Just Roots, Souped Up: Community Farming Initiative Grows

The Recorder, January 14th, 2016, by Richie Davis

Just Roots is branching out.

With a new management approach, a first-time soup CSA and plans for more shares this summer along with pick-your-own crops, the community farming initiative expects to begin planting its first onions, scallions and leeks in the greenhouse next month, according to Jessica Van Steensburg, whose position has gone from co-director to farm director.

The farm has also hired an assistant farm manager to help manager Aaron Drysdale work with three apprentices, as the farm moves to a five full-time farming team rather than relying on mostly student volunteers.

The three interns starting in April, selected from a pool of candidates from around the country and even outside the United States, were attracted as much by the mission as by the farm work, said Drysdale, pointing to the fact that 60 percent of CSA shares are subsidized by other farm members.

Van Steensburg said Just Roots is still discussing whether to continue internship programs beginning in July with the Greenfield Community College, the Franklin County House of Correction and the University of Massachusetts, whose internship program brought Drysdale to the farm off Glenbrook Drive.

The new model is designed to boost efficiency and improve learning for the apprentices, who will be from Ohio, California and Northampton for seven months, she said. Meanwhile, with help from a three-year United Way of Franklin County grant, Just Roots is also developing “growing units” — a set of curriculum for kindergarten and grades 3 and 5 that look at three outdoor themes from three developmental levels.

The three themes — chickens and birds, soils and seeds, slugs and bugs — are scheduled to be tested this spring in Greenfield schools and then revised with hope of developing an nature-based learning programs at schools around the county, said Greenfield Center School co-founder Jay Lord, who until this year was Just Roots founding co-director and is now its part-time finance director and program developer.

With another grant — $100,000 over two years from Baystate Franklin Medical Center’s Community Benefits Council — Just Roots is developing a business plan to offer frozen soups made locally from mostly locally grown produce like the carrot ginger, butternut apple curry, asparagus leek rice, and three other varieties now being sold to Turners Falls and Greenfield high schools and as part of a 75-share soup CSA launched in the fall.

As the second year of the initiative wraps up with soups being made in 500-gallon batches at the Greenfield Food Processing Center, said Van Steensburg, the hope is to develop relationships with local farmers to plan crops in advance and supply enough ingredients, a business plan that can be replicated in other communities, with an evolving array of tested soup recipes and working out production kinks to meet demand.

“Once we do that, the sky’s the limit,” Van Steensburg said. “Soup is something everyone gets excited about when they hear about it, but we need to figure out production to meet the demand.”

The long-range plan is that research can be done on health indicators that can then be used to convince health insurers to subsidize those memberships as a preventive health benefit, similar to fitness club membership.

“We’re basically creating a social enterprise that’s going to try to get soup into the community because soup is very healthy,” said Lord.

Along with a new management structure, Just Roots is planning to offer on-farm distribution of its CSA shares, which it hopes to increase from 150 to 200 for the coming growing season. Shares will continue to be distributed in the alley next to Green Fields Market as well as at the Greenfield Senior Center, where the Community Health Center of Franklin County hopes to offer blood-pressure testing and blood-pressure screening as well as nutrition consulting as part of the weekly distribution.

Sixty percent of the farm’s CSA shares are subsidized, and distribution downtown is still necessary because of transportation issues for many of its low-income members, said Van Steensburg, but having on-farm distribution will give people an opportunity to be more connected to the six or seven acres where their food is grown as well as allow for pick-your-own crops.