Farm to Customer
CSAs Offer Customers Affordable, Diverse Home-Grown Produce
Driving to House in the Woods Farm east of Adamstown is like a journey to a different world. In this world, farmers sell produce directly to consumers who come to them. It’s not an easy journey. The road is gravel, the hill is steep. But to loyal customers, the results are worth the effort..
House in the Woods is one of a dozen farms in Frederick County that use the community supported agriculture, or CSA, business model. As residents of Frederick stock up on food during the COVID-19 pandemic, CSAs find themselves on the frontlines of supplying locally grown food to the community.
“Know your farmer has always been our mantra, but it resonates even more during uncertain times,” reads the House in the Woods Facebook page. Co-founder Ilene Freedman, who wrote that statement, says CSAs are taking some of the pressure off local supermarkets by supplying fresh produce. “This is a great direct service,” she says. “Every little bit helps.” She estimates her farm’s CSA will feed 100 families this season.
CSAs link local residents to food growers. Subscribers pay a fee and get fresh produce, often unusual and heirloom varieties, throughout the growing season. Farmers, in turn, get a consistent set of customers and the ability to plan what to grow each year to support demand.
CSA members can look forward to a box of fresh produce once a week. Inside that box are eight to 10 produce items. An item might be three or four squash, a quart-sized bag full of green beans or two nice-sized eggplants. All for around $30 a week.
Some farms ask you to pick up at the farm while others offer pickup sites. Choosing a CSA is an individual choice. You want to look for a CSA that suits your taste, your budget and maybe even your philosophy.
HOUSE IN THE WOODS FARM
When Ilene and Phil Freedman started House in the Woods Farm CSA in 2001, they were one of about a dozen CSAs in the entire Washington, D.C., region. Newly married, the couple hosted a series of house concerts at their 25-acre farm, located in the shade of Sugarloaf Mountain. They concluded that people enjoyed visiting their farm as much as hearing the music.
“I had just gotten a master’s degree in environmental psychology, and I was realizing the psychological benefits of connecting to the land and learning where your food came from,” Ilene says. Her husband, Phil, a computer consultant, built the house himself. He wanted to grow a garden and sell produce, but he didn’t want to sit at a market and sell it.
Neither knew anything about farming, but they read books and experimented with what worked. Now in their 20th season, experiments are tempered with experience. They use only organic pesticides, they make their own compost and they use natural methods to control pests.
At first, the couple provided delivery, but now CSA members come to them. Their only off-farm sales are a few items they wholesale to the Common Market in Frederick. Some members make the trek weekly from Frederick, while others come biweekly. When they first started, members came from as far away as Silver Spring, but with the rise of CSAs, people migrated to CSAs closer to home.
That’s fine with the Freedmans, who look forward to seeing visitors each Thursday through Sunday, May through October. Workshares allow members to work in the garden to offset some of the costs. Debbie Tuel is a longtime House in the Woods member and workshare volunteer. She looks forward each week to working in the gardens.
“It’s beautiful here,” Tuel says. She enjoys introducing people to food they’re not familiar with, like turnips and kohlrabi. “It’s not just broccoli, corn and tomatoes that you can get here.”
“We are best known for our heirloom tomatoes,” Ilene says. Members are often surprised at how sweet an heirloom tomato can taste. They’re also surprised at some of the sweet turnip varieties. The farm provides recipes on Facebook—a popular salad calls for the farm’s kohlrabi and turnips. The most popular recipe, however, is for turnip fritters. Even kids go for the sweet turnips that go into these fritters, Phil says.
Although the garden is at its most bountiful in late summer, when there are tomatoes, corn, beans, sweet peppers, Italian eggplant, summer squash, potatoes, tomatillos, hot peppers, garlic, radishes and herbs aplenty, planning starts in the cold days of winter.
That’s when the Freedmans work in their greenhouse. Each year, they convert one of their 30-by-300 garden beds into a greenhouse. There, broccoli and lettuce grow throughout winter, and seeds are started. As the soil warms, plants are moved to other large beds. House in the Woods has 3 acres dedicated to plants. The Freedmans rotate the greenhouse to allow rainwater to penetrate the beds and allow bug pests to die off.
Inside the greenhouse, they also make their own soil mixture. Perlite and compost are mixed with soil from the farm. The soil at House in the Woods Farm and throughout the region is some of the best around, Ilene says. “This is called Myersville gravelly silt loam,” she says. The soil is a mix of gravel, quartzite and sandstone.
“We want our members to get a farm experience,” Ilene says. Teenage sons Noah and Jonah give tours of the farm. Members can see goats graze, watch chickens dash about and meet the family dog, Kenai, an English shepherd. On a neighboring farm, horses graze peacefully. Some CSAs offer meat. The Freedmans, however, raise chickens and sometimes other livestock only for their own consumption and limit the CSA to plants.
Starting in May, members collect four or eight vegetables and fruits, with herbs added in. This year’s pickup protocol will be determined by recommended public health procedures.
“Phil and I are always experimenting,” Ilene says. “People who grow food will never stop learning.”
