Betting the Farm on Home Grown

Do you know where Cincinnati gets its name?

It's a derivative of Cincinnatus, the name of a Roman farmer-turned-emperor who, after fulfilling his duty to the state in a time of crisis, relinquished his power and returned to his fields.

Fitting, then, that the Queen City is home to a growing number of back-to-their-roots agriculturalists, local residents who are betting the farm - literally - on the region's growing interest in locally grown food.

"People aren't that concerned about organic food anymore," said Melinda O'Briant, full-time gardener at Turner Farm in Indian Hill. "Mostly, the interest is now local."

Turner Farm is one of many small farms in the area that are starting to launch community-supported agriculture, or CSA, programs. At the beginning of the year, a CSA farm sells a number of "shares" of its expected harvest. Shareholders pay in advance, and in return receive a portion of the farm's harvest each week. Turner has been offering its CSA shares since 1995, and had 54 participating families, couples and individuals this year.

"The popularity has just really skyrocketed," said O'Briant, who attributed the interest to the popularity of nonfiction books by authors Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver.

Jim Rosselot, owner of Gravel Knolls Farm in West Chester, agreed that interest in CSAs and local food in general has spiked. Now in its 11th year of operation, the Gravel Knolls CSA has little problem selling out of its roughly 130 shares each year.

"It's a great [business] model," he said, "but like anything, it has its advantages and disadvantages." While the farmer of a CSA is guaranteed a certain amount of income for the year, he or she has the added responsibility of producing a weekly harvest, something tricky when dealing with the natural whims of seeds and the weather.

"That takes an incredible amount of planning," said Rosselot. "We consider that a very important responsibility."

According to farmer Douglas Weber, whose Mud Foot Farm in Amelia held its first CSA season this year, it's a worthwhile risk to take.

"It helps us financially," he said. "Rather than starting off the season in debt for seed money, we're in debt for produce," a situation that gives the farmer more control over his or her season than would be the case under traditional market-farm practices.

Many of the CSA farms in the area make a point of keeping things as natural as possible. Gravel Knolls has a multi-year field rotation, and nearly every farm in the area uses a combination of vegetables and livestock to add to that ancient practice of letting a field rebuild after a year's harvest.

Turner Farm takes the "local" of local food one step further, by requiring CSA members to contribute two hours of work a week in the fields. O'Briant said that along with giving the shareholders a larger harvest for their money, this practice has educational benefits.

"If you really realize how much work it takes to grow food in the manner in which you want it to be grown, hopefully you won't seek out cheap food," she said, referring to the mass-produced produce that often carries a heavy, hidden price in chemical pesticides and long shipping routes.

In a similar vein, Rosselot said Gravel Knolls recently shifted from pre-bagging shares for member pick-up to having members visit the farm and bag their own vegetables.

"You get a lot more interaction between members," he said. "It's a lot more social."

The social factor has another benefit for the farm, he added. The weekly visits by CSA shareholders helped double the farm's egg sales from The Feed Barn, its on-site retail operation.

Deer Park resident and long-time Turner Farm CSA member Sue Fisher said the social aspect of local food benefits consumers, as they become more familiar with the source of their sustenance. When a local elementary school announced it would plant a vegetable garden, she said her 10 years' experience in the fields at Turner Farm gave her the knowledge to help guide the project.

"I learn something new every single year I'm out there," she said. "That's something I can give back to Deer Park."

Locally grown food has a number of benefits for communities, added West Chester Township administrator and Gravel Knolls CSA member Judi Boyko.

"Having a local source for food, I think it only enhances livability," she said. "Nothing's as pure as knowing your food came from the soil just down the street and was produced by your neighbor."

As the popularity of locally grown food expands, CSA farmers said they are seeing interest from a wider consumer base than ever before.

"There are people that, eight years ago, I don't think we'd have seen," said Rosselot.

"We have some doctors and some teachers, and we even have a few people from Ft. Thomas, Kentucky," said O'Briant. "There's just a lot more people interested in local food."

"As far as types of people, it's pretty diverse," said Weber. "We see all walks of life, all different occupations."

And with that broad, increasing interest comes a problem for CSA farms, albeit a good one. All of the farms contacted for this story said they regularly have more potential shareholders than available shares.

"We're trying to figure out how much expansion we can do without losing quality," said Weber. Rosselot and O'Briant agreed that the balance between quality and quantity could limit the ultimate extent of a small local farm's growth.

To help make local food available to more Cincinnati area residents, Gravel Knolls and Turner farms are teaming up November 12 to host an informational round-table for farmers and potential farmers interested in launching their own CSAs. Since this type of farming takes less land than a typical large commercial farm - Mud Foot Farm only used one of its 93 acres to grow produce for its 12 shareholders this year, for example - the chance to farm is becoming increasingly real for many small farmers.

"Probably you'd want to have some gardening experience…or the ability to organize people and farmers," said O'Briant, who sees a good future for this new, locally focused type of food production.

"It looks pretty bright," she said. "We can definitely do as much as we want whenever we want."

For more information on area CSAs, go here.

Photography by Scott Beseler
Horse strength training at Turner Farms, Indian Hill
Turner farm hands
Pumpkins at Gravel Knolls Farm, West Chester
Free range pigs at Turner Farms
Farm house, Turner Farms
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