Agricultural alliances sprout in suburbs

LEXINGTON -- Mary Gilbert says she has garden guilt.

''We've lived in a house with a big backyard for over 20 years," said Gilbert, who lives in Arlington, ''and I've never put in a vegetable garden." But Gilbert said she is poised to start expunging that guilt, planning to spend part of one day a week digging in the soil at Lexington's Busa Farm as part of a growing movement of residents partnering up with farmers through Community Supported Agriculture.

Busa Farm, a 10-acre, family-owned farm in Lexington on Lowell Street near the Arlington line, started a CSA project early this year and has attracted more than 100 members, mostly from Arlington and Lexington.

''We're lucky to live in such a densely populated area," said Fran Busa, one of the farm's owners. ''People are out there that care about what we do; that's a pat on the back that keeps you going."

CSA projects unite farmers and their neighbors in a deal that benefits both. ''Members purchase a share in the farm," said Oakes Plimpton, of Arlington, who runs the project, ''providing the farmer with winter income to purchase seed, fertilizer, and equipment. Members in return receive weekly pickups of very fresh produce at the farm throughout the growing season."

Residents may also help grow the crops they will later enjoy: planting, weeding, and helping harvest the vegetables.

There are more than 1,000 CSAs in the country, and 55 in Massachusetts, according to the University of Massachusetts Extension's website. Bear Hill Farm in Tyngsborough is in its eighth season and has between 120 and 130 members; Kirk Farm in Groton is starting a CSA this year, with 60 members; and the CSA at Winston-Folley Farm in Boxborough has been around for 10 years and serves five families a year. There are also CSAs at farms in Lincoln and in Waltham.

At Busa Farm, Plimpton said, CSA members can choose to participate in various ways. Vegetables will be picked up weekly on Saturdays, from June 4 to Oct. 30. A small share (8 to 16 pounds, feeding two to five people) costs $305; a large share (12 to 24 pounds, feeding four to eight people) costs $505. CSA members can also choose to purchase a coupon book for $220, to be used at the Busa farm stand or at its stand at the Arlington Farmers Market, where produce from nine Massachusetts farms is offered for sale in Arlington center every Wednesday from June 15 to Oct. 26.

The coupons are also redeemable at Busa's stand at the Lexington Farmers Market, which will run on Tuesdays from 2 to 6 p.m. from June 21 to Oct. 25, in front of the school administration building on Massachusetts Avenue at Fletcher and Woburn avenues.

The CSA's produce list includes nine varieties of lettuce, nine kinds of greens, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, 10 herbs, peas, beans, potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, onions, cucumbers, squashes, sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and some flowers.

Plimpton, who is retired, worked on various agricultural projects throughout his career, having been inspired by the back-to-the-earth movement in the 1970s. Today he also manages the Arlington Farmers Market. He said CSAs have become important to the survival of small farms.

''The greatest advantage is that it supplies money to the farmer in the winter," he said. Farmers usually need money to purchase supplies for the coming year, and often have to borrow from a bank for that purpose. Those loans, however, come with some risk, as farmers have to put up their land as collateral. With the money CSA members pay in the winter, though, farmers can pay for supplies without having to risk their land.

In some communities, Plimpton said, CSAs have helped keep cash-poor farms from being sold. ''This is in part to give an economic boost to the farm, because there's no money out there to purchase the development rights to the farm," he said.

Fran Busa, who runs the Lexington farm with his brother, Dennis, and sister, Trudy, said that the CSA benefits the farm in other ways. ''The challenge for us is to sell everything we grow," he said. When they are unable to do that, he said, they are forced to sell their produce at wholesale prices, which can be as low as one-fifth what they could get at retail. So expanding the farm's customer base is crucial, he said.

Busa Farm participates in farmers markets throughout the region, but the CSA will give them a solid group of committed customers. ''This coming year we don't expect to have to sell anything at wholesale prices," he said.

Another benefit, he said, is getting to know customers better. ''Those people are going to get to know me, and I'll get to know their likes and dislikes; all that is good for the farm," Busa said. ''These people will also get to know who is growing their food. You can't get that everywhere."

Gilbert said joining the CSA is also important to her because it will help her live out her values. ''I have deeply wanted a local, on-the-ground way to practice what I believe in," she said. ''I want to be engaged in activity that is economically just, that doesn't mess up Earth's life-sustaining systems, and that builds a stronger local economy. Participating in the Busa Farm CSA does it for me."

She said that, in an age in which people have so little connection to the food they consume, it's important to ''do everything possible to keep farms going close to where we live."

Busa said that his family knows it could make a lot of money selling its land to a developer, but it doesn't want to. The farm has been in his family since 1919, and he and his siblings want to keep it that way.

''Our roots go very deep here," he said. ''It's a thrill to get to walk the land that our father did, and here in 2005 my kids are standing on the same spot."

For more information on the Busa Farm CSA project, visit www.busafarm.com.  

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
 

The love of liberty is the love of others. The love of power is the love of ourselves. -- William Hazlitt
Send comments to:  webmaster@gilbertwhite.com
( This page was last updated on:  06/09/2005 )