Posted on May 17th, 2013
When most people think of retirement, images of relaxation come to mind. For Nancy and Bruce Livensparger of Fire Ring Farm in Portland, CT, retirement means running a labor-intensive non-profit Community Supported Agricultural operation (CSA). Nancy was a career landscaper whose passion for organic food grew as her interest in controlling invasive species in manicured lawns waned. As GMOs became ubiquitous in the American food supply, Nancy wanted to grow as much of her own food for her family as possible. Subsistence farming on any scale is a big endeavor and she wondered if running a CSA might be the ticket to subsidizing her efforts. As an added bonus, it gets a community involved in the natural food movement. Fire Ring Farm was born.
In 2006 she signed the Northeast Organic Farmer’s Association (NOFA) Pledge and decided to have an experimental CSA with only six shares; just to see if she would like it. She researched prices ranging from non-organic CSAs to organic produce at the local supermarket and factored in the cost of materials to determine a fair price for the expected fruits of her labor. The experiment was met with success and the following year the CSA doubled to twelve members and eventually reached its peak at twenty-four members. It now rests comfortably at twenty members with the remainder of the produce left for the original intent of feeding their family, including their daughter’s family of four who also live on the property.
Although New England’s growing season is limited by harsh winters, planning for and working on the CSA is not. Each season starts in February with a large spreadsheet of what Nancy hopes to deliver to each shareholder for each week from June to October. From there she works backwards figuring out how many seeds to plant for each item each week and when to plant and transplant them in order to have them harvested on the intended week. If that doesn’t seem complex enough, she also factors in a celestial planting calendar based on the lunar cycle to plant and transplant at the optimal times for roots, flowers, leaves or fruits. Then seeds must be purchased, and soon after that they must be planted in the green house.
Fire Ring Farm received an Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) Grant which provides financial and (just as importantly) technical assistance. Nancy therefore agreed to rotate her crops and grow (non-certified) organic, as well as implementing Integrated Pest Management and recording all diseases and pests found. To help with this the USDA sends a specialist bi-weekly to help her identify the pests and diseases and to advise her on natural ways to reduce or eliminate them. Nancy also works on growing nutrient-dense crops, which requires testing the crops and soil and re-mineralizing the soil as needed. The benefits of this effort are three-fold: it produces nutrient-dense crops with complex sugars; pests interfere less because they prefer simple sugars; and the reduced damage from pests means less opportunity for disease to strike. The mineralized soil which facilitates the nutrient-dense crops is also – in theory – less hospitable to weeds; but Nancy assures me that there are always weeds. When I asked about how the erratic weather patterns of the past few years have affected the CSA, the answer was ‘Not too drastically.’ I realized then that the true strength of CSA is that everyone takes the risk together so that any possible catastrophe doesn’t wipe out the farm. As a member for the past three years I can also say that the efforts put in by Nancy and Bruce throughout the wild weather we have had are extraordinary since I didn’t notice a decrease in the weekly share at all.
Nancy believes strongly in the Community part of CSA and frequently invites members to come help plant, transplant and socialize around a bonfire. Many of the members also maintain vegetable gardens at home, which Nancy encourages and is always willing to assist with; even donating spare seedlings to those who come to help plant. At heart, she wants everyone to grow some of their own food. Nancy’s dedication to expanding her own knowledge is tireless. For every crop that doesn’t yield quite as well as intended, she is looking for a way to improve it next year. I am told she has new ideas for increasing onion and potato yields this year.
Membership is relatively steady with around twenty percent turnover each year and a waiting list that has gone from seventy-five three years ago to around twenty currently; most likely due to an increase in CSAs in the area. When I asked Nancy what she wanted people to know about CSA membership, she said “It’s a lifestyle.” It is a commitment to getting to the farm weekly and then cleaning and storing your share properly to be able to get the best and most out of it. That means at the very least going home and washing and trimming all of the produce, and putting it in Ziploc bags or glass jars to stay fresh. It could even mean canning, or chopping and freezing,or blanching, peeling and freezing – which takes a lot of effort on the front end but can keep you from eating so many peppers in two weeks that you never want to see one again. It will also allow you to enjoy your share of local organic produce into the winter.
Fire Ring Farm currently operates as a non-profit and would require more shares, land, and employees to do otherwise. The likelihood of expansion is slim since the goal was to grow food for their family and educate a community about local and organic food…and they seem to be doing that perfectly well.