SPOTLIGHT: Community farm provides fresh produce

By Sarah Miller

Mattoon Journal-Gazette

Published: Monday, April 23 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In a photo taken April 5, 2012, Annie Metzger examines the tomato plants nestled among head lettuce growing in the hoop house at Samara Farm near Shelbyville, Ill. The lettuce will be harvested for the early spring Community Supported Agriculture boxes, and the tomatoes transplanted to the outdoor plots once the threat of frost has ended. For a minimal financial investment, east central Illinois fresh food lovers can join a local CSA program and reap the rewards while someone else does the work.

Journal Gazette, Sarah Miller, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SHELBYVILLE, Ill. — Does receiving a plentiful box of home-grown produce every week throughout the spring, summer and early fall sound appealing? How about if the bounty is available without having to spend countless hours weeding a backyard garden?

For a minimal financial investment, east central Illinois fresh food lovers can join a local Community Supported Agriculture program and reap the rewards while someone else does the work.

During their third season as farmers in central Illinois, Annie and Zack Metzger hope to fulfill 40 CSA memberships, sell at the Bloomington Farmers Market and feed themselves a wealth of fresh produce — all on roughly 2¼ acres of land.

The Metzgers operate Samara Farm on a leased farm nestled amidst rolling hills southwest of Shelbyville. Their "home farm" consists of 40 acres, but they farm just a quarter-acre — split among three vegetable plots, a greenhouse and a perennial herb garden. The remaining acreage is Conservation Resource Program land, which consists of prairie grass and wooded areas.

"We don't have farmers spraying anything (nearby)," said Annie Metzger. "It's a great buffer for us."

Located a few miles from their "home farm," the additional single, 2-acre plot is surrounded by pasture.

Samara Farm sells CSA shares for $400 a season. Customers receive approximately $20 of produce each week for 20 weeks beginning May 30, Mrs. Metzger said.

Customers can pick up their shares weekly at the farm, at the Firefly Grill in Effingham or the Children's Museum of Decatur.

In order to keep costs low at the beginning of each season, customers pay the full amount up front or make at least a $100 payment on their membership.

That helps the Metzgers purchase seeds and other supplies for the farm and also has helped them avoid getting loans to cover expenses that would need to be repaid at the end of the season, she said.

And they're not just customers. They are people that care about the farm, Mrs. Metzger said.

"They feel ownership in the farm. They consider us 'their' farmers. We feel that's a very valuable thing," she said "They are a great group of people and are very open-minded."

Generally, the return rate on CSA customers is one-third from one season to the next, but Samara Farm has about a 50 percent return rate, Metzger said.

One such returning customer is Jane Rood of Shelbyville. Rood joined the Samara Farm CSA last year and has continued her membership for the 2012 season.

Rood first met the Metzgers at the Shelbyville Farmers Market and was impressed by what they had to offer. She appreciates the variety of items provided by the CSA.

"There were a lot of things I hadn't experienced before. I'm adventurous that way. I like to try new things," Rood said.

To be guaranteed a portion of produce each week was something Rood couldn't pass up and is an opportunity she didn't expect to find in Shelbyville, she said.

"They've done their homework; they're dedicated," Rood said. "They work hard and it shows."

The same hard work has been under way at Samara Farm in preparation for the upcoming season.

The hoop house is packed full with seedlings, pint-sized tomato plants, head lettuce and a mixed salad garden.

To Metzger's surprise, epazote, a Mexican herb, returned after the mild winter and will once again be a unique inclusion in the CSA members' weekly allotment of fresh vegetables and herbs.

"We try to grow weird things like this for our customers. Sometimes people love it. I like to be able to force new things on people," she said with a chuckle.

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