” said Erin Johnson.
In this era of mass-produced, scientifically-modified food that is trucked long distances and sold in supermarkets, most Americans have abandoned the practice of purchasing their food directly from the people who grew it. Critics of the modern food system say that current practices are harmful to people and the environment.
“This is a quiet revolution and provides hope for the ideal of living more locally. Plus, the rising demand for CSA-quality food increases the chances that the current corporate food system will respond with better choices for us,” said Johnson.
“We eat a ton of produce and try to eat locally,” said Diane Ference of Dayton.
Ference said she tried shopping at farmers markets in Glenwood and Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, but they were “hit or miss” with what was available, and, in the case of Shrewsbury, too far to drive. “Now we are going to try a CSA.”
“Most CSAs are run directly from farms, but we felt called to introduce as many people as possible to the concept, so we bring produce from Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, a group of 75 certified organic farmers in Pennsylvania. We offer vegetable shares with some fruit as well as fruit, flower and herb shares. We also make available meats, dairy and many other food items through LFFC’s buying club,” said Johnson.
Buying from a cooperative makes food supplies more predicable, according to Johnson. “But not completely predictable. The adventure is you get stuff you never had before and you have to do a little cooking. We do weekly menu planners and offer training. When you open the pre-packed box, it’s like Christmas every week!”
Environmentalists tout the benefits of a “farm-to-table” movement that includes CSAs because it integrates the main elements of sustainability, namely people, profits and the planet.
“This is the single best business model to support local farmers. They get more money. They get the money that would be otherwise [used for] packaging, merchandising, racking and shipping from a farther distance,” explained Johnson.
CSA food is comparably priced with supermarket food, according to Johnson. Families buy a share for $742 per year, which works out to be $29.68 per week for 25 weeks.
Commercial farming harms the environment in several ways, most notably by damaging the soil and consuming excess energy required for shipping long distances, according to Johnson. “Farmers who use chemicals are diminishing the health of the soil over time. Organic farmers are legally bound not to use chemicals.”
There is evidence that eating more produce makes people healthier. “We try to control our cholesterol by diet, which you can do if you eat a lot of vegetables,” said Ference.
“We are currently working with Pennsylvania farmers, but could work with Howard County farmers, too. It’s not an exclusive thing. But our farm group is organic,” said Johnson. “There are very few organic farmers in Howard County, so that’s the problem.”
“Unfortunately, there aren’t too many Howard County farmers left. We have for years tried to increase the farming on our property, but deer damage has made growing corn all but impossible. We do have farmers who hay the property, though,” said Schumacher.
“The Sandy Spring CSA was founded in 2002 by Quakers in Sandy Spring, hence the name. Up until this past fall we ran it as volunteers, but it grew so big that it got to be too much. Now it is a business,” said Johnson. “The first year we had 25 share members. In 2011, I estimate we will have over 500, which represents at least 750 households.”
This year the Johnsons added eight sites to the five that they previously had. Two of the new sites are in Howard County; one will be operated from a private residence on Sunny Spring in the Columbia village of Hickory Ridge, and the other from the Conservancy.
“If it brings new people onto the grounds, that’s an added benefit. The more people who make use of our trails and grounds, the better for the organization,” said Schumacher.
“This is their first year in Howard County and I know they’re trying to establish a customer base. We are trying to drum up friends to get at least 30 families to buy shares so that it is cost effective for the driver,” said Ference.