When it comes to growing and buying fruits and vegetables, we all know that there many ways to go about it. This summer I discovered a new (to me) way of gathering delicious fruits, vegetables, and honey that fits me and my lifestyle perfectly – buying directly from local farms with a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. They are gaining serious local popularity! I chose Wake Robin Farm’s CSA.
I’d like to thank Ryan, Adam, and Amanda of Wake Robin Farm for allowing me to pick their brain on things farming and food related – namely, to understand how a CSA works, why buying local matters, to learn what goes on behind the scenes and to meet the hearts behind the food.
Welcome, Ryan, Adam, and Amanda! Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us yourselves, your farm, and what you do.
To begin, can you explain how a CSA works?
Community Supported Agriculture works as a mutually beneficial, direct partnership between the grower and the consumer. The consumer commits to purchasing produce from the farm for the season, becoming a “shareholder”. They receive “shares” in the form of a weekly bounty of the freshest, highest quality fruits and vegetables harvested from the farm. The farmer is given a guaranteed market for their produce, and is able to calculate how much to grow and how much to harvest based on how many members they have. So virtually nothing goes to waste.
How/when can people sign up?
Generally you sign up for a CSA in late winter. The idea is that the shareholders pay upfront for the season, many months before the CSA begins. By doing so in late winter, the shareholders are helping to cover the farmer’s upfront expenses for the season such as seeds, compost and necessary equipment. There is actually a National CSA Sign Up Day, February 28th. People can sign up on our website. We do offer several alternative payment options. CSAs have limits as to how many members they can take on for a season and its not uncommon to see waiting lists. We are at capacity with 75 members this year, but will be looking to expand in the future.
What fruits and vegetables might one see in their weekly/bi-weekly bags? Do you have a specialty?
Each week we try to include a variety of root vegetables, leafy greens, fruiting vegetables, fruits and fresh herbs. An example of one week’s bag might look like this: Heirloom Tomatoes, Royal Burgundy Bush Beans, Candy Cane Beets, Buttercrunch Lettuce, Hakurei Turnips, Sweet Basil, Redbor Kale, Purple Haze Carrots and Mini Watermelon. The beauty of a CSA is that you are eating with the changing seasons. You are eating produce that is ready when nature intended it to be, when the crop is at peak flavour and nutritional value. So in the spring you are eating cool weather crops like peas and spinach. In the summer you are eating heat loving crops like tomatoes and peppers. In the fall you are eating long season crops like Winter Squash and Leeks.
This is only our second year farming commercially so we are far from perfecting any crop. We love to grow garlic. We grow many different gourmet varieties from mellow to extremely spicy and everything in-between on the taste bud spectrum. Pulling a garlic plant from the ground that was planted as a clove the previous fall, knocking off the dirt and peeling away the outer skin to reveal a large, beautiful, aromatic purple striped bulb is extremely satisfying.
We have a berry orchard that we planted last fall that hasn’t produced much this year but we are hoping to be able to offer an array of berries once the plants become established. We have 3 varieties of Red Raspberries, Black Raspberries, Golden Raspberries, Blackberries, Tayberries, Haskaps and Gojis. In addition to fruits and vegetables we also offer our own raw honey, cut flowers, mushrooms and firewood.
What are some of the common misconceptions surrounding CSAs?
Perhaps a misconception is that they are unaffordable for many families. As I mentioned before, with a traditional CSA you pay upfront for the entire season. However, we have made it more affordable for our members by allowing monthly or weekly payments. We also allow our members to skip any week they like, and we also offer an option to receive a bi-weekly share.
Another misconception might be that CSA’s aren’t for picky eaters. With most traditional CSA’s, you are given what is available on the farm that week and don’t have any say in the items you are receiving. We think that model is limiting, and that it takes a specific type of eater to buy a bag of produce without knowing what’s in it. So we have developed a unique system where our members can fully customize their orders. They can subtract, substitute or add from a big list of everything that is available at the farm in a given week. We use an online ordering program called Farmigo.
Can people Cancel their subscription?
Our members can cancel their subscription anytime.
What does a typical day/week look like for Wake Robin Farm?
