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Small-farm ventures are labors of love

Sign up now for CSAs, which are already planning and starting their crops


by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - During the growing season, CSA farmer Amy Love harvests her crops early in the morning, then waits for customers--and crosses her fingers that bad weather or pests dont ruin her crops. It’s all about the lifestyle, not the money.

Amy Love and Dean Bichsel are the kind of people who don’t mind having dirt under their fingernails, who are patient enough to wait months for their food and who carefully steward the Forest Grove land that’s been in Love’s family for more than 100 years.

They’re the kind of people who operate a Community Supported Agriculture farm — and more like them are surfacing.

As interest in supporting local farmers blooms, Oregon growers are adapting to demand, finding new ways to distribute crops.

"It's like Christmas every week," said Marcie Brown, who works at Pacific University and picks up her produce from the Love farm. "It's getting back to the way farming used to be and the way we're supposed to eat."

Direct sales to people like Brown make it possible for farmers to operate on smaller parcels of land than more traditional farms.

CSA customers make an up-front payment in the spring for a portion of the farm’s harvest, which they can pick up weekly throughout the season. Produce varies according to farm and season, but spring baskets, with more leafy greens, radishes and other early crops, differ widely from fall baskets with tomatoes and squash.

Some potential customers may balk at spending several hundred dollars up front. But Brown did the math and said her CSA produce pencils out to less than $20 per week. "And it's fresher, more nutritious, organic and local," she said.

Laura Barton of the Oregon Department of Agriculture has noticed that CSAs not only appear to be growing in popularity, but offer more variety as well.

“In the past you would see mostly fruits and vegetables,” Barton said. “But now we see a lot of farms offering eggs, meats, processed goods and more.”

Love and Bichsel, who met in a greenhouse, started growing for their friends and family in 2005. Now they sell to about 175 customers and are looking for more.

In the summer, they wake at first light and walk past the barn wall — which is adorned with antlers — to the fields, where they harvest their organic produce. They clean and bunch it, then wait for customers.

The CSA model is all about the personal touch. "I really love the idea of having that relationship with customers,” said Love, who allows some customers to work on the farm in exchange for produce.

Love even teaches people how to can and make jam, and sometimes she’ll include flowers and handmade soap in baskets.

“It’s changing agriculture,” she said. “We can see how big the word ‘local’ is now. Our values are changing.”

It also puts consumers in touch with the seasons and provides an appreciation for farmers’ lives, said Steve Cohen of of the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

by: COURTESY PHOTO: LOVE FARM ORGANICS - The produce baskets offered by Love Farm organics vary in color and content from the beginning of the season to the end. Spring and summer baskets (top) include the green and blue of broccoli and blueberries, while fall baskets (bottom)include the browns and reds of potatoes, tomatoes and squash.“It gives people more choices, the opportunity to know the person who grows their food and the pleasure of tasting real food at its peak,” said Cohen.

By paying up-front, consumers also share the risks inherent in farming, which is no easy business.

“You have to have a lot of tools in the belt,” Love said. “You can lose a whole crop one year due to weather or pests.”

Amy Benson and Chris Roehm operated a CSA in Forest Grove until 2009, when they found more opportunities selling to chefs and at farmers markets. “When we first started, the farmers market movement wasn’t established yet,” Benson said. “The markets gained in popularity and a steady stream of people started showing up every week — thousands of people walk by our booth every Saturday” at the Portland Farmers Market.

Although farmers need customers close by to make direct sales, the urban growth boundary that makes that possible is a double-edged sword, because there is always pressure to expand it for urban uses, Benson said.

“The more people we have buying from local farms, the better chance we have of keeping the land in farming,” said Benson, who has spent decades in Washington County, where the rural-urban border is thin.

Since the late 1980s, more than 22,000 acres in Washington County that were once dedicated to agriculture have been converted for other uses. Although the number of farms is greater than 20 years ago, the average farm size is smaller.

Farms of any size are vital to a sustainable community, Love said. “It’s a lifestyle of love and labor. It’s a ton of work but you like what you’re doing ... it’s not about the salary.”

Now is the time to sign up, while farmers are still planning the season’s crops. Check out localharvest.org to search for local CSAs.



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