Aug 15, 2013
CSA, farmers’ markets keep Ohio farm afloat

When Brian and Kelly Helser – owners of Paige’s Produce in Stoutsville, Ohio – first looked into hosting their own Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, they had a hard time believing anyone would pay up front for produce they wouldn’t get until later in the year – or might not get at all, if weather, pests and diseases took a toll.

“We try to only sell what we grow, which makes it hard,” Kelly said. “Any person who joins us has to wonder what’s going to be in the bag this week. So much depends on weather and other factors.”

But they needed some sort of winter income, and the more they learned, the more they realized that a lot of people want to connect with local farmers and want to know exactly where their food comes from, Kelly said.

“People want fresh, local food and they’re willing to pay for it,” she said. “We all took a risk, but it’s been a good thing.”

They started their CSA in 2007, and some people from the original group are still with them. They’ve shown “amazing loyalty,” Brian said.

CSA customers get a bag of produce every week, spring through fall. Most of them pick up their bags at the nearest farmers’ market. The Helsers sell produce at several markets in metropolitan Columbus, Ohio, about an hour’s drive from the home farm in Stoutsville.

Brian and Kelly are comfortable with about 100 CSA members. Any more and the bookkeeping would be overwhelming – and Brian would lose sleep worrying about filling all those bags with the right variety of fruits and vegetables.

“We have to have a mixture for those folks,” he said. “We do all we can to give them their money’s worth.”

The typical harvest season starts in late May and runs until the frost comes, Brian said.

About the first weekend of October, the Helsers invite their CSA members to the home farm to collect pumpkins and gourds. It’s become an event. The Helsers feed their visitors, who have fun hanging out at the farm and watching how everything works, Kelly said.

To learn more about the Paige’s Produce CSA, visit the farm’s website.

Drawn to farming

Brian, 45, grew up on a grain and livestock farm in central Ohio. He and Kelly got married shortly after college and bought a hog farm in 1992. After realizing they had no control over the price of their inputs or outputs, they got out of hog farming and Brian got a job with a regional bank. Five years later, he’d had all he could take of the corporate world, so he and Kelly decided to start a vegetable and fruit farm south of Columbus in 1999. They named it Paige’s Produce, after their oldest daughter Maddie Paige, who’s now 15.

Brian had always dabbled in growing fruits and vegetables, and decided to make it his full-time job. Kelly’s job as an art teacher at a local high school allows them to farm on the scale that they do, he said.

They grow nearly 80 acres’ worth of crops on four plots, mostly produce (soybeans, too). There’s a diverse array of vegetables including tomatoes, sweet corn, green beans, zucchini, yellow squash, peppers, cucumbers, pickling cucumbers, seedless watermelons, Chinese cabbage and lettuce. Their high tunnels and greenhouses shelter tomatoes, flowers, peppers, cabbages, seedlings and other transplant starts, he said.

When selling his vegetables at farmers’ markets, Brian noticed something: The lines for the vendors selling peaches and apples were really long. Because of that, and because he loves peaches and apples himself, Brian decided to start growing tree fruit. Peaches and apples are now his best-selling crops, he said.

Brian planted his own peach and apple trees, but also started refurbishing an old apple orchard owned by a local family – an orchard that hadn’t been touched for two decades before he started leasing it six years ago.

The Helsers started cleaning up the orchard’s 400 or so trees – old dwarf trees that were planted in 1974 and, with no pruning for 20 years, had grown to 30 or 40 feet. It took about five years to bring the trees down and in, but most of them are getting where they need to be, Brian said.

The Helsers sell some crops wholesale, through a produce terminal at the Columbus airport, but most of their produce is sold fresh and direct via farmers’ markets and the CSA program. Farmers’ markets are the source of most of their farm income, he said.

They don’t sell too much produce from the home farm in Stoutsville. There aren’t enough people in the area, he said.

“It’s easier for us to go to the crowd than for the crowd to come to us,” Brian said.

Challenges

Paige’s Produce is mostly a family affair. The Helsers hire some part-time workers when needed, but get a lot of help from Maddie, Brian’s parents and Kelly’s brother, Dave Clark. Friends and neighbors also lend an occasional hand.

Buying an Oxbo green bean harvester alleviated a lot of labor. The farm moves a good amount of green beans every year, but it’s a labor-intensive crop. The machine can do in an hour what a good worker could do in a week.

It was tough to spend the money on that machine, but the beans they were leaving unpicked were worth more than the beans they were selling, so it was ultimately worth the investment, Brian said.

Like a lot of farms, Paige’s Produce had a rough 2012. Freezes, frosts, hail and an extremely dry summer wiped out a fair chunk of its crops.

“Last year was a massacre,” Brian said. “It was just so depressing.”

By spending “a hundred bucks a day” on irrigation, they managed to save most of their sweet corn and green beans, but they didn’t have a lot of variety to offer their customers, he said.

Fortunately, Kelly sent a lot of updates via email and Facebook, and customers understood the situation.
In late June, everything was looking much better for the 2013 crop.

“It feels so great to have hope,” Brian said. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

Matt Milkovich





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