By Christina Pazzanese, Globe Correspondent
Less than 2 miles from the intersection of the Mass. Pike and Route 128, Land's Sake Farm in Weston is an unlikely oasis of raspberry and strawberry fields and rows of everything from arugula to zucchini.
"If the wind blows right, you can hear the traffic," said Erik Baum, one of three farm managers who run Land's Sake, a private, nonprofit operation that leases land from the town on what was once known as the Case Estates. The organic farm rotates crops on three fields in Weston, using a 7-acre plot on Wellesley Street as its primary growing area and for a tiny farm stand.
For $600 a share, paid in advance of the growing season, participants in the farm's community-supported agriculture program can drop by once a week between mid-June and mid-October to pick up whatever produce the fields have to offer, usually an array of vegetables, herbs, and sometimes, berries.
It works a little like buying stock. You purchase a share of the business, then wait for your investment to blossom.
Baum says the arrangement means shareholders become more invested, both financially and emotionally, in how the farm does from year to year. "A lot of people say they like the concept and want to support the farm."
It's also an idea that suits the times, as food prices statewide increased 5.3 percent over last year, pushing up costs in grocery stores, restaurants, and even school cafeterias.
Long a popular concept in Europe, community-supported agriculture has taken off in Massachusetts in the last few years, with farms in area communities, including Dover, Lincoln, and Weston, where land costs are among the state's highest, helping to lead the way.
"One of the best aspects is you have a group of people coming to the farm every week, so we get to know them," said Land's Sake manager Baum. "It's really great to have guaranteed income at the start of the season when there's nothing to do to make money" at a crucial time when seeds and supplies need to be purchased.
Now in its third year, the CSA program at Land's Sake initially started with 100 shares and grew to 150 shares last year, said Baum. But with a less-than-stellar growing season last year, shares were scaled back to 130 to make sure no one gets shortchanged; all of the shares were snapped up after becoming available in January.
"It removes the exchange of vegetables from a purely retail experience. The act of handing over money is not part of the transaction," said Johanna Flies, another of the farm's managers. "It's really more about the experience of coming to the farm, talking to people under the tent. And people can feel a little more free to experiment with food." Since members have prepaid for a certain amount of vegetables, they may be more inclined to try produce and recipes that they haven't tried before, she said. The arrangement also streamlines much of the essential but time-consuming work away from the field. "Your marketing is all done before the season begins," said Matt Celona, crop manager for Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, which also runs a CSA. "You don't have to spend any time or man-hours selling your product" to restaurants, markets, and other vendors.
"Local farms are much more competitive than they have been in the past with distant production" farms, said Jeff Cole, executive director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets. "The cost of transporting the food has become such a huge cost of retail food," which helps to level the playing field for many small, local producers, he said.
Jennifer Greenleaf of Natick, who joined the Land's Sake CSA for the first time this year, said the experience has exceeded her expectations. "I think it's great. I'm just trying to be a little more green. It's forced me to eat more vegetables," said Greenleaf with a laugh. "And it gives you an appreciation for how hard farming is."
Greenleaf and co-worker Jacqui Miller of Cambridge split a share, since both are single and recent college graduates, and weren't sure they'd be able to manage a full share on their own. "It's a lot of food," said Greenleaf.
The pair recently spent a sunny afternoon picking green beans and basil after briefly ducking out of their public-relations jobs in Wellesley. "This is better than sitting at our desks," said Miller. "I love it. It's really nice to come here to get stuff you know was grown locally and not sitting in a store after coming across country in a truck."
"We have some co-workers who might want to do it next year," said Greenleaf.
Across the state, CSA programs appear to be thriving, said David Webber, farmers market coordinator for the state's Department of Agricultural Resources. "What we've been seeing this year, the CSAs have sold out and most have a waiting list," he said.
Although there's little hard data available until the US Department of Agriculture publishes the results of its 2007 census later this year, Webber said, there are 68 CSAs listed with the state, and he estimates there could be as many as 91 in Massachusetts. "We're seeing a lot of farms that were doing farmers markets are now doing CSAs," he said, noting one of the first CSA farms in the country was launched in 1985 in Western Massachusetts, at Indian Line Farm in Great Barrington.
Drumlin Farm, a Massachusetts Audubon Society property, has offered two CSA programs, one in summer and one in winter, for the last 10 years. In addition to a local pickup begun four years ago, the farm maintains a partnership with ReVision House, a Dorchester shelter for homeless mothers, which runs a small urban farm and makes weekly produce drop-offs in Boston for those who can't get out to Lincoln, said Celona.
When the Lincoln-based program started in 2004, only 35 shares were sold, said Celona. This year, the program sold out in March with 90 shares at $575 each. Celona estimates the farm would need to offer 200 shares to meet current demand, but chose instead to limit the number of participants in order to ensure there is enough produce available to also stock the two farmers markets that Drumlin attends each week.
"In some ways, it's the way of the future - people sharing the land and being responsible for growing their own food," said Christy Foote-Smith, MassAudubon's sanctuary director for Drumlin Farm.
Yet suburban farms face a big challenge in Eastern Massachusetts: the development squeeze brought on by high real estate values.
In Lincoln, which has a 300-year history of agriculture, town leaders began working to curtail building and development pressure on farmers in the mid-1900s, said Foote-Smith. "The town really wanted to maintain its rural character, particularly its agricultural character," she said.
The town began buying property for open space and farms, as well as imposing conservation and agricultural restrictions on land to prevent it from becoming suburbanized, a practice that continues today, said Foote-Smith. MassAudubon will discuss the history of farming in Lincoln during a day-long tour of seven local farms on Sunday "for people to see all the farming that goes on 20 minutes outside of Boston," said Foote-Smith.
"Land costs here are high, and that's certainly a challenge," said Webber. Massachusetts ranks third in the nation for farmland values at $9,234 per acre. A state-run program to help farmers afford to continue operating their farms by allowing the state to buy the land's development rights while they retain ownership now has over 60,000 acres of land across 700 properties participating, he said.
The Lincoln farms tour is scheduled to run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday from the MassAudubon headquarters on South Great Road, and features stops at Lindentree Farm, Codman Community Farms, Flint's Farm (Matlock Farm), Drumlin Farm, Turtle Creek Winery & Vineyards, Blue Heron Organic Farm and the Food Project. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for children, and free for children under age 3 and Lincoln residents. Preregistration is recommended, organizers say, as the event may not be held if participation is low. For more information or to register, call 781-259-2206.
Christina Pazzanese can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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