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Community Supported Agriculture programs growing in First State

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Each spring, Jessica Marelli and her family enjoy the first tender shoots of asparagus, hand-picked strawberries and radishes fresh from the earth at Fifer Orchards near their home in Kent County.

“When they first started talking about a crop-sharing program, I was very excited,” she says. “Farming is very much at the center of our community.”

Marelli was the first participant in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that launched five years ago at Fifer Orchards, a fourth-generation family farm in Camden-Wyoming. CSAs are grassroots enterprises that allow individuals to purchase a share of what the farmer produces.

The first year, Fifer signed up 90 members, who picked up boxes of produce at the farm. Last year, the CSA had 750 members, who gathered locally sourced fruits, vegetables, meats and other foods at more than a dozen distribution points from Wilmington to Salisbury, Md.

Throughout Delaware, CSAs are springing up like corn in August, offering consumers a reliable source of farm-to-table foods and providing farmers with a steady stream of income.

Highlands Orchards in North Wilmington, where the Linton family has been farming since 1832, has been operating a CSA for the past 15 years. There currently are about 400 members.

“People want to eat local food, clean food,” says farmer Ruth Linton. “Plus, buying direct from the farmer is cheaper. And it takes care of the question: ‘what are we going to eat for dinner?’”

Highlands CSA members from New Castle County to Philadelphia receive a mixture of vegetables, fruit, herbs, meat, honey, preserves, dairy, bread and live plants. They have the option of receiving sharing weekly, every other week or once a month.

A small share costs $15.75 per box and typically contains veggies, fruit and herbs.

“Right now we’ve got sweet potatoes, kale, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, apples and garlic and dill,” Linton said.

Members can pick up their boxes at the farm or at several YMCA locations. Highlands also delivers direct to workplaces where there are 20 members or more, including Capital One Bank and Wilmington Friends School.

“We try to make it as flexible as possible for people,” Linton said. “Some people are away in the winter, so they participate in spring, summer and fall. Others grow their own produce in their gardens at home in summer and buy from us the rest of the year.”

Share seasons vary, according to the capacity of farms. Fifer has summer and fall shares, for a total of 18 weeks. Highlands operates its CSA year-round.

Fifer calls its container the Delmarva Box because it holds home-grown products gathered from throughout the peninsula.

“It’s not just a box of produce,” says farmer Michael Fennemore. “It’s about a relationship with the grower.”

Fifer members pay $34 a week for more than a bushel of goods, which might include such earthly delights as graffiti eggplant, Japanese cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes. Fennemore notes that this year’s spring crop of asparagus is expected three weeks earlier than usual, thanks to an unusually mild winter.

The first box, which will be available on May 3, typically includes such early crops as asparagus, radishes and scallions.

Marelli says her three children look forward to exploring the unusual fruits and veggies contained in their weekly box.

“One week we had purple Peruvian potatoes,” she says. “Another week we got black raspberries. So sweet, we demolished them. We are lucky if we can get the box home without the kids going through it.”

The Marellis often add on items, such as fresh-baked bread, grass-fed beef, and locally raised turkey.

“We invite neighbors over for turkey and corn in the summer. We tell them we are cooking up our Fifer box,” she says. “We miss our farm-fresh eggs in the winter when the market is closed.”

Occasionally, the box will include a jar of honey or homemade jam. CSA members can tailor their boxes by specifying the ripeness of tomatoes, melons and other ingredients.

“I have never thrown anything away,” Marelli says. “The only item I didn’t know what to do with was Concord grapes, which I gave to a neighbor who was making jelly.”

CSAs also reduce waste for growers because everything that goes into the boxes is sold. There’s no need for brick-and-mortar stores or stands. 

“If we go to the farmer’s market, we load up not knowing what we are going to sell that day,” Fennemore says. “Some days, we sell out; other days it rains and we come back with just about everything, which we either give to the Food Bank in Milford or sell at reduced pricing.”

The CSA also helps Fifer to cast a wider net for customers with statewide distribution sites. Fifer delivers directly to sites with more than 20 members, including Dover High School and Appoquinimink School District.

Farmers  benefit from building direct relationships with the people who eat the food they grow.

“For 18 straight weeks, we talk face-to-face to our customers, which provides us with constant feedback,” Fennemore says. “They tell us what they like, what they don’t like and what they would like to see in their boxes.”

Community Supported Agriculture is rooted in two New England farms — one in Massachusetts and one in New Hampshire — dating back to the 1980s. Statistics are elusive, but a survey by Penn State University’s extension service found that there are a many as 50,000 CSAs now operating in the United States.

Various farms and organizations have developed their own models with varying success. The Food Bank of Delaware operated a CSA for three years, offering produce for as little as $5 a bag, but discontinued the program when grant money was no longer available.

Students at William Penn High School in New Castle have partnered with Penn Farm to establish a CSA. For a flat fee of $200 per season, members get a weekly bag of fresh produce grown on the farm. The season begins in June and ends when students return to school in late August.

At Delaware Nature Society’s Coverdale Farms Preserve in Greenville, the CSA operates June through October, offering full- and half-shares, with discounts for nature society members.

“In the springtime, we have lots of greens, radishes and peas, then we move into kale, cauliflower, lots of cabbages,” says Michele Wales, preserve manager. “We also have very early season tomatoes and herbs.”

Members come and chose their own organically grown produce, farmer’s market style. Members can pick their own flowers, berries, cherry tomatoes and herbs. Pickup also is available at Janssen’s Market.

Wondering what to do with strange-looking squash? The CSA offers free on-farm cooking classes once a month.

“We show them what to do with their shares, something they might not be familiar with, like kohlrabi,” Wales says. “We want members to appreciate and enjoy everything in their basket.”

Community Supported Agriculture in Delaware:

Highland Orchards, North Wilmington

Open year-round

(302) 478-4042

highlandcsa@gmail.com

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Kranz Hill Farm, Newark

CSA Season: May – October

(302) 540-0912

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Coverdale Farm Preserve, Greenville

CSA Season: June-October

(302) 239-2334

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Fifer Orchards, Camden-Wyoming

CSA Season: May – September

(302) 697-2141

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Penn Farm, New Castle

CSA Season: June-August

(302) 323.2800

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Evans Farms, Bridgeville

CSA Season: June-September

(302) 245-5525

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Woodland Harvest Farm, Seaford

CSA Season: May – September

(302) 629-2686

Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.
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