From the Ground Up

Community Supported Agriculture has never been more popular in the western suburbs. We explore a few of the more vibrant and unique CSAs and related organizations—all of which give us reason to believe that this is only the beginning.

Local CSA pioneer Sam Cantrell at Maysie’s Farm in Glenmoore. See the gallery below for more photos related to this story.Sam Cantrell once worked for others. He managed the Japanese garden at Swiss Pines in Charlestown Township, later becoming the first superintendent of Springton Manor Farm in Glenmoore. Then he served as director of programs and facilities for the Brandywine Valley Association.

When none of those employers would implement the concept of Community Supported Agriculture, he left the BVA in 1995 and decided to farm himself. Two years later, he opened his own CSA at Maysie’s Farm in Glenmoore.

At first, Cantrell sold only to restaurants and health food stores. In his third season, he went directly to the public at the West Chester Growers Market. “By the mid-’90s, it occurred to me that we had bigger conservation issues in Chester County than just saving open space and farmland, but more so creating a local, sustainable food system,” he says. “If no one else was going to do it, then I was going to do it.”

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These days, local CSAs are oversubscribed, with long waiting lists. But when Cantrell started his in 1997, there was only one other active CSA in Chester County at the Kimberton Waldorf School. “Now, there are about 20 [in the county],” he says.

Cantrell’s CSA had 50 shares the first year, 116 households by the second year and 160 now. He also sells at two farmers markets—one on Wednesday afternoons at the Anselma Mill in Chester Springs, which he helped start two years ago, and another on Thursdays on the Penn State Great Valley campus. During the school year, he sells modest amounts of produce (from an unheated hoop house) to the Montgomery School in Chester Springs and Conestoga High School in Berwyn, where a special-needs class re-sells the vegetables as part of its curriculum.

Cantrell is working the farm on which he was raised. Starting in 1954, his father ran a classic homestead farm. After a divorce, his mother rented the fields to “chemical corn growers.”

Her son rescued the property. “Now, there’s a healthy ecosystem,” says Cantrell. “The first step was insect control, then weed control. But great soil will grow great weeds.”

Cantrell has 7 acres of organic vegetable beds. He grows just about everything to meet his members’ basic needs, along with more “exciting” crops like escarole, endive, radicchio, fava beans, edamame soybeans, okra, celeriac, fennel, kohlrabi, daikon and scorzonera. There’s also a wide variety of stir-fry greens, including collards, Swiss chard, yukina savoy, Tokyo bekana, komatsuna, broccoli rabe and more. “We get the seed catalogs and say, ‘What looks good? Let’s try these,’” says Cantrell. “We encourage diversified diets.”

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Weekly e-mail updates highlight specialties and a recipe based on the week’s offerings. To supplement his melons, watermelons and blackberries, he planted 200 blueberry plants this season for the first time.

Cantrell has a cooperative marketing arrangement with other farms for items he doesn’t offer—things like organic, pastured chickens, eggs, beef, pork and raw-milk dairy products, organic breads, and wild-caught Alaskan salmon.

“It’s the way it used to be,” he says. “It’s a wonderful, locally sustainable food system, and it’s totally achievable in southeastern Pennsylvania, where we have enough space to grow and where there are few places with a better quality soil,” Cantrell says. “With population, we also have the people who need to eat.”

Trouble is, there aren’t enough farmers. “That’s the most serious bottleneck,” he admits. “A big thrust of our organization is to continue encouraging new farmers.”
 

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Fred de Long, community farm program director of Willistown Conservation Trust. See the gallery below for more photos related to this story.In 1999, he incorporated Maysie’s Farm Conservation Center as a nonprofit, educational organization. He offers an internship program, but in Pennsylvania, the newest farmers aren’t coming from family farming backgrounds, though many do attend agricultural school. The newest farmers are folks who’ve made mid-life career changes—many of them females. One summer, the average age of a Maysie’s intern was 40. “Interns,” Cantrell says, “fall from the sky—but sometimes they don’t.”

