Ralph and Lisa Turner started Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport in 1997 and were at the vanguard of the community supported agriculture movement, in which customers commit to pay a set amount for a share of what the farm produces each year. The farm currently has about 250 CSA members in the summer and about 110 in the winter, when the Turners raise vegetables in greenhouses. The cost for summer (early June through mid-October) shares ranges from $375 to $575, depending on how many items a customer wants each week. The farm is currently growing on 12 acres in the summer and in greenhouses that cover a third of an acre in winter. The couple was recently honored with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s 2014 Commissioner’s Distinguished Service Award.

Except where indicated, Lisa Turner answered the questions.

Q: What was your farm like when you started?

A: It was incredibly small. It was like a fifth of an acre. I had three kids at home, so it was what I could do with three kids. That’s a giant home garden, about 80 feet by 100 feet. The question (with a plot that size) is, do you make more money than your annual expenses and do you see a path forward? There was net income on an annual basis. I knew people in town and asked if they wanted to be in a CSA and then sold to a couple of restaurants. At first, we used all our own land and then we started using other people’s land. Now we plant on 12 acres (owned and leased). It’s not contiguous, but it’s all in Freeport.

Q: Do you feel like you knew what people wanted, so you were able to plant vegetables that were in high demand?

A: Oh God no, not at all. The first year, I took what I had done in the home garden and just multiplied it, but I ended up with tremendous numbers of peas, which are hard to pick, and you don’t make much money on them. Talking to restaurants and talking to people, after the first year, I figured it out really quick. It was mainly going to the restaurants and asking them, “What do you want that you’re not already getting from local farmers?” Now, we do a lot of mesclun and arugula and lettuce stuff because we do a lot for restaurants. Heirloom tomatoes are a big seller in the summer and having a diversity of stuff is important – you have regular carrots, but then you also have rainbow carrots and baby carrots. You need to give people a choice.

Q: Has the operation grown every year?

A: It’s been good, solid steady growth. I want to say we’ve averaged 10 to 15 percent growth a year. It was 30 percent the first few years. I would not have expected the whole local food movement to be what it is. The restaurants were very interested and that was more solid than the direct-to-consumer stuff.

Q: Are you two still out in the field all the time?

A: It’s built to the point where I manage the business, Ralph does capital improvements and repairs and we’re both doing smaller pieces of the actual production. It’s evolved over time.

Q: Did it develop like you expected?

A: It’s completely different. My vision was I was going to be a gardener and sell what I grew, but Ralph had the business degree and he said, “If we are going to do enough to support the family, here’s what we have to do,” and his was the push that got it to the scale that it needed to be. One of the lessons I learned is that your business is not going to do more than you ask it to do and you don’t make money by accident.

Q: What’s the biggest problem you face?

A: The weather can be terrifying, like in 2009 when we got half a year’s rainfall in six weeks. You’re not expecting it in June. But since 2009 we’ve done a lot of stuff, like raised beds to try to mitigate the effects of a terrible, horrible rain year again. You do what you can and you cross your fingers.

Then it was 6 degrees below (zero) this week and we do grow year-round in heated greenhouses, where there’s two sheets of plastic between it being warm enough for the plants and 6 below. We don’t go away for long in the winter if it’s going to be really cold. So, it’s got all the regular sets of challenges that any small business does, like finding help and hoping the financial basis is sold, and then there’s weather.

Q: Is all your produce organic?

A: We use all organic methods. We are certified for some things. You can pay for the certifying and the extra costs and use fertilizer that costs five times more, but then the guy next to you can try to say he’s organic and you’re not. It’s annoying. We’re going to do everything organic, but we’re not going to get certified in everything.

Q: It seems like the number of farms of your size doing CSAs is growing quickly in Maine.

A: There’s definitely more people interested in it and the farmers markets are booming, too, and I’m starting to see more farm stands. There’s more interest from consumers in buying local because you’re getting food that tastes better. The whole point is that the food tastes good and that ought to be what you get in local food.

Q: Is it reaching a saturation point?

A: I think there’s some saturation at the price point we’re at now. It’s not cheap. I remember as a kid, my parents going to a farmers market in Pennsylvania and buying bushels of tomatoes. You’re not seeing that now at the price point we’re at, but to get the price down, you need equipment. We cut mesclun by going out in the field with a knife and then we put it in a plastic bucket, but in California, they have laser-leveled fields and a self-propelled machine to harvest it, so they’re getting it off the field for pennies a pound.

A: Ralph Turner: You’d like see the demand increase like the supply has. Over the last five years, the supply has increased, especially at the price we’re at, but it’s been higher than demand, so that’s changed the market. Hopefully, it will balance out and our approach is to work on the price point and get the price down through automation.

Q: Those three little kids have grown now. Are any of them working at the farm and is there any interest from them in taking it over?

A: Two of them are really unlikely and one is still in college and is a nutrition major. She needs to work in a clinical setting to get her registered dietitian’s certificate and so she’s got one set of fingers crossed that she’ll get that and one set of fingers crossed that she doesn’t, so she can farm again. Sometimes you see kids come back to the farm when they’re older. I just want them to find what they like.

Q: Can the state be doing more to help farm operations like yours?

A: Ralph Turner: One of the things that doesn’t get talked about is the need for farmers to advocate for farmers. There seems to be a lot of advocacy groups that claim to be advocating for farmers, but they have other missions, like environmental people and food sovereignty people and others. There’s really only one group in the state advocating only for farmers and that’s the Maine Farm Bureau. There are a lot of good ideas out there, but the people with those ideas need to engage more with people who farm. They’re not bad ideas, but in order for farming to be sustainable, we have to earn enough this year to be able to farm next year. That’s the guiding principle. We can be organic and sustainable and have conservation and maintain open spaces and pay property taxes, but we have to be able to earn a living.

Q: What was it like to get that big award from the state?

A: It’s kind of like a lifetime achievement award which says, I guess, that we’re getting old. But it’s a big honor.

Q: How did you come up with the name for your farm?

A: We originally heard it on an episode of “Prairie Home Companion” years ago and we both thought it was funny and tucked it away and said if we ever did anything agricultural, that would be the name of the farm. We’ve since found out a lot of other people had the same idea and it’s a very common farm name. There’s a Laughing Stock Farm that does maple syrup in Vermont, there’s one in Minnesota that raises goats, there’s a bunch of others around the country. We’ve really gotten nothing but positive comments about it and it hasn’t prevented people from taking us seriously.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com