Community supported agriculture takes root in Illinois

Sample locally grown produce and support farmers in your community by participating in a CSA program.

Shannon Kirshner/The State Journal-Register/AP
Allison Scott and her brother Matthew Scott and their neighbor Emma Schafer, right, of Springfield, Ill., explore the grounds at the Vincent Family Farm in Rochester, Ill. The kids and families receive local produce from the farm 25 weeks out of the year in the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

Allison and Matthew Scott like to tell their extended family in the Chicago area that they have a farm in Springfield.

"They must have told them a half dozen times," Noel Scott says of her 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. The farm is where they bite into a raw onion and eat it like an apple, pick snap peas off the vine and mulberries off the bush for an immediate snack.

The reality is they don't own or live on a farm. They live in the city of Springfield at Park and Fayette near Washington Park. But this summer, they worked and played at "the farm."

The farm is the Vincent Family Farm located east of Rochester where the Scotts share the responsibility for the organic vegetables that are grown there as part of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

In a CSA, a group of people pay a farmer before the growing season and, in return, share the harvest. Consumers purchase a share or a half share and receive a box or a bag of seasonal produce each week throughout the growing season. At some farms, there also is an opportunity to learn to harvest and weed.

At the Vincent farm, Todd Vincent leases land to two vegetable farmers. The partners (Vincent, Andy Heck and Garrick Veenstra) grow between 40 and 50 different types of vegetables for about 50 families who bought shares in the spring. The families go to the farm each week to pick up their box of vegetables or to a drop-off point in Decatur.

The pay-ahead agreement creates an opportunity for consumers to share the burden of the planting costs and the fluctuations in the harvest that is so dependent on weather and other variables.

"It's a community really," farmer Heck said. The farmers want to make the shareholders feel like they are part of the operation and welcome the families to help in the harvest, although that is not a requirement of the membership.

Lindsay Record, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance based in Springfield, said CSAs are a growing trend throughout the country that has just begun in this area.

"For some reason, there aren't as many in this town," Record said. "There's definitely a demand for it."

Heck said he has a long waiting list. There are two CSAs in the Springfield area that sell vegetables as well as eggs and chickens — the Vincent Family Farm and Lazy T Farm in Dawson. The CSA concept is new this year to both farms and are closed for the season. The waiting list is for the 2010 growing season.

Jubilee Farm in New Berlin offered a CSA in 2008, but took a break this year to allow a new farmer to get established, Sister Sharon Zayac said. She is taking names for a CSA that will begin next spring.

Record said it is worth getting on the waiting list. Even better, tell another farmer to consider the CSA concept, she said. It is a great way to sample locally grown produce, she added.

Scott said the challenge is to try new vegetables. Customers don't know what vegetables and herbs will be in the basket until pick-up. The harvest depends on the season, the weather and the growing conditions.

"It's great if you don't mind trying new things," Scott said, adding that it is a challenge to be prepared to investigate and try new recipes.

Last year, Scott said she felt like she was inundated with kale. She was forced to learn how to cook with it, though. Now, her family enjoys kale, a leafy green similar to spinach, stir-fried with garlic and olive oil and paired with cheese ravioli.

The CSAs all provide recipes. Veenstra gives customers recipes in an e-mail newsletter that his mother creates.

Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page, which offers articles on many gardening topics. Also, check out our blog archive and our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest. We’ll be looking for photographs of fruits. So find your best shots of summer’s blueberries, peaches, plums, etc., and get out your camera to take some stunning shots of early fall apples. Post them before Sept. 30, 2009, and you could be the next winner.

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