By Francesca Camillo.
There is a duality to the benefits of CSA, and nearly every point in the food network receives gains. People in the community are better able to forge strong relationships with the farmers producing food around them, and food is distributed and enjoyed locally.
Spiral Path Farm, owned by Michael (Mike) and Terra Brownback, is a prolific organic farm resting on silt loam and flinty soil in western Pennsylvania’s Perry County. Although neither had deep agrarian family roots, plucking from and merging a dedication to the land from their respective histories, they’ve created robust, fruitful environs on the original 56 acres when the farm was established in 1978. That eventually swelled to the current 255 acres when they were able to acquire adjacent land.
The farm is broken into two sections, making approximately 160 acres of the total 255 tillable and ready to support their meticulous rotational scheme.
“We do tillage on vegetable land,” said Mike, making about 80 acres prime for vegetables. “The rest of the land is in semi-permanent fallow. We have a lot of good buffers that are woodland.” The remainder of untilled acreage is “very important because it’s part of our watershed and helps with infiltration and recharges our aquifer.”
Spiral Path Farm is situated within the Susquehanna River Watershed and is part of the Tonoloway Formation, which houses a limestone aquifer.
The family takes pride in being mindful of the synergy between the health of the land and their interactions with it, ensuring a balance between input and output.
“It’s a flint soil, so the stones are very hard,” said Mike. “If we till in the evening, you can see the sparks coming off of the ground. It’s a very abrasive soil, but it has good porosity.”
The Brownbacks’ decision to become certified organic more than 20 years ago is also a boon to the groundwater supply.
“It’s my responsibility to catch every inch of rain that falls on my land and try to get it to infiltrate so that I have access to it in the future,” said Brownback.
They employ a rigorous rotational scheme for their fields and rotate the vegetable crops by family.
“I’m in the process of rotating out of my spring crops, squash and cucumber. We have to grow as many as five types of squash to stay in the market for the season. They’re planted in the end of April and are (or starting to be) done by mid-July. We follow those crops typically with our fall brassicas: possibly broccoli, cabbage, bunching greens — all type of kale and collards — and we always plant those crops on bare ground (no plastic).”
In order to make the transition into the next phase of cultivation a smooth one, the Brownbacks work off of what is currently in the ground.
“We plant in a way that, at the last cultivation, we can overseed with a cover crop. We really like crimson clover, which needs to go in early. This cropping scheme allows those cover crops to not interfere with the crops harvested for market.”
As summer segues into autumn, some fields at Spiral Path Farm are covered in clover. “You have a later opportunity with clover. We have to get it in by very early September. Then we switch to rye and hairy vetch,” said Brownback.
Through experimentation, the Brownbacks have formed new methods of cultivation that produce vegetables to nicely complement their CSA boxes. This is most notable with the way that they harvest kale.
“We’ve learned to let the kale flower,” and not cut the tops, as is done traditionally.
In their temperate climate, the kale rests through the winter and is reinvigorated in the spring, making it a young kale that, according to Brownback, is “very succulent and tender.”
By giving the crop more time, the Brownbacks learned that “it creates an absolutely unprecedented opportunity for pollinators.” While the pollinators were arriving in their fields in the early spring, they were also “getting predator insects,” said Brownback. “We’re creating a lot of habitat through this. It’s a semi-intentional means of pest management because we’re trying to mimic natural processes and not just clean the fields. We want to let the cover crops grow.”
This complements their desire to minimize using external inputs.
“We try not to add nitrogen onto the fields, and instead we want to grow it. There are challenges with intense rotations in vegetables, but we’re learning that it’s a viable system.”
This system has also been helpful with managing specific pests. The brown marmorated stink bug (halyomorpha halys) has been a problem throughout the area. According to Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, the bug was not previously seen on our continent and was first collected in September 1998 after accidentally being introduced in eastern Pennsylvania. Perry was one of 37 confirmed counties as of September 2010.
“We’ve found that stink bugs get drawn in. We’ve had them here forever. We haven’t noticed any increase in the brown marmorated stink bug, and have always had some damage from it. We’ve found that if we keep those particular fields clean, try to cultivate as long as possible and trying not to have weeds between those rows really helps.”