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Maysie’s Sustainable Agricultural Training Internship Alliance enhances all such experiences. Every other weekend, interns on participating farms can visit another farm and farmer, and interact in a focused workshop, rather than “pulling weeds on the same farm week after week,” Cantrell says.

The weekend includes classroom seminars on topics—soil testing, insect control, marketing strategies, etc.—that match a practical, hands-on schedule. There are about 14 workshops a season. Some double as field days with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture from April to October.

Cantrell developed a “Farm and School Partnership” with the Montgomery School. Besides selling some produce to their school lunch program, he helped design and construct their school garden. He also aids teachers in incorporating the garden into their lessons and hosts fourth-grade student workshops at his farm.

The school garden consists of nine 4-by-12-foot beds. Each class manages the same bed over the years but grows different crops at each grade level. The food harvested supplies the dining hall during the school year. In summer, student families maintain the beds. Food also goes to the Chester County Gleaning Project. Through the same program, seconds and leftovers from the CSA at Maysie’s Farm are picked up by volunteers and delivered to a homeless shelter in Coatesville.

Cantrell’s wife, Annmarie, is involved in the educational programs, cooking demonstrations and nutritional counseling. This summer, she’s offering five-day cooking camps for kids, along with food preservation classes and workshops on medicinal and culinary herbs for adults. “For years, we’ve been talking to farmers about orienting themselves to sustainable practice,” Cantrell says. “Ecologically, it’s hard enough, but economically is the hardest part. We all have to change and develop.”

CSAs are always evolving. Three years ago, Willistown Conservation Trust brought in Fred de Long to help transform conserved land into a community farm. De Long has been developing and managing farms in the region for 12 years, and he’s now the trust’s community farm program director. Rushton Farm CSA is its first project. Eighty families participate, and Rushton has education partnerships with several schools while offering agricultural and environmental workshops.

“The major obstacle to farmers finding land to farm is the prohibitive land values in this area,” says de Long. “By taking conserved land and turning it into sustainable agricultural systems, we can make use of open space to help farmers find accessible land to grow food for the surrounding community. It finally feels as if we’re moving towards having a large interactive farm community similar to those found in California and New England.”

Recently, de Long presented the Rushton Farm model locally at Chester County’s “Keep Farming First” summit and nationally at the Land Trust Alliance Rally in Portland, Ore. He’s also been working with other local and national land trusts to promote the development of community farms on conserved land. “We’ve found it provides an economically viable land alternative to local farmers while benefiting land trusts through community outreach,” de Long says. “This is particularly important on the Main Line, where we’ve seen so much open space lost to suburban sprawl.”
 

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Marilyn Anthony, Exton-based regional director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. See the gallery below for more photos related to this story.Montgomery County Lands Trust has also featured a panel on CSAs at its “Keep Farming in Montgomery County” conference. It received more questions than any other.

“We’re making progress with things we were just talking about 10 years ago—we can feel the momentum,” says Cantrell. “But you still see people filling up their baskets at the supermarket, and you know we have a long way to go.”

Marilyn Anthony is a chef by training. But when the Bryn Mawr native ventured into hotel and corporate food service, she became increasingly interested in the natural sources of her livelihood. She attended a Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture annual “Farming for the Future” conference, which draws 2,000 each February to State College. It changed her life. She’s now a regional director in its satellite office in Exton.

Founded in 1992, PASA promotes profitable farms that produce healthy food while respecting the natural environment. Plenty of farmers and individual growers rely on the nonprofit, member-funded statewide organization that’s the largest of its kind in the country. Of its 5,000 members, the largest percentage is in the southeastern part of the state. “The key is peer-to-peer farmer education,” says Anthony. “We’re primarily an educational organization.”

The Exton office opened three years ago in the offices of the Chester Economic Development Council, which is run by farmer Gary Smith. He saw an opportunity to provide space and to help support agriculture in the county. “We hope to grow,” Anthony says. “We have grown.”