SYCAMORE SPRING FARM
Carol Rollman started her CSA 16 years ago. She had a little farmette in Keymar while working in the mobile medical screening field. She read about CSAs in a magazine and decided she wanted to own one someday, leaning on her childhood in Amish country, although she isn’t Amish. “If they didn’t make it, we didn’t have it,” she says. “I thought we lived in paradise. I always dreamed of doing my own farm.”
She went to the C. Burr Artz Public Library and read everything she could about CSAs. Then she found a piece of land on Elmer Derr Road. The property, about 7 acres, came with a dilapidated 1902 farmhouse. It was perfect for her CSA dream.
She fixed up the house and learned to make her own cheese. She grew her own food. “The year I turned 50, I said, ‘If I don’t pursue this farm dream, I’m never going to do it,’” she recalls. “That was the year my kids say I’d lost my mind.”
Rollman, now 66, is known to her CSA members as Farmer Carol. Two acres of her farm are now vegetable gardens. Scattered around her peaceful property are fruit trees. She also has a raspberry patch and a strawberry patch. She raises chickens and cattle graze on 4 acres across the road that she leases.
Rollman is making sure her CSA members will be able to safely pick up their food. She’s also ensuring the food is safely packed for pickup.
CSA members get vegetables and fruit, and some add in egg and meat shares. She also makes goat’s milk soap, jams and honey. Rollman estimates that the produce her members get works out to about $1.98 per pound for the entire growing season.
Sycamore Springs offers weekly, biweekly and monthly programs along with shorter season programs in summer and fall. Weekly and monthly shares consist of 10 items of in-season vegetables, fruits and fresh herbs. CSAs typically run for 26 or 32 weeks, from April until early November.
Most members are local, although some of the monthly members come from as far as Prince George’s County. Summer fruits are sometimes pick-your-own. “Our members have learned to pick strawberries, raspberries, grapes,” she says. “I don’t always have time to pick them.”
Rollman has trained a few longtime members to volunteer at the farm, and volunteers get their choice of herbs, ranging from basil to thyme, lavender, mint, rosemary, sage and cilantro.
Members become regulars and trade recipes. Some join because of Sycamore Spring’s unusual varieties. “Some people join because of the blue hubbard squash,” Rollman says.
Meat shares include old-fashioned duck breeds, American rabbits, Scottish highland cattle and original Cornish hens. “We try to do heirloom breeds as much as possible,” she says. “It takes longer for the animals to grow to maturity.” The result, however, is meat with better flavor.
Jennifer Moore, who lives in nearby Feagaville, has been a Sycamore Spring Farm CSA member since 2014. “She’s doing everything from beginning to end, no pesticides, no herbicides,” Moore says.
“I don’t have to worry about peeling the vegetables I get from Carol,” Moore says. “She brings safe and sustainable food to our community. She and her volunteers spend an inordinate amount of time making sure our food is safe and nutritious.”
Moore says Rollman provides members with a list of everything available each week. Members sometimes trade with each other for favorite items. “It’s all sort of negotiable,” Moore says. “At the same time, it’s a challenge for people to try something new.”
Being part of a CSA means you eat healthier foods, Moore says. “I make sure we use the produce, and it’s a great way to ensure we eat more fruits and vegetables,” she says.
Sycamore Springs member Wendy Phillipi says being part of a CSA has taught her to be flexible in her approach to eating, a trait that is helping many people adjust their diets to what’s available during the COVID-19 pandemic.
DANDELION AND RUST FARM
At her day job, Laura Genello runs a program that introduces urban kids to farming. In the evenings, she comes home to her small farm on Highland School Road near Myersville and tends to her gardens in the shadow of South Mountain.
Last year, she grew 500 bed feet of vegetables and sold at local farmers markets. This year, she’s starting a CSA, with pickups at her home and in Frederick.
“I love this soil,” Genello says, holding a handful of the silt loam soil from her garden. She and her husband own 5 acres of a former dairy farm, and she’s converted part of the front lawn into gardens. She is growing unusual melons, peppers and squashes, other heirloom vegetables, and mushrooms on logs.
Raised mounds amended with compost will produce these unusual varieties of vegetables and fruits. Over winter, she fed the soil with peas and oats, and clover protected the walkways and reduced weeds. She now has three plots, each 50 feet by 32 feet, although she’s planning to add more in future years. She tilled the soil to break up sod but plans to use low-till methods in future years to preserve nutrients.
She uses companion planting and natural pesticide methods to keep pests to a minimum. Lemongrass from last year’s garden still had that lemony scent in early spring, even though the stalks of this insect repellant had dried and turned brown.
Genello hopes to do some gardening workshops at her farm. She has a master’s degree in organic agriculture. Her husband is an artist and has a studio attached to their house, although he helps her when he can. “I’m a one-woman show,” she says. “I’d like to add a little more each year and grow the business gradually,” she says.
She grew up in suburban Massachusetts, but her first job out of college was on a small-scale vegetable farm. “I’d always been interested in agriculture and environmental science,” she says. “I fell in love with the actual work.”
Gardening became a way of life, and she likes to grow unusual plant varieties. She managed farm markets and managed an urban farming project at Johns Hopkins University. There, she organized classes, workshops and events, and she found “fun ways to engage people.”
Engaging community, she says, “is the attraction of a CSA. It’s about getting to know the farmer on a whole different level.”