One Way to Nurture Your Local Farmers: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
By Anna Reinalda | April 7, 2022
Crocuses are peaking from the soil, the sun is up long enough for an afterwork walk, and birds are nesting in treetops. With spring in full force, local farms are gearing up for their summer crops, meaning Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) season is nearly upon us.
CSA is a small farm business model in which community members purchase a share of the farm’s produce for the season. There are a variety of formats, but most farms opt for simplicity: a weekly box of fruits, veggies, and other farm-fresh goodies, in exchange for an up-front payment. The up-front payments serve as a significant source of income for farmers, and give them a financial boost during one of the most expensive times of the year. Spring expenses include seeds, equipment repairs, and wages. Benefits for consumers include: fresh, local produce that’s already selected and put together, offering a terrific means of eating healthier, engaging with community businesses, and learning about food production. Living in the Garden State, it’s a no-brainer to buy local produce. However, as the state becomes more developed, it’s getting difficult for small farms to hold their ground, or to find ground in the first place.
The Montgomery News visited three local farms to discuss the benefits of CSA, the importance of keeping food systems clean and local, and the various joys and hardships of farming small.
Cherry Valley Farm
Cherry Valley Farm started in 2016 when Vishal Pathak formed a cooperative with a handful of young adults. Their goal was to each focus on a different product, and then pool their efforts for a joint CSA program. But their hopes proved difficult to manage. “The best way I can put it is there were too many chefs in the kitchen,” Pathak said. “With so many businesses and being a bunch of people in our 20s who couldn’t get enough funding, we ended up parting ways in 2019.” Still, he remained determined to make it work.“
In 2020 I started the CSA back up, and just did a small, 12-person CSA growing on maybe an acre,” he said. “This year I’m hoping for two dozen members, and I’m hoping to double the vegetable production.” In addition to expanding his customer base, Pathak has projects in mind to increase efficiency and productivity. “Another goal is to be in year-round production. We’ll hopefully have fresh produce through the winter and fall using high tunnels, and I’m trying to put in a propagation house to start seeds.” Many farmers rely on high tunnels as an alternative to green houses. They are hooped, plastic covered structures that offer natural temperature control while allowing in-ground planting. “Based off the requirements that are coming down from the state and township levels … your project that starts out at $10,000 turns into something that’s $30,000 to $50,000.”
Still, Pathak considers himself lucky to have land he can farm. The land belongs to his father, who is a proud proponent of Pathak’s mission. “It’s a big privilege to be able to be with this land,” he said. “You’re able to see how water moves through it, and what comes back every year, and what’s growing where it shouldn’t be growing.” “One of the first tenets of permaculture is spending time with your land and observing it for a period of five years. I’d say we’re still within that observation period.” Permaculture is an agricultural practice in which the crops are integrated to the existing ecosystem, creating a self-sustaining food landscape. It also involves some careful planning and decision making.
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“Anytime you want to do anything, give yourself five reasons why it’s good and five reasons why it’s bad. Really fully weigh your options, because everything has lasting implications for at least a few months,” he says. Although Cherry Valley Farm operates in accordance with the environment, Pathak said the farm is not certified organic. “Organic doesn’t really mean anything,” he said, explaining there are plenty of pesticide sprays that are technically organic, even though they can have harmful side effects. Pathak’s preference for old school farming contrasts his own greenness. In fact, prior to taking up guardianship for Cherry Valley Farm, Pathak said he’d only had six months of farming experience on a volunteer basis. “It’s a challenge to get all the systems up and running at the same time, but to slowly ease into it like I’m trying to do is a good way to go about it.”
Pathak expressed gratitude to have a community of like-minded people to support his efforts.“ The farming community in Jersey is fantastic. Farmers are always willing to help out in whatever way they can.”
Cherry Valley Farm CSA shares are available online at cherryvalleycoop.org/csa. The program starts in mid-June and runs for about 16 weeks. Cherry Valley Farm also has an onsite store where they sell their produce, as well as farm-based products made in a professional kitchen by Pathak’s partner, Mallika Mandhyan.
Orchard Farm Organics
Caroline Phinney, owner of Orchard Farm Organics, delights when children from The Waldorf School of Princeton come to visit – which happens several times per day, no matter the weather. The school is right next door to her farm, and students regularly walk over to learn to sow seeds, feed chickens, sift compost, and participate in all parts of the farm’s biodynamic food system.
