By Lisa Capobianco
Rays of sun beamed on tomato plants all aligned in rows at Lewis Educational Agriculture Farm (L.E.A.F.) as workers prepped for the new growing season.
This year marks the second year in which L.E.A.F. has provided the C.S.A (Community Supported Agriculture) program to local consumers, allowing them to buy a “share” of fresh produce each week. Last year, the goal was to reach a C.S.A. membership of 25 people, but the farm exceeded that goal with 50 members. This year, the goal is to reach 200 members.
“It has grown considerably,” said Mark Ramsay, a 7th generation Lewis farmer who operates L.E.A.F. “People are really concerned about buying local, buying their food fresh.”
“It has really blown up in the last few years…the demand is here,” said Assistant Manager Matt Theriault, who has worked in the fields at L.E.A.F. for six years. “We are shooting for 200 this year and I don’t think we’ll have a problem hitting that mark.”
From 24 types of tomatoes to 36 types of peppers to broccoli, eggplant and kale, L.E.A.F. grows 200 varieties of the fresh vegetables for nine months of the year on the farm’s fertile fields and greenhouses. Ramsay and his team started seeding in March, and so far have not only planted tomatoes, but also onions, herbs, lettuce, kale, collards, radishes and carrots, among other vegetables.
Through its C.S.A. program, Ramsay said consumers develop a direct relationship with the farmer while keeping their money in the community and getting to know where the food was produced.
“It’s local, you can ask the farmer how it’s grown,” said Ramsay, adding that the taste and the stable prices of the produce also play a factor in the growth of the C.S.A. program. “When someone buys into a C.S.A., their money is staying in their community.”
“People are getting more concerned about what is going in their food,” said Theriault, a former student of the vocational agriculture program at Southington High School who majored in crop production soil science in college. “Here, you get to know the farmer.”
Under the C.S.A. program, members have access to the freshest, high-quality flavored seasonal products, said Ramsay. Before the season begins, C.S.A. members buy a “share,” which is a box of freshly picked sustainable grown produce. The size of each box depends on the size of the share a member has bought, such as a full share, half share, or one-third share. Every full share box has six to ten different kinds of produce based on the season and the weather, and each full share will have a value of at least $37.50 per week, according to L.E.A.F.’s website.
“You’re getting a lot of product for what you’re spending,” said Ramsay, adding that consumers have 12 different kinds of lettuces to choose from as well as collards, squash, carrots and onions. “We make sure we really take care of the consumer.”
Members of C.S.A. have the option to sign up for several different shares: a 16-week share, a 21-week share, and a four-season share. The 16-week share begins July 11 and ends October 25, and the 21-week share begins June 14 and ends November 1, according to L.E.A.F.’s website. After July 11, members can pick up their share box at the L.E.A.F. site itself or at the Southington Farmers Market. For most members, the 21-week share is preferred, said Ramsay.
“Most people want the full range vegetables,” said Ramsay, adding that the most “in demand” produce items include tomatoes, green squash and green beans. “For the first three weeks, it’s a lot of greens, beats, carrots, peas—the later one is when the tomatoes, the peppers kick in.”
Located at 65 Blueberry Lane, L.E.A.F. “promotes education through agriculture on the historic Lewis Family Farm by using practices that are socially and ecologically sustainable,” as the first part of its mission statement goes. Whether Ramsay is growing onions, carrots and cucumbers in the greenhouse or planting cold crops like cabbage, kale and radishes, he has adopted sustainable farming practices throughout the years. For the past 25 years the Lewis family has added and tilled in decomposing leaf mulch (through the town’s leaf collection program). This has built up the organic matter in the soil, which has helped the produce to grow faster and easier.
“We use organic growing techniques,” said Ramsay, who grew up in the small white farm house located on the Flanders Road farm where both his grandfather and great grandfather were born. “We built up the organics in the soil.”
Ramsay said another key component of L.E.A.F.’s sustainable practices includes Integrated Pest Management (I.P.M.) Through I.P.M, farmers find potential harmful pests in the vegetable fields. Ramsay said the best course of action is determined when a pest reaches a certain threshold.
“Last year, we didn’t spray at all—we used a lot of I.P.M.—we’d go out and scout the fields and we only treat when it’s necessary,” said Ramsay, adding that another sustainable practice L.E.A.F. has utilized includes organic fertilizers instead of using chemical, petroleum-based fertilizers. “One of the ways we treated is with predator insects…we can actually bring bugs in to take care of the bugs we don’t want.”
Chris Daley, a college student at the University of Hartford, has helped out in the fields for two consecutive summers. A vegetarian, Daley said he has learned a lot working with Ramsay, and feels proud to know where his food comes from.
“I love knowing where my food comes from,” said Daley. “There’s something about it I can’t explain—it’s so special.”
Looking at his rows of tomato plants, Ramsay said he hopes to start a winter C.S.A. this year, and is also currently working with the Southington Community YMCA on implementing a winter farmers market. If all goes according to plan, Ramsay said L.E.A.F. will grow produce in the greenhouses from November to January.
“We’re going to grow things that can take 50-degree temperatures,” said Ramsay, adding that he also plans to start adding a link to different recipes on the website and hopes to conduct cooking demonstrations with C.S.A. members.
For more information, visit http://www.leafct.com/.