Anthony calls it a great time to be a farmer. “While it’s sad to see much of the region’s farmland go, those who are still involved are farming more productively and intensively,” she says. “Even Exton still has a good portion of gentleman farms on large undeveloped tracts, but we’ve lost a lot of farms.”

The day-to-day and week-to-week PASA workshops, seminars and field days on various farms are open to non-members, too. They focus on techniques, research, vegetables, livestock, anything, really—like backyard chickens and farming your own eggs, or extracting and bottling honey. “It might be an add-on for established farmers and members, but an area of interest for a member of the public,” Anthony says. “Either way, we’re really trying to connect. We’re educating those who want to get into farming, but also teaching how to farm in new ways. It’s an inviting tent. If you are growing food, we want you under our tent.”

Increasingly, PASA is involved in public policy and advocacy—particularly in food safety legislation—while always taking the position of the smaller family farms. “We want to make sure they continue to have a voice,” Anthony says. “What’s happening in agriculture really parallels what’s happening elsewhere, in media, banking—this big move to conglomeration. But the difference is that we all have to eat every day, and we do have control over access to our food supply.”

PASA was also an early promoter of FoodRoutes, the founders of the Buy Fresh, Buy Local movement. Now, there are 75 such chapters nationwide—12 of them in Pennsylvania, including Chester County’s. Through a database (BuyLocalPA.org), anyone can plug in a zip code and determine the nearest chapter and determine which restaurants, farms, farmer’s markets and CSAs use and sell directly to consumers.

“Farming can be an isolated practice,” Anthony says. “We’re plugging people into communities.”

To learn more, visit maysiesfarm.org, wctrust.org and pasafarming.org.
 

This CSA package continues on page 4 with the story, “Village People” …
 

Village People

Camphill Village 
Kimberton Hills' outgoing CSA gardener Sebastian Kretschmer. See the 
gallery below for more photos related to this story.

There’s evidence of the principles of biodynamics in nearly everything you see at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills. In a Flowform water fountain shaped as a six-leaf clover, a cyclone of water creates a center torrent, a spiraling vortex drawing the cosmic forces inward. It’s the way many seashells are shaped, and why they turn into themselves.

Biodynamics is more than cosmic, though. It’s organic. And for biodynamic farmers, it’s about bringing a cosmic life force into the soil.

At Camphill, a sprawling 432-acre rural Chester County farming estate, there are typically 45 milking cows and 45 calves a year. But their metabolism, their manure and their horns are the most important—sacred even.

Manure, for one, makes a great fertilizer when utilized for compost. With a Brown Swiss (75 percent of the herd) or a Jersey or Holstein, their horns are left on until they’re slaughtered, before being used in biodynamic preparations. The horns—and how they hook up and back toward a cow’s head—represent another recirculating, regenerative spiraling vortex. “Those shapes affect metabolism,” says Thomas Roemer, Camphill’s dairy farm manager.

Camphill, an adult working village made up of special-needs residents, teaches critical lessons in sustainable agriculture within its inclusive community. Its biodynamic practices cultivate organic farmers and implant human dignity among its 110 residents and co-workers who live as extended families in 14 homes.

In a joint effort, Camphill supports a raw-milk dairy, a vegetable-growing CSA, a community orchard, an apiary, and a medicinal and culinary herb garden. The work is socially therapeutic for the adult residents, half of which have developmental disabilities—conditions like autism and Down syndrome. Of the 100 Camphill villages or communities in 22 countries, just 12 are in North America. Three of those are in our region. Camphill Special Schools and Camphill Soltane, both in Glenmoore, are the others.

Purists credit pioneering practical German philosopher Rudolf Steiner as the father of biodynamics. Steiner’s spiritual and social influence at the turn of the last century extended into disciplines as seemingly diverse as medicine and farming.

Biodynamics offers a sustainable and practical means for promoting agricultural integrity and treating farms as unified, individual organisms. The use of power equipment is frowned upon, making it an annual challenge to harvest Camphill’s 20 acres of rye in time without using a combine. “Sometime it doesn’t work too well without machinery,” Roemer admits.

