For $525, Kathleen Breen and her family bought a slice of dark, fertile farmland just off the Chesapeake Bay. It comes with beets and carrots, squash and lettuce, basil and zinnias. The Mount Washington mother can visit the cabbage patch with her three kids, but leaves the weeding to someone else.
Ms. Breen wants her city-dwelling kids to make the connection between the good earth and good food -- to know how food grows, to appreciate the hard work of a farmer, to understand produce doesn't materialize out of nowhere shrouded in cellophane.
With 54 other families, most in Baltimore, Ms. Breen has become a member of John Ehrlich's cultivating commune. Unlike community plots that sprouted on city lots in the 1980s, this is a working farm that comes with a farmer -- somebody who knows the ropes instead of a neighbor who once grew a tomato plant -- and a location in the country instead of a vacant lot.
Known formally as community-supported agriculture and subscription farms, these spreads are likely to be small or family-owned. The preferred growing methods generally are natural, if not entirely organic. Each year, consumers buy a share, which entitles them to a portion of the season's harvest. An estimated two dozen Maryland farmers market produce to such shareholders.
The appeal to eaters is clear. They can savor gourmet-fresh produce without fretting over shrink wrap, corporate entities, agri-business and foreign governments. But they have to go out of their way to get it. Most of Mr. Ehrlich's shareholders, for example, must trek to the Waldorf School of Baltimore each Tuesday afternoon during the growing season to pick up their produce. The rest pick up their food at his Annapolis distribution site.
"We want to support anybody who grows organic food," says Dundalk High School teacher Frank Lee, 44, who drove four miles out of his way to get his family's partial share in between two other food stops. "We don't mind an alternative method to getting it."
For other consumers, it's a connection that goes beyond the taste buds.
Ms. Breen and her husband, Joseph McClintock, 46, don't want their young children to miss learning about a rural lifestyle.
"We don't live on a farm, but our children have that connection," she says. "That is something you can't buy at the store."
Because small farms dotted the landscape during Ms. Breen's childhood in Baltimore, seeing one wasn't as extraordinary for a city dweller then as it is now. She wants her children -- Carol, 11; Paul, 5; and Grace, 1 -- to get a perspective on farms and food. The family visited Mr. Ehrlich at West River Farm last fall, walking and playing amid fruit trees, the garden, goats and chickens.
"I feel like contemporary American society is further and further from its roots," Ms. Breen said. "It's a very different thing to have a small backyard garden and to go to a farm and touch the animals and see a big plot."
Rebecca Birns of Annapolis makes a point of coming to weed every few weeks partly in the spirit of cooperation. It also provides a balance to her job as a marketing representative for a California high-tech firm.
"I love very much the physical involvement of pulling weeds," she says. "Sometimes, I need to weed."
Charlotte Landgraf, a 45-year-old teacher at Waldorf School who has a quarter-share, makes the link broader. Planning meals around each week's harvest helps restore the cycle lost by being able to buy green grapes in January at a supermarket, she says.
"To me, it is a moral issue," she says. "All farmers have problems now and then. They are at the mercy of things they have no control over; the weather is unpredictable. We need to support the farmer when there is a crop failure. It is truly then community-supported."
Some subscription farms have members do the picking to forge a link with the land.
"People who pick have more respect for the farm. That means a lot to us, that people have respect for the farmer and for the field," says Delores Magnani. Five years ago, she and her husband, Donald, switched their farm near St. Mary's City to a $25-a-family pick-your-own club. More than 200 subscribers, many of whom drive an hour or more from the Baltimore and Washington suburbs when it's picking time, get produce at a reduced price.
"[Subscription farming] is still in its pioneering stage. It captures the imagination of a lot of people," says Michael Judge, a founder of the Chesapeake CSA. In its sixth season near Upper Marlboro, the farm's 82 1/2 shares are split among 140 households.
"You know, you could look at it like being a gentleman farmer," he says. "I have this farm at my disposal. I can go weed if I want. I have someone growing my food for me."
To Ms. Breen and the others, the someone is a soft-spoken, red-haired man. At 30, John Ehrlich is in his second season of cultivating two acres at West River Farm as part of a partnership with the farm's owner. Like most other subscription farms, Mr. Ehrlich is at his limit with a 10-household waiting list. The demand is such, he says, that with aggressive self-promotion and hired help, he could have 10 acres worth of subscribers in a year.
Every Tuesday afternoon from 2:30 to 6:30 for half the year, Mr. Ehrlich meets his Baltimore shareholders at the back loading dock of the Waldorf School. During the growing season, he delivers about 22 different vegetables, six kinds of fruit, at least four herbs and a smattering of fresh flowers. He also provides recipes, samples, backyard gardening advice, even edification on those hybrid Russian tomatoes and heirloom corn. He sends out a quarterly newsletter and sponsors four free seminars each year. But he is also a good listener, taking suggestions from shareholders on what to grow and how to cook it.
An '80s era idea
The idea of subscription farming gathered steam in the United States in the 1980s, fueled partly by the increasing demand for fresh, if not organic, food as well as by small farmers trying to stay alive financially.
Early in that decade, two Europeans started community farms in New England based on the Bio-Dynamics concepts of controversial Austrian social philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who mixed spirituality with organic growing. In 1987, farm marketing guru Booker T. Whatley's 1987 handbook, "How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres," inspired other growers.
Now, says Jean Yeager, managing editor for the Journal for Bio-Dynamics, he counts 460 subscription farms in North America in his database. Of those, 13 are in Maryland.
Douglas Britt, chairman of the Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association, says he knows there are more, in part because his group's workshops on subscription farms are packed with attendees.
Finding a subscription farm is tough, not just because of the paucity of farms. Commonly, at least half the shareholders renew. Generally, farmers rely on word of mouth, perhaps a notice tacked up in a health-food store or another low-key method to draw new members.
Growing in popularity
Mr. Ehrlich, for example, put up a sign last winter at the Ruscombe Mansion alternative health care center and was deluged with calls. The Magnanis get dozens of replies to their ad in a local free weekly in St. Mary's County, and half of their subscribers have been with them from the start.
People hungering for subscription farms often call the Maryland Department of Agriculture. But the agency has no idea how many farms engage in the practice and does not promote it, says Patrick McMillan, special assistant to Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley. But there have been so many inquiries that the department is considering compiling a brochure, he says, akin to what it has for farmers markets.
The link missing at the supermarket, between the grower and the eater, does get re-established in ways that go beyond the weekly produce pickups, as symbiotic relationships form.
Last week, Richard Rubin, 50, an industrial lighting architect in Pikesville, took home dozens of leftover tomatoes with plans to can at least half for Mr. Ehrlich.
A week earlier, Ms. Landgraf had taken extra basil home with her. This week, she took a container back for him.
"Sometimes at the end of the day, if he has leftover basil, I take it home and make pesto for him," she said. "Last year, I put up four big containers of pesto."