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February 8, 2014

Villa Maria program lets members share the cost, work and bounty of a community garden

NEW CASTLE — From inside his workplace at The Villa Farm, John Moreira looks out on snow-covered fields.

But already the beginnings of the upcoming growing season have started inside the greenhouse. And in April, those six-packs of frost-tolerant plants such as onions, mesclun, spinach and sweet peas will be transferred into the ground.

Moreira, director of land management at the Villa Farm at the Villa Maria Community Center, is anticipating another successful year of growing everything naturally — produce, flowers and herbs — and to the fourth year for the Community Supported Agriculture or CSA program.

In the 1930s and 1940s, when the economy was lean, people depended on community gardens to put food on the table.

It’s a concept that is popular again.

CSA, also known as subscription farming, consists of individual members who pledge support to the farm, with farmers and members sharing risks and benefits of food production, Moreira said.

In other words, it’s a win/win, he assessed, adding that members become an invested partner with the farm.

Last year, 130 varieties of produce were available for CSA members.

Tauni Caylor, Debra Flint and Bill Adams are shareholders with the CSA, and all enjoy reaping its benefits.

There’s a sense of teamwork one gains while working outside, too.

GARDEN VARIETY

Caylor, of Neshannock Township, likes getting fresh produce and knowing where it comes from.

Last summer, she and her 10-year-old son washed fruit and vegetables, picked blueberries, weeded and weighed produce. Caylor and her husband have five children, and she enjoys seeing the variety of different vegetables.

“We enjoy working, even when it’s hot,” Caylor said.

 Last year, there were 25 families who participated, and Villa Maria Farm is taking applications for 2014. Moreira already has at least five families on board and plans on receiving 25 more member families this year. The deadline for making a contract is April 1.

“We’re providing fresh, naturally raised produce to our most loyal customers,” said Moreira.

Nine acres of the 280-acre farm are devoted to CSA, which is coordinated by Richard Graney, one of the gardeners. The gardens occupy four locations on the property.

As a ministry of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, Villa Maria Farm donates half of its produce to food banks and shelters in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. The farm also grows food for the Villa Maria Community.

“We only sell what we grow,” Moreira pointed out. “And nothing is waxed or sprayed.”

SHARING THE BOUNTIES

To be successful, crops are planted early, mid- and late in the season.

“A CSA member receives the freshest of the fresh,” he said. “They are getting the best. And it’s a real community that came out of this.”

CSA offers several options, including full share, which “liberally” feeds a family of four and requires 20 hours of work on the farm during the 18-week growing season; half share or non-working approach, which is suitable for up to two people; and a herb and culinary flower share — all for the 18-week growing season. There is also a flower share, in which a fresh-cut bouquet of flowers is designed each week for 10 weeks.

Last year, about 30 percent were full-share members, Moreira said.

“Those who work 20 hours as full share receive a discount of $100.”

The produce season typically is from mid-June to mid-October, weather permitting, Moreira said, and work can be anything from weeding, picking produce, planting beds, or preparing for pick-up day.

As a youngster, he helped his great-uncle pick potatoes for his farm market and learned early on what is involved in the entire farming process.

Adams could be called the blueberry man.

He loves them. There are bags of the berries in his freezer. And even though picking blueberries could get tiring after awhile, full-share member Adams, who gardens at his home in Poland, Ohio, said he, his wife and two-year-old son really enjoy spending time on the farm. The variety of offerings also pleases him.

“Sometimes it’s hard to find produce that hasn’t been sprayed, so this is a big plus because it’s non-pesticide food,” Adams noted. “And it’s fun to get things you wouldn’t necessarily get at the store.”

COMMUNITY SPIRIT

Flint, an Eastbrook resident, is happy to support a local farm.

A vegetarian who likes to be adventuresome with produce, Flint has done a working share since the onset. She joined partly to continue promoting her good health but also was looking for a community to spend time working with others.

She found it at The Villa Farm.

“There are so many rewards to this. It’s good food and something worthwhile to do.”

Moreira said CSAs started becoming vogue in the late 1990s.

“The produce industry has very little mark-up so a small farmer can’t rely on selling wholesale but needs to go into retail as much as possible,” he explained, adding the farm has been marketing to the local public for 20 years, but he wanted to increase the sales aspect of that market.

CSAs were the answer.

Natalie Terry, a Humility of Mary volunteer and Americorps member, and Sister Maryann Golonka helped Moreira start the CSA.

“Everything fell into place. It fit hand in glove.”

While partaking of fresh, naturally grown produce is a real asset, a sense of accomplishment is another plus.

“You are later picking what you planted earlier and you’re a part of why this is here,” Moreira said.

Caylor, a full-share member, mentioned, “By buying produce grown in this region, we’re supporting local people, getting fresh produce and becoming more aware of the process that is involved.”

Adams said, “It’s an event in itself picking up the food. The produce is why you go. But the icing on the cake is that Villa Maria is a sweet little place.”

(Email: lhudson@ncnewsonline.com.)

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