Sustain This

By Melanie Gold

When I was a girl growing up in Northampton County, farms were all around me. Some of my fondest memories are of pulling back husks on the season’s first sweet corn, tagging along with my grandfather to the dairy to buy raw milk in glass bottles, and my brother and I riding our bikes to the local butcher. He sold local meats, knew us by name, and gave us a good deal on ice pops and Slim Jims.

Those fields are largely housing developments now; the butcher gets his meat precut; and the raw milk dairy is a self-storage business. But all is not lost. There’s a movement in America to bring good food back to the people. It’s called community-supported agriculture (CSA) and it’s here in the Lehigh Valley.

According to articles at the USDA’s website, community-supported agriculture originated in the 1960s in Switzerland and Japan, where consumers and farmers joined together in economic partnership to provide safe food for all and a livelihood for farmers. In the early to mid-1980s there were less than a dozen CSAs; in the mid-1990s there were about 400; and today there are more than 2,500 CSAs listed at the nationwide Local Harvest database. (See Resources.)

The value of buying local is that you are keeping a farm in business, showing the farmer that healthy, non-pesticide-laden food is important to you.

If you ask Anna Maria Caldara of Bangor, the seemingly meteoric rise of community-supported agriculture has been a long time in the making. For decades Caldara supported organic gardening and co-founded the Genesis Farm community-supported garden in Blairstown, New Jersey, but it took many years for the idea to take hold.

“Genesis Farm was founded by the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, New Jersey, in 1980. The farm had been left to the congregation as a gift,” says Caldara. An ecological learning center was conceived and a biodynamic garden—a self-sustaining organic garden that uses a small space to produce a big yield—was established and was probably the first to serve the Greater Lehigh Valley. By educating neighbors on the benefits of organic gardening, Genesis Farm began selling produce to a nearby health-food store and to a few community supporters, who also helped work the garden and spread the word about the health benefits of not using pesticides. Caldara recalls those as “grueling times in all kinds of weather.” Many people in the community were already supporting farmstands and “organic” was just a buzzword then.

In 1987, Genesis Farm began a community-supported garden program by offering pre-purchased shares of produce. Pre-buying helped ensure the farm’s livelihood and in return customers received biweekly portions of whatever was in season. Over the years the farm added fruit trees, honey bees, and grains to its offerings, and today the Genesis Farm is by most accounts a huge operation, offering year-round produce from ten acres of land, including orchards, and three greenhouses. A family share (enough to feed four veggie lovers) costs nearly $900 but it includes an average of 19 pounds of year-round biweekly produce.

“The value of buying local is that you are keeping a farm in business, showing the farmer that healthy, non-pesticide-laden food is important to you,” says Caldara. “You know how your food is treated and where your seeds originate, [which is] crucial in these days of genetically engineered crops. You are eating food that is healthy and that you have had a stake in growing.”

You can mimic an organic CSA in your backyard garden by introducing “beneficial” insects, in late spring, says Tom Bull, owner of Herbeins Garden Center in Emmaus. Beneficials, such as ladybugs, eat garden pests, such as aphids. (Contact Herbeins for more information on beneficials and their availability.)

Lori Stansberry discovered she had more of a stake in her own health when she became a mother. She says she wanted local organic produce for herself but especially for when her baby started eating solid foods. But there were few options in her local supermarket and she found it difficult to travel from farm to farm for different products. In 2007 she started Pure Sprouts, a Trexlertown-based company that offers home delivery of local organic produce across the Lehigh Valley.

When she approached local farmers with her plan, though, the response was less than enthusiastic.

“There was skepticism. It was a new concept,” Stansberry says. “Farmers had gotten involved with distributors in the past, were burned, and developed distrust.” But by purchasing whatever farmers had to sell, whether by the case or the piece, and never buying anything below market price, Pure Sprouts developed a good rapport with local growers. From Bangor to Kutztown, Lehighton to Quakertown, each week Pure Sprouts buys local organic produce, meats, tofu, baby foods, and granola (and, hopefully soon, raw milk). To ensure year-round delivery, Pure Sprouts supplements their offerings with organic produce from Florida and California, but only on an as-needed basis. The idea is to buy local.

“All you have to do is go online, give a zip code, set up an account, and place your order,” says Stansberry. There is a $25 minimum, but delivery options range from one-time orders to weekly deliveries. Each Wednesday the orders are compiled, and deliveries are made on Saturday and Sunday.

“We’re definitely growing,” says Stansberry. “We have increased sales . . . increased customer loyalty.” She’s even had requests for live animals, which, unfortunately, is beyond the scope of her business.

For those like Joe Gold of Stockertown who want to make a regular commitment to buying locally from a specific farm, there are CSAs springing up all over the Valley. Last year Gold purchased a half share from Easton-based Clear Springs Farm for $288. It was his first foray into the world of CSAs and he learned a lot from that first experience.

At the beginning of the growing season, his portion of the harvest was limited only to salad greens. As someone who had gotten used to “all produce all year” in the grocery store, Gold admits to be disappointed, even though intellectually he knew that he would get only what was in season.

In addition, he fruitlessly waited to get a portion of the farm’s organic strawberries. Week after week, he felt mercilessly teased by the strawberries for sale at the farmstand yet not available to him as a CSA member. He felt short-changed but reasoned that the farm’s limited crop of strawberries could not support all 75 or more of the CSA participants. In fact, the farm didn’t grow the berries.

“We bring in locally grown fruits and berries to sell at the farmstand,” says Terry Kromer of Clear Springs Farm. It’s a convenience to the customers, she says, because the farm does not have the facilities to grow fruit. “Whatever we grow is included as part of the CSA.”

Gold also discovered that sometimes his half share of produce was more than he could eat from one weekly pick-up to the next. (This could be easily solved by sharing the CSA membership with a neighbor, as is often done.)Finally, Gold says that people who are used to triple-washed spinach in a tidy sealed bag at the supermarket may be surprised to fine soil or the occasional earthworm in their CSA bag. After all, this is real farming.


Emmaus, PA


Melanie Gold is a freelance writer and editor who shares a backyard garden with her next-door neighbors. She has edited numerous books on organics, beekeeping, and the Clean Food and Slow Food movements.

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