Consumers purchase stakes in Cherry Tree farm's crops
Investors in one Indiana County business get their dividends in vegetables instead of cash, and that's exactly the way they want it.
The Davis family farm near Cherry Tree began offering shares of its harvest two years ago in a community-supported agriculture plan, and the endeavor has been very successful so far.
In the farm's CSA plan, members buy either a full share for $300 or a half share for $150 in the spring. In return, a box of fresh vegetables is delivered to them every week for 18 weeks beginning in late May. A full share is good for a family while a half share provides plenty of vegetables for a couple or single person.
Tom Davis, who operates the farm with his wife, Michele, and his parents, Kleo and Edna, said he had just eight members participating in the program last year, but that number grew to 28 this year.
Davis is the third generation of his family to farm the 120-acre property. He said it began as a dairy farm 80 years ago, then eventually became a beef farm and greenhouse business. The family ran the greenhouse in the traditional manner, raising flower and produce plants from seed and selling them.
But, he said, “The last couple years in the greenhouse business were really rough. The costs were up and the sales were down. I knew I had to either change something or shut it down.”
Davis had been producing plants for a nearby farmer's CSA operation. When that farmer opted out of the program, Davis decided to take it over.
“It was a good move,” he said. “I start my own plants in the greenhouse and it gives me an earlier, longer growing season. With the CSA program, I can make good use of what I have here.”
Among the many vegetables Davis grows are tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, beets, cabbage, cucumbers, zucchini, broccoli, green and yellow beans, squash, kohlrabi, onions, cauliflower and peas. He also grows fresh herbs.
The box a member gets every week will contain whatever is in season. “There's always at least five different things in a share, usually more,” Davis said.
The amount of produce a member gets varies with the time of year just as the produce itself does. “The shares are smaller in early spring when there isn't as much ready to harvest. They get bigger as the summer goes on,” Davis explained.
He said he also sometimes includes eggs that he buys them from a neighbor. He has plans to build a chicken coop this fall so he can start including his own eggs in his shares. He also plans to plant strawberries in the spring so he can add them to future shares.
Davis is not a certified organic farmer because the process of obtaining certification from the United States Department of Agriculture is very expensive, but he raises his produce organically.
“My produce is naturally raised under organic guidelines,” he said. “I start my own plants from seed so I know how they were raised and I don't use any chemical sprays. When spraying is necessary, I use organic sprays.”
Along with growing his produce naturally, Davis is particular about how and when he harvests it. “Our produce is vine-ripened and we don't pick anything until the day before we deliver it so we know it will be fresh,” he said.
The produce for the 28 members is delivered to drop-off points in Cherry Tree, Indiana, Homer City and Ebensburg. “Right now, we only have subscribers in Indiana and Cambria counties, but we hope to add more in the future,” Davis said. “We have one member who is an hour away, so we meet her halfway with her produce.”
In addition to running the farm, Davis delivers heating oil to farms and homes for William Satterlee. Michele works at Select Specialty Hospital in Johnstown but still manages to find time to help with the harvesting. Edna handles most of the deliveries.
The farm's website (davissfarm.intuitwebsites.com) is updated to let members know what they will be receiving in their share each week. It also has recipes for using the produce and guidelines for freezing and preserving it if there is more than the shareholder can use.
Barb Croce of Indiana is one of the Davis farm shareholders. Her home is a drop-off point where 18 members come to pick up their produce shares every Thursday.
“This is my second year with the program and I think it is just wonderful,” Croce said. “It has caused me to experiment with foods that I wouldn't have bought like beets, kohlrabi and eggplant. I never had them before, but now I love them. I also enjoy cooking with whatever is in season and watching the produce change with the seasons.”
Croce bought a full share of produce and said it provides her with plenty to eat fresh and to freeze. “I'm still eating things I put in the freezer from last year,” she said.
Lorraine Guth, a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is enjoying her first year as a member of the Davis farm CSA.
“I love the fact that we're part of CSA,” she said. “The produce is excellent, very fresh. And it's a nice surprise to see what will be in the box each week. I toured the farm at their recent open house and I was really impressed with the care Tom takes. He's very dedicated.
“I grew up in Philadelphia and moved to Indiana. It's really awesome to come from the city to a community that has farms. In Philly you had to pay money to look at a farm. It would be nice to see this program grow and see more of the community benefiting from it.”
Kathy Trevorrow of Indiana, is a second-year member of the CSA program and said she's so happy with it she brought three other people in as members and gave a share to a neighbor as a gift.
“This is a wonderful service,” she said. “I like the way the vegetables are grown and harvested. I recently got a head of lettuce in my share that was bigger than a watermelon and every bit of it was good. This is such a nice way to try the vegetables that are in season.”
Davis isn't sure exactly where the program will go in the future, but he has many options he is looking at. He is considering offering shares of the beef raised on the farm, spring and winter shares of greenhouse-raised greens and larger shares for farm-to-table restaurants.
“If we keep growing and keep our shareholders, we'll keep doing this,” he said. “I'm doing what I enjoy doing.”
Jeanette Wolff is a freelance writer.