Camphill’s CSA gardener meets every morning with a team that includes seven special-needs villagers, two interns (who spend six months to a year here) and three full-time apprentices (who remain at the farm for two years as part of a new North American Biodynamic Apprenticeship Program sponsored by the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association).

Though he’s stepping down as the CSA gardener this summer, Sebastian Kretschmer was instrumental in spearheading and piloting the program, which is offered on 30-plus North American farms. Sherry Wildfeuer is in her 37th year as a co-worker at Camphill Village. She spent a year as its Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association program administrator, registering all the farms.

At 6-foot-6, Kretschmer towers over his help, which is an advantage. “I can see what’s growing, and I have a wider wing span for picking weeds,” he jests. “The job is right for me.”

Behind Kretschmer, an alternate-direction vortex swirls in 25-second intervals in a 100-gallon stirring machine. It’s fed by rainwater collected by a catchment system and gently heated by flat-plate solar collectors. “We become energy farmers,” he says.
 

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Typically, Kretschmer is mixing in two to three tennis-ball-size clumps of cow dung to produce a “homeopathic biodynamic remedy” used in soil preparation. With one tub, he can spray 50 acres.

The cow horns saved at slaughter are stuffed with manure, then buried in the topsoil to winter over. In the spring, they’re unearthed, and the dung is shaken from the horn. Kretschmer admits these techniques are a bit “esoteric,” but they’re also Steiner’s way. “Each substance is a physical carrier for the energy in the spiritual world,” he says. “Biodynamics connects the Earth with its archetype. It’s like the nervous system of the Earth. The soul force of the animal kingdom is designed to lift the plant level, getting it to strive to the next level—the animal level.”

Camphill Village—one of three neighboring biodynamic farms, along with Seven Stars and Beaver farms—is also experimenting in horse-drawn power, another sustainable biodynamic concept. “We’re going to see what it’s like,” says farmer Todd Newlin.

His Mennonite-trained draft horse, Pet, can run a row in preparation for planting winter squash in fewer than 30 seconds—disking and weeding it. (Sadly, after our visit, Newlin and Pet were struck by a car. The horse was killed, and Newlin sustained a broken leg.)

Newlin’s fiancée, Mary, controls his reins. She has spent her entire life at Camphill, while Newlin was raised in Downingtown. Elsewhere in their domain, they’ve planted sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, onions and turnips. All are non-irrigated storage crops, so reliance rests on Mother Nature’s rain.

With a $200,000 annual operating budget, Kretschmer farms 15 acres for the 10-month, 200-share Sankanac CSA. All the patrons come to the barn in shifts—100 on Tuesday, and the other 100 on Friday. In summer, there are vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs. By Thanksgiving, it’s Newlin’s non-irrigated storage crops and greens from the greenhouse. Subscribers meet in late winter at Rose Hall to register and pay. “It couldn’t be more convenient for the farmer,” says Kretschmer. “My focus is on production and farming, and I don’t have to stress out on marketing.”

When Kretschmer arrived at Camphill in 2004, there was a 90-share CSA, no nearby greenhouse, no animals, one tractor and a barn in need of repair. He had help in moving a 65-year-old greenhouse modified with radiant heat in the floors. A furnace also burns straight vegetable oil. Around the farm, a truck also runs on waste vegetable oil. Three tractors are powered with biodiesel B100 (virgin or waste) oil. Next, he’s thinking about adding a methane manure digester.

There are social guidelines to Steiner’s biodynamic philosophy, as well. Kretschmer doesn’t take a salary. Through the CSA, he contributes to the overall needs and well-being of the village, all while living out Steiner’s philosophy. In following his chosen vocation, he’s contributing from the heart and his conscience. Steiner’s working principle suggests that if each person’s work helps meet the needs of others, and his or her needs are met by the proceeds of the work of others, then the entire community can be healthy.

