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Growers find a market in community support

By Karen Sackowitz
Globe Correspondent / August 6, 2009

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Sue and Frank Ventura, owners of Dragonfly Farms in Pepperell, have been selling their vegetables at farmers’ markets since 2003. This year, to create a more stable outlet for their produce, they launched their first community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.

“Sales at a farmers’ market can be quite variable,’’ Sue Ventura said. “With the CSA, most of our produce is sold before we grow it, and we know exactly how much to pick on harvest day.’’

In a CSA program, consumers prepurchase shares in the farm’s next harvest. Shareholders receive fresh produce each week during harvesting season. In some CSA programs, such as at Appleton Farms in Ipswich, shareholders also volunteer time working in the fields. The collaboration, it turns out, is fun and educational.

“My children are learning that food comes from the land, not the supermarket shelf,’’ said Sheri Saginor, a mother of two from Boxford who participates in the Appleton Farms CSA. “Nothing teaches them the value of nutritious food more than the taste of a green bean that they just picked off the vine with their own hand.’’

Since 1985, when a woman named Robyn Van En opened one of the first CSA programs in the country in the Berkshires, the concept has steadily gained momentum. According to statistics recorded at the Robyn Van En Center at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., there are close to 1,400 CSA farms in the United States today.

According to one CSA farmer, the trend allows him to personalize his growing practices while forging a bond with the people who eat his food. Dave Dumaresq, owner of Farmer Dave’s Dumaresq Farm in Dracut, ran his first CSA in 2007 in conjunction with Groundwork Lawrence, an organization focused on sustainable environmental change through community-based partnerships. Today, his CSA program distributes through six locations, serving 350 to 400 shareholders. For Dumaresq, the CSA model resembles farming as he saw it in Ecuador, where he worked as a Peace Corps crop extensionist for two years.

“It was about growing what was needed, not wasting, and working within natural forces to determine what is harvested,’’ he said.

Face-to-face consumer interaction is one of the biggest differences between farming for wholesale and farming for local consumption. For Heidi Stucker, the CSA coordinator at Farmer Dave’s, it is the most rewarding part of her job.

“I enjoy being with people who are excited about receiving their food,’’ she said. “They can’t wait to look in the box each week to find out what’s in there.’’

The variety available in a CSA program comes with farming for quantity needed and a desired nutritional mix, rather than farming large amounts of specific products for the wholesale market. At Farmer Dave’s, more than 100 types of produce are grown.

“It can be tricky. You don’t want to overplant one item or underplant another,’’ Dumaresq said. “But I also have the flexibility to add new foods in response to customer requests, or to experiment with new foods because I know CSA customers are willing to try them.’’

Dumaresq said the CSA program also allows him to focus on organic growing practices and sustainability.

“For me, it means farming in a way which allows activity to continue in perpetuity without detrimental economical, societal, or ecological effects,’’ he said.

In addition to growing organically, Dumaresq uses drip irrigation in the fields and flooding trays in his greenhouses, reducing water consumption. He is also participating in a study using a corn-burning furnace to heat his greenhouses.

With the demand up again this year, he and his team began working last fall to plan out crops, sell shares, and improve distribution methods.

“The timing of a CSA works out perfectly,’’ he said. “We do all of our marketing in the winter and spring, so by summer I can be where I want to be - out in the fields, or at the pickup location, interacting with the customers.’’

Shares run from $350 to $550, depending on program structure. Locations also offer opportunities to give charitably through the CSA program, either by funding shares for low-income families or by donating shares to local food banks.

Once summer hits, Farmer Dave’s is a well-oiled machine. From week to week, harvesting plans are adjusted to allow for weather and other last-minute factors. Newsletters are then sent out to shareholders to keep them informed.

On packing days, workers head into the fields at sunup to bring in the harvest. All produce is rinsed clean in a shaded area and moved to an underground storage space for natural cooling.

“The idea is to get rid of the field heat as soon as possible,’’ Dumaresq said. “It promotes a longer shelf life on the consumer end.’’

On the packing line, food items are checked for quality and loaded into crates. This year, the line features a new, nonmotorized conveyor belt to increase speed and efficiency.

With the crates packed and loaded by midday, trucks head out to the pickup locations, where on-site CSA community volunteers oversee logistics and answer customer questions.

The next day, it all starts again.