Phinney said the joy she experiences when the children come to the farm reminds her of her early 20s, when she spent two years living in Burundi. “After I graduated from college, I lived in a rural situation where the school children worked in the field,” she remembered about her experience in East Africa. “They worked the gardens right there at the school. It was very integrated. And that’s really what drew me to Waldorf; the integration between the land, and the children being in nature as much as possible.”
Phinney says that growing up with an awareness of natural cycles and rhythms enriches a child’s connection to the world. “It’s been amazing the young people that come by with their parents. I’m thinking in particular of teenage boys. I’ve had their mothers say, ‘Thank you, my child has a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose now.’ And everybody’s looking for meaning,” Phinney said.
Encouraging community involvement with the farm is critical to Phinney’s mission. Not only does she want to offer the highest quality foods to the community, but she says the community should take part in the production of those foods. And she does not just mean children. “Older people also need this,” Phinney said. “Almost everything we do, because we’re not mechanized, can be done by little children and older people.” Phinney said she’s hoping to coordinate with Stonebridge, Skillman’s senior community, to help residents engage with nature.
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Orchard Farm’s relationship with volunteers is symbiotic. While volunteers find enrichment, education, and meaning on the farm, the farm benefits from the group effort of what is a labor-intensive means of farming. In addition, the farm gives back to the community as much as possible. “This year we’re having a special relationship with the Mobile Food Pantry in Princeton,” Phinney said. “We will bring extra orders to them, and people from there will be volunteering here.” Phinney’s two right-hand women, Farm Manager Connie Gregson and Herbs Manager Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, both began their Orchard Farm journeys as volunteers.
“I started volunteering here back in 2020, right as the pandemic was taking off,” Gregson said. “I have three kids, so I was trying to get them involved in something. They didn’t think weeding was very fun, so they didn’t come back. But I did.” Gregson officially joined the farm family this season after Phinney expressed some difficulty in finding a committed farm manager. Gregson, who left behind a successful, two-decade career in product development, is finding her skill set complementary to Phinney’s free-form approach. “There’s a lot of paperwork involved [with certified organic produce],” Gregson said. “We have to be able to trace everything. That’s why record keeping is so key.”
Ellmore-Tallitsch, whose daughter attends the Waldorf School, began volunteering by accident. She saw Phinney selling eggs one day while dropping off her child at school, and simply offered to help out. Originally, Ellmore-Tallitsch was a performing artist, dancing for a number of years with the Martha Graham Dance Company. She co-founded the P.E.A.C.E. Community Garden in Jersey City prior to settling in Hopewell with her family. Passionate and bearing a complex knowledge of the medicinal and nutritional values of herbs, Ellmore-Tallitsch says she’s filling a void. “I feel like it’s important to have local herbs available to people … and sometimes they’re hard to find locally, or they’re being shipped from far away,” she said. “When I’m looking for herbs in bulk, I don’t know of many farms offhand that I can just go and get a tea that has been grown on site.”
Ellmore-Tallitsch shares Phinney’s enthusiasm for community engagement, and hopes that as the pandemic settles they can explore the possibility of on-farm educational programs. Orchard Farm Organics is a biodynamic farm, a delegation coined by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s. Biodynamic farming incorporates holistic principles that prohibit pesticides, and focuses on complete life cycles, from seed-saving to composting.
Compost, Phinney says, is the start of the show at Orchard Farm. Any waste material from the farm goes onto one of five compost piles, in addition to expired produce offered by Princeton’s Whole Earth Center. Phinney credits much of the farm’s success to having excellent compost to feed their soil. “We have these Princeton University students who come and do research projects here,” Phinney said. “We’ve benefitted from their soil tests two years in a row, and it’s very encouraging to see how these numbers are really good.”
Phinney’s delight in tending the soil is contagious, and it’s clear her drive to farm comes from a deep sense of connection to the earth and her community. “We’re so happy we’re out here all the time in nature, and we know this is the right thing to be doing.” The Orchard Farm Organics CSA offers an individual share and a family share, and runs from May 24 to November 8. Pick up is on Tuesdays at the farm on Cherry Hill Road, and members must bring their own bags or containers for their shares. The farm store is also open, where shoppers can find teas, jams, and other farm products
Montgomery High School graduates James and Alex Klett, co-owners of Fairgrown Farm, are looking to revamp their CSA program this season. After a several increasingly successful years offering a delivery- based CSA, the Klett brothers are hoping to triple their membership, and they are optimistic.