Kretschmer’s farm also includes two Amish-trained Sicilian donkeys, a rescue goat and a pig pen with rams and pregnant sows who usually produce 25 piglets twice a year. Fed with unsold food from Trader Joe’s to prevent food waste from entering landfills, each grows into a 200-pound hog that’s sold in 50-pound quarter pork shares for $180 each. “We’re farming almost like you would in a Third World country,” Kretschmer says.

Wildfeuer edits Stella Natura, an annual biodynamic agricultural planting guide and calendar dedicated to working with the cosmic rhythms. It serves as a source for inspiration and practical advice for both biodynamic home gardeners and professional growers alike.

“Camphills all have these levels of social ideals, plus interdependence economically,” she says. “It’s a special thing when a community really does come together, and when you realize that what you do affects others.”

To learn more, visit camphillkimberton.org.
 

This CSA package continues on page 6 with the story, “Sprawl Patrol” …
 

Sprawl Patrol

S.A.V.E.’s Dee  Durham (right) with local farmer Steve Walton.

Once you develop a piece of property and plant a strip mall or housing development, Dee Durham knows it’s the last “crop” the land will ever harvest. “You can never go back, and it breaks my heart,” she says.

Her physical reaction is visceral. “I almost get sick,” Durham admits. “People need to see a natural landscape. That’s evident because, even as the value of the land skyrockets with conservation, people pay a premium to be near protected land.”

Durham is the director of Safety, Agriculture, Villages and Environment, Inc., a Kennett Square-based nonprofit community organization that aims to preserve the region’s rural quality of life and character by influencing infrastructure and land use planning that fosters conservation, environmental protection and safety. Founded in 1997, it initially led the opposition to the expansion of Route 41, and the induced traffic and inevitable sprawl that follows such projects—things others call progress. With help from the Brandywine Conservancy, S.A.V.E. has designed a “green” map. “We said, ‘Look at all the land preservation and sustainable alternatives—let’s not turn this into I-95,” Durham says. “We had a conservation-preservation mindset.”

The current fiscal crisis helped. Financing fell short, and now the Route 41 expansion is more expensive than the originally proposed $250 million. “It’s not done, and it may take forever—or at least another 10 years,” says Durham, whose organization is governed by a 15-member board she’d like to expand. “We thwarted a mega-road, so then we said, ‘Should we now go out of business?’ We all agree that there’s so much more to be done. We began hearing about other issues that fit with our mission.”

In the face of modern progress, S.A.V.E. has taken on a mega-bridge proposal and sewer expansion projects that could have consumed farmland. “Agriculture is still the No. 1 industry in this area, so why would chambers of commerce fight us when we try to support agriculture—especially when what they’re supporting would be so destructive to agriculture?” Durham poses.

S.A.V.E. is gearing up its public-policy focus in hopes of becoming more proactive with potential state and federal legislation. “Americans need to change their mindset,” she says. “We’d like to help fuel that change—and this rural community is so educated and passionate and willing to speak up and make things issues in elections.”

To these ends, S.A.V.E. teamed with the Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of Pennsylvania for the 2010 Agstravaganza Farm & Barn Tour last month. The first-time event showcased the varied agricultural history of the southern Chester County region. It included everything from horse farms and Olympic equestrians to dairy, winery and mushroom farm barns. “We want to offer a complete view of southern Chester County,” Durham says. “Once we start this, we want to do it every year.”

This year’s S.A.V.E. budget is just under $200,000. Thirty-five percent of that comes from contributions, but there’s also an existing $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation—of all sources—that must be used in education and safety studies of setbacks as area municipalities prepare for pending pipeline installations. “It still amazes me how so many rural township officials out this way—many of whom grew up in a farming-based economy—still believe that development is a good thing,” Durham says. “They look at the immediate tax benefit their municipality might see, but they ignore the studies that have been done that prove sprawl ends up raising the costs of their municipalities.”

To learn more, visit save41.org.
 

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