Creating ‘a culture of health’: Farm shares offer diversity of food in rural communities

By ZACK DeLUCA, Staff Writer, The Recorder, 9/20/2019 

Noticing a missing link in the burgeoning local food chain, Ben Lester established the first-ever local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business, the Pioneer Valley Heritage Grain Share, in 2008. Since then, it has supported the growth and health of both subscribers and farmers while strengthening the community that holds it all together.

Whether the product is fruits and vegetables, grains or even meat, CSA sales develop a direct consumer-producer relationship that sees consumers investing in nearby farms. Through CSAs, farmers receive necessary pre-season financial support. These early, bulk payments allow farms to plan for their season, repair equipment and purchase seeds or greenhouse supplies.

In addition to creating a convenient system of sales between farmers, people who contribute to farms through CSAs are encouraged to develop healthier eating habits.

“Our summer share is 20 weeks long and research shows that’s enough time for significant behavioral changes,” said Rochelle Bellin, associate director of Just Roots Farm.

On average, a person’s diet consists of too much meat and not enough fruits and vegetables. Farm share participants, though, enjoy different offerings each week as new crops come into season, allowing for a varied yet consistently high-quality diet.

“Local farms are a part of public health,” Bellin said. “If we can be a positive resource to create a culture of health over the course of 20 weeks, that can really create a change for people.”

Increasing demand for fresh produce

Just Roots Farm is a nonprofit organization with the goal of increasing knowledge about, and demand for, local food in Franklin County. In addition to its farm share sales, Just Roots offers educational programs and events to support their mission.

Over the last few years, the demand for access to local food has grown significantly, with approximately 200 share members. In 2017, Just Roots grew its CSA shares by 50 percent, with 60 percent of its total memberships falling under the supported share program serving low-income customers.

“Finances is the main barrier people face for access to local food,” Bellin said.

A full share, which costs $500 to $800, feeds approximately three to five people and includes nine items of choice each week. Small shares at $270, or $54 per month, feed one to three people and including six items each week. Both share sizes run for 20 weeks, June 12 to Oct. 23. Winter shares are also available.

Just Roots is the largest Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enrolled CSA in the state, accepting federal assistance for food access. It also recognizes the Healthy Incentive Program (HIP), which provides a rebate when buying fruits or vegetables from local farms. Bellin said these programs are at risk of being cut, and Just Roots is advocating for them at state levels, because they allow local farms to be part of public health solutions.

“People wouldn’t keep coming back if they weren’t experiencing the benefits,” Lester said. “Generally, local products are higher quality, and I think it has a large impact on how well you feel.”

Filling a void

Lester, who previously ran Wheatberry bakery and café in Amherst, started the Heritage Grain Share to directly target consumers, specifically people who wanted access to fresh grains. Until the cafe closed in 2014, Lester said he purchased many of his ingredients through local vegetable and meat CSAs. However, he couldn’t find anything similar for grains because they were too expensive. Noticing the need for a local grain CSA, Lester filled the void.

Lester’s program was established as New England’s first CSA for grains, featuring 22 types of heirloom and ancient grains, beans and flours.

“We have these alternative distribution systems in CSAs for people who care about quality — like the taste, nutrition and connection to real people who grow the food they eat,” Lester said.

Now, the Heritage Grain Share has grown to serve up to 400 members throughout the Northeast. A half-share, a year’s supply for one or two people, costs $190 and consists of 40 to 50 pounds of mix-and-match grains, beans and flours. A full share costs $375 and is 90 to 100 pounds. Locally, the share is distributed from Brookfield Farm in Amherst once a year. For the coming year, residents can sign up between now and December to purchase a share membership.

“There is a general growth in market demand as more people follow the values that come with CSAs,” Lester said. “The difference (in quality) compared to what you can get at the supermarket is significant.”

Another farm working to increase accessibility of local food is Atlas Farm. Inspired by prior experiences on CSA farms and challenges facing the modern food system, owner Gideon Porth began farming to connect people more closely to their food sources.

The farm started in Montague in 2004 and now cover 95 acres of owned and leased land, with its main farm in Deerfield. The farm store opened in 2013. Atlas Farm operates year-round, harvesting from its fields daily from May to November, and the store is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Atlas’ goal is to provide the community with the freshest local produce possible, all year long.

Store Manager Rosemary Bateman said Atlas Farm offers a flexible farm share in the form of a swipe card. Members can choose from three different value cards for their plan, and participants receive special discounts.

Meats expand CSA options

Atlas Farm serves as a pick-up location for Hettie Belle Farm, a CSA meat farm in Warwick. Hettie Belle Farm is a small-scale family farm that raises 100 percent grass-fed beef and lamb as well as pastured and organically-fed pork and chicken.

With a commitment to sustainable agriculture and the local economy, Hettie Belle Farm offers high-quality products with the goal of creating a healthy life around the natural rhythms of the life cycle.

“The whole operation is a fairly closed cycle,” said owner Olivier Flagollet.

Flagollet and his wife, Jennifer, have been operating their farm in Warwick for about 10 years now. Being a small operation, they have grown according to what they can handle. The farm began with roughly 40 shares and has since grown to have up to 150 regular share customers. Shares consist of an equitable distribution of higher-end cuts, roasts and ground meat.

Monthly pick-up sizes are designed to fit in a standard freezer and provide a healthy diet’s portion of meats. Shares are frozen at a USDA-approved facility in Athol for storage and distribution. Each pick-up consist of at least two types of meat. Often, Jennifer will include a recipe guide for customers so they know how to incorporate different meats or cuts into their diet.

“It’s important not to overindulge, but to eat high-quality food and use all of the cuts from the animal,” Flagollet said. “Don’t just take the best and leave the rest.”

Hettie Belle also accepts monthly payment plans and SNAP benefits. A full share costs $630 and is comprised of 65 pounds of product, distributed over five monthly pick-ups from November to March. A small share costs $480 and is comprised of 45 pounds of product, distributed over three monthly pick-ups from November to January. Summer shares are also available, and include 15 pounds of grillable meats, distributed once in the summer.

Zack DeLuca joined the Greenfield Recorder in July. He covers Northfield, Warwick, Bernardston and Leyden. Reach him at 413-772-0261, ext. 264 or