Affordable CSA program helps family farm succeed
by LAUREE PURCELL
It’s that time of year when numerous Rockingham County residents buy shares in one of four Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs offered locally. Glen Eco Farm CSA, owned by Marlin and Christine Burkholder, gives subscribers a weekly box of eight to 11 different types of garden produce and fruits over a period of 18 to 22 weeks, in return for an up-front payment before the season starts.
Marlin enjoys opportunities the CSA gives him to relate directly with the people eating their harvest. He and Christine encourage customers to visit their farm to foster a stronger connection with the source of their food. On Tuesdays from May until October, customers pick up their weekly boxes of food at the Friendly City Food Co-op or at Glen Eco Farm near Singers Glen.
The CSA program helps to preserve family farms and earth-friendly agriculture by allowing farmers to skip the wholesalers, shippers, processors, and retailers who usually capture much of the food buyer’s dollar. Since the food is sold locally, it can be picked at the peak of ripeness. Farmers are paid at the beginning of the season, the time when they need to cover early season operating expenses.
Work begins as early as mid-January, when Marlin begins planting seeds in greenhouse trays assembled under grow lights in his basement. As young plants approach transplanting size, they are placed outside for several hours at a time. This cold hardens them prior to transplanting inside an unheated greenhouse structure called a “high tunnel” which is formed with plastic sheeting. Later some plants are transplanted directly into the field. By the beginning of April, he hopes to have plenty of fresh lettuce ready for local CSA customers and the Harrisonburg Farmers Market.
In early April, he will begin transplanting eight-week-old tomato plants between the lettuce plants as they are being harvested, training them to grow up strings attached to the ceiling to “unbelievable heights” according to Marlin. They produce vine-ripened fruit from mid-June until the end of October. The high tunnel increases the growing season by protecting plants from early and late season frosts, and by keeping out heavy soaking rains which worsen tomato blight and shorten the plants’ productive season. In January, Marlin has carrot and radish seeds just starting to sprout in the tunnel. Raspberry bushes, which will produce until early November, line the inner sides of the tunnel.
The Burkholders also tend chickens. In a shed made of translucent plastic that lets in the light and heat of the sun, 100 light-brown adolescent chickens peck the ground and interact with each other. “They will be laying eggs by April and will have two years on the farm to run freely before becoming someone’s dinner,” says Marlin. Last year’s babies, now surrounding Marlin’s movable coop in the field, are full grown laying hens with mottled feathers. He buys a different breed each year so he can tell the old hens from the new. During the spring, summer, and fall months, Marlin moves the coop every one to two weeks to a fresh spot so the chickens can fertilize the soil with their droppings and eat insects and plants left in spent fields. The combination of grain, extra squash, melons and tomatoes he is unable to sell, and whatever else the hens forage from the field makes the eggs and meat more flavorful and nutritious.
Marlin divides his fields into alternating strips of grass-legume mixtures and crops. The crop strips are interchanged with the grass strips periodically to facilitate crop rotation. This process helps to maintain soil fertility and to reduce the severity of pests. Marlin says, “I use organic methods whenever possible and seldom apply chemical sprays close to harvest or in any way that poses risk of contamination of food or the environment.” He is researching the possibility of adding microorganisms to the soil to strengthen the immune system of his plants so they can better resist blights and insect pests.
Since Marlin sells his tomatoes, pears, berries and other produce at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market and to local members of his CSA, he can grow more flavorful heirloom varieties that are best eaten within several days of being picked for top flavor and nutritional value.
Marlin enjoys the freedom of running a small family farm. “With just three aged tractors and machines for tillage and haymaking, I don’t have a big machinery investment and can occasionally take time off, especially in the wintertime.” he says. When he sees a spot in his pasture that needs to be fertilized, he feeds hay to cattle there so it receives their manure for a while. Marlin received a B.S. in agriculture from Virginia Tech and blogged regularly about his farming experiences from 2006-2010 at www.gleneco.blogspot.com.
Earlier, dairy farming took a toll on Marlin’s health. When he helped his father run a dairy farm from the mid 1970s to the early 1990s, he became chronically ill from exposure to mold around silos, diesel tractor fumes, and various chemicals used for sanitation in the milking parlor. “I switched to vegetable production in 1992 and try to avoid exposure to chemicals and mold as much as possible to improve my health,” says Marlin.
In 2002, he discovered a tick bite surrounded by an ominous red rash on his chest. His doctor prescribed antibiotics for several weeks to avoid Lyme disease. But by 2006, he began experiencing muscle aches, arthritis, headaches, and other symptoms now believed to be possible manifestations of late stage Lyme disease relapse. By early 2009 the symptoms worsened and included panic attacks and rapid heartbeat. Local doctors could not find the cause of his discomfort until in early 2010, a Lyme disease specialist in Maryland found that he tested positive for Lyme and two other co-infections caused by ticks. He is still in pain and seeking help from a medical community still searching for answers to this problem.
When Marlin was in high school, the average farmer fed himself and 20 people. Today that number is closer to 100. It concerns Marlin that most farms today are highly consolidated and industrialized and believed by many to be responsible for significant environmental degradation. “Unless food producing and buying habits change, I see a sad future for small-scale agriculture,” says Marlin.
With the average age of Virginia farmers now approaching 60, Marlin and Christine are among many farmers of retirement age. Many young people are finding the start-up costs of land, capitalization, and labor for farming too formidable and end up pursuing other occupations. There is an urgent need for more sustainable strategies to attract the upcoming generation of farmers.
Subscribing to a CSA is an effective way local residents can help farmers like Marlin and his family stay in business and give hope and opportunity to young people who might prefer to farm. The initial investment in a CSA share is significant, but subscribers pay slightly less than they would for the same food at the farmers market and the quality of the food is far superior to comparable food found in supermarkets.
To learn more about Glen Eco Farm’s CSA Program, visit http://www.localharvest.org/glen-eco-farm-M410 or call 540-833-8802. Information and pictures of the farm can be found on the blog at www.gleneco.blogspot.com. Marlin and Christine are currently working on a Glen Eco Farm website where CSA applications can be made. Their mailing address is 10943 Wills Creek Rd, Linville VA 22834.
LAUREE STROUD PURCELL serves as an editorial consultant for Living. She and her husband Steve have two daughters.
Other Harrisonburg-area CSA Programs:
Season’s Bounty Farm & CSA
Radell Schrock 540-908-5399 • Joseph Ropp 540-246-3998
Radical Roots Community Farm
Muddy Creek Farmstead
Nate Clark (540) 435-8432