May 9, 2012

Soup to Nuts: Community-supported
farming goes buffet in Maine

Two Newcastle farmers are taking the unusual and somewhat scary step of advertising their new year-round agriculture venture as 'all-you-can-eat.'

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Starting in June, Beth Schiller and Lee Straw are taking a gamble.

click image to enlarge

Lee Straw shears sheep as, from left, Cameron Wilson, 7; Eric Small, 7; and Bradley Hoskins, 9, students from Woodside Elementary School in Topsham, observe.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Pork is among the meats that will be offered through the CSA being launched by Dandelion Springs Farm and Straw Farm in Newcastle.

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WHAT'S IN STORE

BETH SCHILLER said the two farms currently grow 37 primary crops, which includes everything but sweet corn, and there's a good mix of hybrids for vigor and heirlooms for flavor. All the vegetables are certified organic. Here's a sampling of what the CSA will offer:

Mixed greens

Prepared mixes of grab-and-go salad greens

More than 40 varieties of tomatoes, mainly heirloom varieties

Dozens of varieties of winter squash

Basic root vegetables such as carrots, beets and potatoes, plus more interesting ones like daikon and different types of turnips

Bunched greens

Peppers

Eggplant

Culinary herbs such as parsley, basil, sage, thyme, cilantro, dill and fennel

One freezer lamb

Beef

Pork

Raw Jersey organic milk

Eggs

One sheep pelt

Up to 12 skeins of yarn

A SPECIAL BREED OF LAMB

As part of their share with the Dandelion Springs and Straw Farm CSA, customers will get one whole, custom-cut lamb for the freezer. These aren't just any lambs. Most of the them come from a heritage breed that lives on a private island in Penobscot Bay. They are the same lambs sold to Fore Street, an award-winning restaurant in the Old Port.

Schiller and Straw have about 110 ewes on the island. The lambs are born there and stay there until fall, when they are brought to the farm for the winter.

"The breed stock has been there for over 200 years, and so they've really been selected to be independent sheep," Schiller said. "We just go out three times a year."

The island is perfect for sheep, Schiller said. There's a lot of pasture but also some woods, and an area where fresh water collects. The terroir results in a lean but flavorful meat.

"Everyone who tastes them has a different description," Schiller said. "Some people say they can really taste the saltiness. The lambs eat a lot of kelp. But I think, in general, people might find their flavor to be fresh and more mild than they would traditional farm-raised lamb, because it's often the grain that sheep eat that cause them to have a stronger, almost musky flavor. These don't have it; it's a very clean flavor."

TO LEARN MORE about the CSA, go to: dandelionspringfarm.wordpress.com/year-round-csa

The two farmers, owners of Dandelion Springs Farm and Straw Farm in Newcastle, are starting the state's first year-round, all-you-can-eat CSA.

Yes, all you can eat.

Schiller and Straw are betting that the CSA's customers will be willing to pay up front for most of their grocery needs for the year, and then not take advantage of the farm's generous policy that allows them to take as much beef, pork, lamb, milk and vegetables as they want.

The pair even plans to encourage people to take more than they need some weeks, so they'll have enough food to freeze and can for the winter.

Schiller said she is "kind of" nervous about the experiment, but feels lucky that she lives in Maine, where most folks are supportive of innovative efforts to promote local foods.

"The customers we've talked to so far, if anything, are worried they're going to take too much," Schiller said. "I think the scenario is more likely to be that we're going to encourage people that it's OK to take more. I don't think we could get away with this anywhere (else). I haven't gotten any sort of feeling that anyone wants to take advantage of us."

ONE OF A KIND AMONG MAINE CSAs

Maine now has close to 200 community-supported agriculture programs, or CSAs, according to Melissa White Pillsbury, organic marketing coordinator for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. She confirmed that the Newcastle all-you-can-eat CSA is the first of its kind in the state.

There are very few all-you-can-eat CSAs in the rest of the country. Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest.org, a website that maintains a national database of more than 4,000 CSAs, said the only other one she knows of is Essex Farm in New York owned by Kristin and Mark Kimball.

Kristin Kimball is the author of "The Dirty Life," a memoir about the couple's start-up of the farm. The Kimballs call participation in their CSA "a year-round, full diet, free choice membership."

Schiller said she and Straw were inspired in part by Kimball's book, but have also heard of a farm or two in New Hampshire and one in Ithaca, N.Y., that have at least tried the all-you-can-eat model.

Lee Straw grew up in Buxton, and has been farming since the early 1980s. He's best known in the state as a sheep farmer, and has been selling dairy milk since 1998. Schiller grew up west of Augusta. She's been farming on various parcels of leased land in the midcoast since 1998, and at her current property for a couple of years.

Schiller and Straw now work their organic farms as one 50-acre unit, but decided to keep their original farm names because they were already branded that way in the public's mind. ("So think of us as a couple with a hyphenated farm name," Schiller said.)

Schiller and Straw believe that, between their two farms, they have the diversity of products to start a CSA that will serve as a "one-stop shop" for 99 percent of a family's grocery needs.

They already do a lot of retail at farmers markets, but right now, the majority of their products are sold wholesale. They hope the CSA will give them closer relationships with their customers and show those customers the bigger picture of how a farm season works.

CUSTOMERS PAY UP FRONT

Usually, joining a CSA means paying up front for a pre-determined amount of food. The money gives the farmer much-needed capital early in the growing season, and the customer gets to share in the local harvest.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Lee Straw of Straw Farm in Newcastle.

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Pak choi is among the vegetables that will be offered through the CSA being launched by Dandelion Springs Farm and Straw Farm in Newcastle.

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Kelly Wilson, left, and Corinne Beaugard, apprentices at the farms, let the outside air in on a greenhouse of young kale plants.

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Beth Schiller grew up west of Augusta, and has been farming in the midcoast since the late ’90s. She and Lee Straw are now farming their two Newcastle farms as one.

2011 Press Herald File/Gregory Rec

  


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