A lot of planting, pruning, weeding, harvesting, washing, weighing, packing. We hand weed our 2 acres of gardens by hand with a wheel hoe every 4 days. In order to have a constant supply of lettuce, for example, we start hundreds of new lettuce plants from seed in the greenhouse every 15 days. After 30 days in the greenhouse the lettuce then gets transplanted into the garden. 40 days after that the lettuce is harvested and a new crop is immediately planted in its place. So there is always a constant cycle of starting seeds, weeding, transplanting and harvesting. However from the time a plant goes into the garden from the time it is harvested there is a lot of careful intervention required. Different plants have different nutrient requirements. Making sure a plant has adequate amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, secondary nutrients and micronutrients in the soil is imperative if a plant is going to thrive. Different plants have different watering requirements so attentiveness to irrigation is required daily. Growing organically can be very challenging. We are always scouting our plants for insect damage and using proactive organic methods to prevent insect damage. An entire crop can become unsaleable very quickly from insects like aphids and flea beetles if not monitored daily.
Does Wake Robin Farm sell fruits and vegetables elsewhere?
To date we have sold our produce exclusively through our CSA program and it has worked well. We think the model of selling directly to the eater is win-win. Instead of trying to produce fruits and vegetables on a large scale, requiring tons of land and expensive machinery and selling the produce at a wholesale price to a middle man, by growing on a smaller scale we are able to really focus on quality and presentation, get better pricing, and are able to get our produce on our customer’s tables within a few hours of being harvested.
Behind the Scenes
How did you guys get started with Wake Robin Farm?
It was just always a dream we had. We come from a very outdoorsy family. I had always worked outdoorsy jobs like tree planting and landscaping. The farm came to fruition out of a strong resistance to work a typical 9 to 5 office job. So my brothers and I cleared two acres of Buckthorn by hand one fall on our property in Parkhill and have been going full throttle with it ever since.
We learned of a gentleman named Jean-Martin Fortier who was making a very good living farming on less than 2 acres in Quebec without any major machinery. Over 10 years he had developed these extremely efficient techniques, getting huge yields from small spaces using intensive spacing and fully proving that small scale organic farming can be profitable. He wrote a book called “The Market Gardener” that became our guide and inspiration. He is a bit of a celebrity now. I call him the Brad Pitt of farming.
How do you feel about the quote, ” The future of agriculture depends on attracting young talent by making them realise what a modern, challenging career it is.” – David Fursdon
I like that quote. For decades the number of farms has been rapidly declining and the average age of farmers has been steadily rising. Farm operators under 35 are a rare breed. There is a huge barrier to entry into conventional farming given the sky-high costs of prime farmland and equipment such as combines and tractors. But there needs to be a shift towards local small scale farming. Its crazy how much food can be produced on just one acre. The current food systems of genetically modified seeds, pesticide-intensive, monoculture-based agriculture isn’t sustainable. But there is indeed a movement happening right now. More and more young people are being drawn to agriculture because of the lifestyle and are coming up with innovative ways to grow food in small spaces with minimal start up costs.
Why should people sign up for a local CSA?
For the love of food, to live a healthier lifestyle and to support local agriculture. When you sign up for a CSA you are becoming a part of the farming process and you are keeping money in the community. You receive food that is literally as fresh as it gets and you know where it comes from and how it was grown.
A CSA will force you to try new foods and get creative in the kitchen. We include recipes each week. Its really great for busy families who come home from work and have a bag bursting at the seams with healthy, fresh, organic produce waiting for them at their front door.
How do the fruit and vegetables you grow differ from those found at the average supermarket?
We grow interesting, unique heirloom varieties that you wouldn’t find in a grocery store. Our produce has more colour, more flavour and more nutrition than grocery store produce. Our produce doesn’t go through the negative steps of industry that produce from another country went through to get on your table. Most importantly, our produce isn’t grown with chemicals and pesticides. Hope I didn’t sound snooty there, but its true.
How can young people support or get involved in the the local agriculture scene?
There is a great organization called Young Agrarians who put on events, workshops and have volunteer opportunities. Visit the Guelph Organic Conference in February. Be a conscientious consumer. Volunteer at a farm for a day.
How can people get in touch with you?
All of our information can be found on our website, www.wrfarm.ca. We are also on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Thank you so much to Wake Robin Farm. If you are interested in joining Wake Robin Farm’s CSA, keep your eye on their website and social media. There are limited spots available so don’t delay! It is well worth the effort.
Stay tuned for a special recipe featuring Wake Robin Farm’s herbs.