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Western Kentucky CSAs answer demand for fresh, local foods

CSA member Donna McMurtrie,left, picks up her weekly share from Cathy Stempien at Brumfield's roadside market.

PHOTO: Katie Pratt, UK Ag Communications
Madisonville, Ky.

The citizens of Madisonville and Hopkins County wanted Community Supported Agriculture.

A couple of residents called Andy Rideout, Hopkins County horticulture agent with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, to find out where they could find fresh, local foods. Rideout knew of others in the community who had expressed similar interests, and he worked with the Madisonville-Hopkins County Chamber of Commerce to form a food advocacy group. Group members discuss available options for fresh, local produce and encourage fruit and vegetable production in a county with large acreage in grain crop production.

The first two Community Supported Agriculture programs, known as CSAs, began in Madisonville in 2010. Another one joined this year. The county also has a thriving farmers market.

“It’s very nice that local producers are seeing the need, seeing the market and expanding into all these different revenue streams, whether it be organic, CSA or agritourism,” Rideout said. “I won’t tie the CSA formations in the county directly to the formation of the food advocacy group, but I think it helped show producers that there is a market there.”

Rideout attributes the local interest in CSAs to the local food movement that is gaining traction across the nation. CSAs allow farmers and shareholders to develop close relationships and share the ups and downs of a growing season. Members prepay a producer for a share of the season’s fruits and vegetables. In doing so, they take the risk of a season not being fruitful. Weekly during the growing season, producers deliver recently harvested products to their shareholders. Some CSA producers have taken the experience a step further by offering farm tours, movie nights and unique agritourism opportunities to their shareholders throughout the season.

While many people associate CSAs with large metropolitan areas along the East Coast, Madisonville is just one of many Kentucky cities with at least one CSA. There are 48 listed in the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s CSA Directory, stretching from Paducah to Olive Hill.

Shawn Brumfield formed one of the first CSAs in Madisonville. In each of the three years it has existed, his program has had between 30 and 40 members.

“My parents always grew and sold vegetables, and I’ve always been active in the farm,” he said. “We talked to the food advocacy group at the chamber about their needs and thought we should take a proactive approach.”

He said he didn’t have to go looking for shareholders when the CSA began; people were calling him.

“It was such a fresh idea that it was all over the media the first year plus the chamber (of commerce) already had the demand,” he said.

He credits the CSA with allowing him to reach new clients, both through memberships and at his family’s roadside market. It has also opened up a market for his cole crops—vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and kale—that at times have been a hard sell due to their early-season ripening. He said his CSA customers have said the early-season vegetables are some of their favorite items of the season.

Brumfield also offers his members recipes for vegetables many shareholders may not be familiar with, such as bok choy.

The recipes and variety are just some of the things that first-time shareholder Donna McMurtrie appreciates about the CSA.

“I’m loving it,” McMurtrie said. “This is our second week, so every week is a surprise. I’m going to try to use everything they give me, even if I don’t know what it is, for dinner every night.”

Chris Devoto is hoping the CSA will keep him on the farm that’s been in his family for seven generations. Devoto, a former personal chef from Knoxville, Tenn., always enjoyed the time he spent with his grandmother Eloise Maloney on the farm just east of Madisonville as a child. After becoming a chef, he felt the farm calling him more and more. That’s why 16 months ago, he moved to the farm full-time. In 2012, he began selling produce at the farmers market. This year will be his first time offering a CSA. He and his grandmother capped the CSA at 14 members this year with plans to expand the membership next year, if it’s successful.

“I decided to do the CSA because I was interesting in attracting people to the farm and having people come and see where their food is grown and experience the farm and the farmer,” Devoto said. “I feel like once people start coming out here, we’ll get loyal customers.”

Maloney is an avid follower of Wendell Berry, Sir Albert Howard and other authors on sustainability and has lived off the land for years, organically gardening and reforesting cropland.

“I knew I wanted to care for the land and live sustainably,” she said. “I just didn’t know it was rubbing off on anyone else.”

Devoto and Maloney use organic practices to produce their foods and are going through the process to have the operation certified organic. In addition to the traditional CSA offerings, they plan to offer their shareholders unique products such as a dozen eggs each week from their free-range chickens and apricots and nuts when they are ready for harvest. They also produce only heirloom varieties and save their seeds.

“Heirlooms just taste better,” Devoto said. “They are built on flavor. Hybrids are built on looks and ability to travel a great distance to market. We are trying to do flavor and get them to our local customers immediately. We don’t need our tomatoes to make it across the country.”

Both are also involved with Cooperative Extension. Maloney was in the first class of Extension Master Gardeners in Hopkins County and continues to be involved with the group. As Devoto learns the ropes of farming, he has called on Rideout whenever he has questions.

Rideout said while the demand is there, the first couple of years have been an educational experience for both CSA producers and shareholders, but he has big expectations for the programs.

“As both of them start learning what the needs of each other are, I see a huge growth in the CSA market,” he said. “It’s exciting for me working through Extension to be a part of this and helping out in any way I can.”

Contact: 

Andy Rideout, 270-821-3650

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