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Support of Md. farm comes with fresh perks

The Baltimore Sun

My fully organic father-in-law retired from gardening and withdrew to an assisted-living community in southern Pennsylvania, where he still manages to plant leeks, tomatoes and shallots between the shrubs. (Please don't tell anyone; it might be a code violation.) He's a generous man, but now he only grows enough vegetables and herbs for himself and his wife, so we no longer expect to receive the gifts of Swiss chard, endive, peppers and carrots that used to come by the bushel.

And did I mention potatoes?

My father-in-law grew a lot of potatoes. The old adage goes: "You will never be lonely if nature is with you." My father-in-law firmly believed: "You will never be lonely if potatoes are with you."

Anyway, we had it good for a long time -- a supply of organic produce en famille, by the hand of an Old World farmer's son who grew enough good stuff for himself and everyone connected to him.

Unless you get up and do that, it's hard to replace such a supply line of fresh vegetables untouched by pesticides or chemical fertilizer.

So I'm thinking of paying for the service in the coming growing season.

I'm thinking of taking out a subscription on organic romaine.

Here's a new acronym for you: Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA). You invest some bucks in a local farmer's growing season and share the harvest.

A note arrived from a neighbor the other day suggesting such an opportunity with One Straw Farm in White Hall, northern Baltimore County. One Straw's Web site says it is the largest organic vegetable farm in Maryland. It has supplied Baltimore restaurants, retail stores and farmer's markets with produce for years.

In the One Straw CSA program, you pay the farming family $475 now, in advance of spring planting, in exchange for produce as it becomes available during the 2007 growing season. One Straw delivers enough produce for each subscriber to feed a family of four between the first week of June and Thanksgiving. That's 24 weeks, at about $20 a week. You have to pick the produce up at certain locations. The produce, of course, varies with the season.

"They could be beets, lettuce, potatoes, strawberries, a watermelon -- whatever is ripe for picking -- enough to feed a family of four its vegetables for a week," says One Straw's Web site. "We've tested this with our family and you'll have plenty of vegetables all week and maybe some leftover to freeze for the winter."

And then there's the idea of supporting local agriculture.

"This is an economical way to enjoy the same produce you would normally pay retail for," says the neighbor's note, "and you will help support one of our local farmers, [who] has committed to farming organically."

One Straw already delivers to about 10 CSA sites. With 10 or more families in our neighborhood joining up, One Straw will be making a weekly delivery to a new location -- Govans Presbyterian Church. "And for every 10 shares I drop at the church, an extra one will be left for the church to use for an outreach project," reports Joan Norman, who runs the farm with her husband, Drew.

CSA is not an American idea; it reportedly originated in Japan, Sweden and Germany, and arrived here in the mid-1980s.

This is how the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it: "Community Supported Agriculture consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community's farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production."

In CSA, farmers have income long before harvest, and their customers share in their risks.

"In return," says the USDA Web site, "they receive shares in the farm's bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production."

I like the sounds of this, and I've been doing the math: We pay $20 a week easily at the local supermarket for produce and canned or frozen vegetables.

Most of us are stuck with that. We don't have time for gardening on our own. Unless you're fortunate enough to have a father-in-law still active in volume gardening, the closest you get to this is the local farmer's market. The fact that One Straw is an organic farm, and certified so by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, makes this deal even more appealing, although paying $475 up front carries some risk.

There's no money-back guarantee if a crop fails, after all.

Then again, because One Straw grows a variety of vegetables and fruit, chances are there will be something available every week -- if not tomatoes, then maybe string beans.

I like the sound of this.

It's too bad we didn't think of it sooner -- back when all those small family farms were dying off or selling out to developers.

Imagine each post-World War II housing tract in the suburbs of Baltimore with its own CSA, an organic farmer set up to serve all the families in all those cul-de-sacs: fresh produce and healthier diets for the local residents, the local residents directly connected to the farmer, the farmer serving his surrounding community, keeping chemicals out of the soil and providing his heirs with a livelihood for generations.

Maybe one day, instead of building another golf course or strip mall, we'll put farms where the farms used to be.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays. His Random Rodricks blog, updated daily, appears at http:--blogs.baltimoresun.com/news_local _rodricks/

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