“This year, what we’re doing is reinventing our program to make it a collaborative approach to farming,” James said. “We’ve learned over the years that the area we’re in, for a combination of reasons – the soil, the climate, the lack of large amounts of land – makes it difficult to grow certain crops, and makes us really good at growing other crops. “So we’re working with all these other farmers who grow things we shouldn’t grow on our farm, and then we’re focusing on the things that we’re really good at. It lets us offer a really wide variety of stuff.” The Klett brothers called this approach a win-win-win. “Not only do the consumers get more variety, but we’re also helping those farms sell through us,” Alex explained.
Bringing in outside produce isn’t the only change on the horizon for Fairgrown Farm – the Kletts are looking to expand operations on their home property. “I would really like to be a 52- week program,” James said. “We want more hoop houses and high tunnels, we’re going to do more storage crops, and we’re trying to build facilities to store carrots and potatoes over winter.”
The Kletts’ expansion plans follow the upward trajectory they’ve maintained since the very beginning. Their first foray into agriculture was a small project on River Road at the Vanderveer Campbell Farm in Montgomery. “It was almost like gardening on steroids,” Alex remembered. James studied business and agriculture at Rutgers, but, he says, agriculture is much better learned in the field than in the classroom. Alex, whose background is in mechanics, was new to the world of farming. “There’s been a learning curve,” Alex says. “The first time we had ever seen a plow plowing was in these fields.”
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The move from River Road to their property on Aunt Molly Road in Hopewell came from a stroke of luck. They found the land, which they lease from Nomad Pizza owner Stalin Bedon, on njlandlink.org, but the brothers agreed that finding enough land to start a farm is very difficult in central New Jersey.
In addition to the difficulty of finding land to farm, the brothers noted the difficulty of finding people to work that land. “It’s been just the two of us up until this point,” Alex said. “This year we’re looking for seven or eight seasonal workers. But it’s really hard because everybody that’s college-aged comes late and leaves early, and high schoolers are tricky because they have to be in school.” Despite the challenges of working one-on-one, the brothers say the dynamic works fairly well for them. “Overall it’s been positive,” James reflected. “The biggest positive is that we have complementary skill sets. I know a lot about business and farming, Alex knows a lot about construction, machinery, and infrastructure.” Both agreed the best way to keep the peace is that each brother stays in his lane. “It’s a matter of deciding who’s in charge. We’re pretty good at knowing our lanes. Alex doesn’t really mess with the field production, and I don’t really mess with what he needs to repair. If he tells me it’s five grand to repair a tractor, that’s what it is.”
Hopewell Farmers Market
The Klett brothers opened the Hopewell Farmers Market in 2019 in order to interact with customers. James said, “It’s not the most profitable thing to do, but we wanted to be able to interact with and educate our customers. If you have questions about how we grow, come to the farmers markets and talk to us.” A lot of customers ask about organic practices. Fairgrown Farm decided not to “certify” organic, because of the expense and paperwork involved, but James says they do grow organic produce. The point-of-cost is a big concern for customers, the brothers noted, so they decided to do something different. Fairgrown Farm’s CSA features both rolling registration and a pay-as-you-go option, making the cost of the share much more palatable to first-time CSA members. However, as a point of enticement, members who pay in full get a free week. “Honestly, if I weren’t a farmer, I would be really intimidated by an $800 CSA,” James said. “But if we can get 100 people in Montgomery to sign up, that would be a dream come true.” The flexibility the Klett brothers offer is driven mostly by their desire to make local produce as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. “There’s a wide variety of produce available, and when you’ve had produce that’s locally grown in-season, you’ll never go back to the grocery store.”
Fairgrown Farm delivery CSA shares are available in small, medium, and large portions at fairgrownfarm.com/enroll. Montgomery shares are delivered on Tuesdays starting May 3, and membership runs for 30 weeks.
While each of these local farms take a different approach to raising their crops, they all share a common goal of serving up top-quality local food to their community. As big business and overdevelopment becomes increasingly autocratic in modern society, the choices consumers make will determine whether or not small businesses like these can succeed. The culture and livelihood of communities are dependent on neighbors supporting neighbors, and there are so many benefits to getting involved. Volunteering, shopping local, even just growing a home garden, are all impactful ways to preserve New Jersey’s most precious resource — its land.