Although buying organic produce at big chain stores is convenient, getting your organic produce from a local farmer is a great way to support your area's economy. But just how does a small-scale organic farmer get his or her produce out to the public? For one Connecticut farmer, it's all about community-supported agriculture (CSA).
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs are an excellent way for farmers to connect with their customers and for customers to connect with and learn about their food. At the same time farmer Paul Bucciaglia, 36, was developing his first crop plan and working temporary office jobs to bring in a little money, he was spreading the word about a CSA program he envisioned. After telling a few people at the office and handing out a brochure he created, word of mouth among interested neighbors quickly brought Bucciaglia his first 25 CSA members. Each member bought a "share" in Bucciaglia's farm, which guarantees them a weekly box of fresh produce from his Fort Hill Farm in New Milford, Connecticut, from June through October.
Designing his crop plan on five Excel spreadsheets for three weeks last winter, Bucciaglia had to consider numerous factors, including what crops would likely grow best in Fort Hill Farm's environment, given the weather, the condition of the soil, and the level of irrigation; what local consumers would be likely to buy; and what would make sense from a cost-benefit standpoint. For instance, scallions, though popular, cost so little in grocery stores, it may not make sense for a small farmer to expend the labor and money necessary to grow them for wholesale. "It really helped that I had apprenticed at several farms, had farm management experience, and had a chance to see their records about what grew and sold well," says Bucciaglia. Armed with this valuable information, Bucciaglia plans on growing 40 to 50 kinds of vegetables, 12 kinds of cut flowers, and eight to 10 kinds of herbs during his first season.
During the CSA's first month, June, Fort Hill Farm CSA members received salad leaves—arugula, mizuna, red kale, red- and green-leaf lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and bok choy, plus radishes, broccoli, and sugar snap peas. In October, Bucciaglia will fill their boxes with broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, seven or eight kinds of winter squash, sweet potatoes, leeks, garlic, and eggplant. Quite a bargain for $420 (for farm pick-ups) to $470 (to be dropped off at sites) for the months of June through October.
This spring, Bucciaglia had four acres of land in vegetable production, with an additional four acres in cover crops such as winter rye, hairy vetch, and four types of clover. The remainder of the 20 acres he rents from the Sunny Valley Preserve, a project of the Nature Conservancy (which stewards donated land that has tillable sections that are to remain in agricultural production) is in grass, which helps build soil fertility. Bucciaglia will gradually bring more and more land into vegetable production and plans on expanding his CSA to more than a hundred members. He also offers his produce at farmers' markets and natural foods stores.
Someday, Bucciaglia may have bona fide employees, but for the time being, he is relying mostly on himself and some loyal volunteers, namely his girlfriend, his parents, and their retired friends. Bucciaglia expects to gross enough this year to pay for his expenses, and after a couple years, he will start paying himself back the $25,000 he invested in start-up capital. Still, this young farmer is thrifty. Buying used equipment, he managed to get a harvest truck, a plow, a mower, cultivators, a manure spreader, a potato digger, and three tractors—one of which is 55 years old—for one-sixth the cost of new equipment.
"Every day, I'm finding my way, trying to figure out the most efficient way to plant, grow, harvest, and market," says Bucciaglia. "Eighteen million things can go wrong in farming, and the work can be hard, but when I walk my fields each night, I realize I'm just happy growing in a way I think is healthy and sustainable."