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SPOTLIGHT: Community farm provides fresh produce

Published: Monday, April 23 2012 5:35 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) 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)

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.

The smaller plots have been tilled, for the most part, and show signs of what is to come in the customers' early baskets — peas, onions, several varieties of lettuce, cabbage, garlic and perennial herbs.

They even beat the famed Good Friday deadline for potatoes by planting them the week before Easter at the larger 2-acre plot.

The Metzgers grow primarily heirloom varieties at Samara Farm, and most of the seeds are certified organic. They use a few hybrids, but absolutely no genetically modified organisms, she said.

While some CSAs supplement their members' supply using outside sources, the Metzgers grow 100 percent of their crops. Not only do they prefer it that way, but the farmers market they attend in Bloomington requires it, Mrs. Metzger said.

Samara Farm crops are Certified Naturally Grown, a designation granted to farmers who "don't use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones or genetically modified organisms," according to the Certified Naturally Grown website.

While organic products are available for activities such as weed control, the Metzgers have chosen not to use them at the farm.

"It leaves us doing a lot of things by hand," she said.

CNG is a peer-to-peer program that uses similar standards to the USDA Certified Organic program but is geared more toward small farms, Mrs. Metzger said.

"The inspections are done by other farmers," she said. "We wanted a third party to see the process."

Working alongside their peers is nothing new to the Metzgers. The couple spent their first summer together as apprentices on a homestead organic farm in Maine and have worked on CSAs and small farms in California and New York.

Metzger has a background in physics and was a teacher in the Chicago area before returning to his hometown of Shelbyville in 2009. Mrs. Metzger has a background in environmental science, but both decided that they really wanted to be farmers, she said.

"The major motivation was that I wanted to eat good food," she said. "I'm a food snob."

The only part missing from the equation was the business aspect, so they enrolled in Central Illinois Farm Beginnings classes through The Land Connection, an Illinois-based nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting agricultural heritage by educating farmers and the public.

The classes provided them with the business skills to run a farm, including budgeting, licensing requirements and writing a business plan, Mrs. Metzger said.

"You have to think about your farm as a business," she said. "They (classes) made us much better farmers in the long run."

As any farmer knows, everything can change with the weather, which is what led to a somewhat difficult season last year due to a drought. The Metzgers hope to maintain a more even level of produce for the CSA and farmers market this year, she said.

"We wound up giving people more then their $400 worth, but some weeks were smaller than others," she said.

Should the area reach drought conditions again, the Metzgers plan to plant seedlings in flats in the greenhouse rather then directly in the ground and use irrigation lines that were installed last year.

Last year, the Metzgers offered 25 memberships and have upped the number to 40 this season. CSA memberships for the upcoming season are still available.

"We're trying to expand every year," Mrs. Metzger said. "We would like to get to a 100-member CSA."

Another goal the couple hope to reach originates from their summer in Maine, where they used horses rather then machinery on the farm.

"That's our long-term dream — to be a horse-powered farm," she said.

Information from: Mattoon Journal-Gazette, http://www.jg-tc.com

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