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
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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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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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



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

One freezer lamb



Raw Jersey organic milk


One sheep pelt

Up to 12 skeins of yarn


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:

Typically, the customers go to the farm, a farmers market or designated drop-off point to pick up their share of food. Sometimes, it's been boxed up for them, and there's no choice. Other CSAs allow customers to choose whatever they want from the farm stand, with limits on certain products so there will be enough to go around.

Christine Mayer, program manager at the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., which maintains a national database of more than 1,600 farm CSAs, said one of the latest trends is a cooperative model where two or more farms band together so they can offer customers a more diverse array of foods. She had not heard of an all-you-can-eat model.

"I think it's amazing that the farmers there are willing to take this leap of faith," she said. "It really says a lot about this whole movement."

Schiller and Straw already offer a $200 share in which a customer gets farm-stand credit. The new, all-you-can-eat model is similar to the Essex Farm model. Here's how it works:

The CSA is year-round, but for the first year, Schiller and Straw are asking for an initial payment that covers just seven months, from June through December. The seven-month cost for a single adult is $2,355. Add another adult in the household for $1,665. (Everyone in a household must join.)

Children ages 3 and under eat for free, and children ages 4 and older eat for $100 per age year. (For example, food for a 6-year-old would cost an extra $600.)

Customers can pay the whole sum up front or split it into quarterly or monthly payments. Make the full payment by June 1, and get 10 percent off. Make it by Sept. 1, and get 5 percent off.

Mayer said the all-you-can-eat plan appears to offer the farmers "quite sizeable operating capital. Any farm would be happy with that at the beginning of a season."

"I think that's a wonderful way to go about this, charging per person in the household," she said. "It makes a lot of sense."

Customers will collect their food at the Newcastle farm or at the farmers markets in Portland or Rockland. After the farmers market season is over, orders can be placed online, and the food will be delivered to drop-off points in Portland or Rockland.


But what about the all-you-can-eat part of the plan? Is it truly all-you-can-eat? Will customers take so much food that it eats up the farm's profits?

Schiller said the reason she's only asking for a seven-month payment is that she wants to closely track what people are taking and how much, in case she needs to make some price adjustments in December for the winter months.

She realizes some people might not be comfortable with a potential price increase down the line, so while she is asking for a year's commitment to the program, no one will be required to sign a contract.

"We could go on our sales records and predict what people may take for the first seven months, but we really wanted to see how it works," Schiller said. "Part of the cost for the first person in the household is you do get a whole lamb for your freezer, custom cut, and a sheep skin and some yarn and some other things that add more to the per-week cost."

Schiller and Straw are also planning some on-farm activities just for their CSA customers. The second Tuesday of every month, a mobile pizza oven will come to the farm and bake pizzas for "a lively picnic." There will be canning workshops during growing season, and sleigh rides in the winter.

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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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