Another means by which the Brownbacks manage pests is using the Tricagamma wasp. The wasps arrive in weekly shipments and Brownback makes his rounds putting them on each field.
“We released them into the sweet corn, and they really helped with pest control. We used to have to spray our peppers at flowering with an organic spray, but we’ve not sprayed a pepper since we’ve started releasing these wasps.”
Although there are few pests in the fields at Spiral Path Farm, the Flea Beetle and the cucumber beetle are sometimes a problem. They use 50 by 500 foot row covers.
“We use sand bags. We put sand bags on and they help immensely with the cucumber beetle because they don’t like getting under a cover. If we put a crop in, put the cover on, we can take that crop — particularly zucchini — almost to flowering.”
In many ways, CSAs are, as Brownback says, “an introduction to the way that you look at the food.” It provides an opportunity to help potential consumers and community members understand process and the perspective of the food producers.
“CSAs in general have a high turnover, and ours has over the years also. We’ve had some people with us the full 20 years. This year (2013) is our 20-year anniversary. We started with 20 members … we stuck with it, and it seems that every year it’s grown.”
That has been encouraging for the Brownbacks, making it easier for the CSA to gradually expand throughout the years. Today, Spiral Path is a 2,000-member CSA with distribution throughout south central Pennsylvania and into Maryland. “With a CSA, to some extent, you’re a jack-of-all-trades as a produce farmer. We raise everything from asparagus to zucchini; some of the items that we raise we couldn’t do at the wholesale level at the quantity and quality that we expect. Specific crops are restrictive. We couldn’t grow onions or potatoes and compete as organic growers at the wholesale level. Having a CSA, you have to have a lot of variety.”
Although seemingly rhetorical, Brownback wades into a discussion about food production, consumption and scale.
“How many times a day do people partake of food? It’s become so removed of the producer of the food to the actual eater. The CSA concept puts a face on the connection.” For the Brownbacks, illumining the story behind the food that appears in their CSA delivery is meaningful. Terra has been writing a newsletter that’s distributed to CSA members and has been very well-received over the years. “People really relate. They love to know, and they want that connection to the farm,” says Brownback.
Adhering to the old truism location, location, location, Spiral Path Farm has found a way to work with being outside of the immediate proximity of potential customers.
“We have an absolutely horrible location to have consumers come to the farm. We’re about 40 minutes to an hour from Harrisburg, and the lion’s share of our CSA customer base is far away,” said Brownback. Getting their produce to clients has taken a communal feeling of flexibility, trust and generosity.
“We have some members come to the farm to pick up, but we have 28 drop-off sites in the area,” said Brownback. “We have customers (or businesses, or churches) that are willing to open their homes up to help people pick up boxes. We realized many of the challenges early on … so we decided to drop extra boxes off at each site. We called those extra boxes ‘green tithing.’ We use the concept of tithing and those boxes go to the site hosts. Those hosts are then empowered to do what they want with them, and typically donate them to charity.”
Along with events like monthly farm days that can bring nearly 500 people, CSAs are possibly the most tactile way to help community members understand the process of organic food production close to home.
Extending the synergy from the field to one’s home is important, and is a core tenet of the philosophy that Spiral Path Farm applies. In addition to using a holistic approach to cultivate their crops, the Brownbacks encourage community members to be engaged in the cycle of food production and consumption. Dispelling the limitations of organic farming has also proven important to the Brownbacks.
They have been able to make much of their land productive using thorough, sustainable ways, by leaning on the efficiency of a polyculture system. The system that they — and many farmers like them — use not only reflects elements of holistic management, but also illustrates that the previously perceived limitations of organic agriculture do not have to limit production and capacity.
Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A.
Mike & Terra Brownback led a Managing A Modern Day Large-Scale CSA course at Eco-Ag U at the 2017 Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show in Columbus, Ohio, in December 2017. Visit the Acres U.S.A. Events Page to learn more about the next upcoming Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show, plus other educational and informative events throughout the year..