COSHOCTON, Ohio — He lives and farms more than an hour-and-a-half east of Columbus, but Eli Yoder, who is Amish, sells produce in Ohio’s capital city each week.
He does so through a program called community supported agriculture, or a CSA. CSAs have been around for years, and allow farmers like Yoder to grow produce and pre-schedule deliveries to a set number of customers, throughout the growing season.
Through their own CSA, the Yoders provide fresh produce to customers in Columbus and its suburbs on a weekly basis. He also grows produce for the Yellowbird Foodshed CSA, a Columbus-area network of CSAs.
Each farmer’s CSA is a little different, depending on the agreement between the farmer and customer. Yoder sells his customers something called “shares.” One share will typically provide enough produce for two to three people to last a week, but customers can buy a bigger or smaller share, depending on the size of their family and eating needs.
Yoder has operated a CSA for eight years, and now serves about 64 customers. Each week, he harvests, cleans and boxes produce for his customers, and hires a trucking service, to help make deliveries to locations in Hilliard, Powell and Westerville. Each box has the customer’s name on it, and empty boxes are returned at the different drop-off locations. Eli also operates a booth at the North Market, in downtown Columbus.
From the earth
But long before anything gets that far, it starts at his farm, in the hoop houses and fields his family maintain.
Eli and his wife, Susan, have been farming at this location for five years, and today grow about every major vegetable you’d expect in Ohio. And the vegetables at Blossom Acres grow well — full of color, size, and according to Eli, good taste.
But this wasn’t always the case. When they moved here five years ago, Eli said it was the first time in at least 10 years that the no-till corn-soybean rotation had been broken.
He said it took some hard work and conditioning to restore the soil’s organic matter — to bring back the earthworms and the biological life that make for good, fresh produce.
Keeping it simple
The Yoders are not certified organic, but they farm with a lot of the same principles — no pesticides and herbicides, and they do not apply manufactured fertilizers. They use fertilizer that is organically approved, or single-source, micro-nutrients like zinc, boron and copper.
“We see a huge difference,” he said. “There’s no comparison. Like the zucchini — they’re happy and they’re healthy and they’re growing, and it didn’t used to be that way.”
Plant “happiness,” may be hard to pin down. But there’s no denying that Blossom Acres has made the Yoders happy. They’re happy with improved yields, a marketing program that sustains them and the opportunity to farm full time with their children.
The Yoders have six young children. The oldest, Rhoda, is 11 and helps on the farm. They also employ a neighbor full time and various part-timers.
Benji Ballmer, the founder of Yellowbird Foodshed CSA, said CSAs help farmers like the Yoders do what they do best — grow food — while the CSA helps handle marketing and customers. Yellowbird is supplied by multiple area farmers, and helps them gain market exposure they might not otherwise have.
Ballmer said what impresses him about Eli is his focus on soil health and improvement, and the level of consistency of the food leaving his farm.
“He only grows at a speed or at a pace that he can manage, so that everything is good quality,” Ballmer said.
Yellowbird Foodshed views the CSA from a watershed, or “foodshed” level — trying to unite farmers and consumers across a larger area.
“We’re trying to put these guys back into production, where 85 percent of their time is spent growing food,” he said.
Eli said he enjoys planting and harvest season the most, and just being outdoors “in the weather every day, just enjoying God’s creation.”
He knows not everyone will agree, but he said he enjoys the satisfaction of hard work.
“What’s more enjoyable than pulling weeds on a nice day?” he asked.
But what really brings the Yoders satisfaction is knowing they’re supplying their customers with fresh produce that is healthy, locally grown and something his customers want.
Yoder said labels like “local” and “organic” can mean a lot of different things, depending on how they’re used. He bills himself as a farmer whose goal is to promote good soil health, good farming practices, and grow produce that has superior taste.
To show his customers exactly what they’re getting, he invites them to his farm for a meal and social event each summer. They get to walk the fields, ride ponies and see how everything is done.
“This really helps them to be connected to the land, even though they’re living in town,” he said. “When they’re eating it, they have a visual — they know it’s coming out of this field.”
Planting at Blossom Acres typically begins in late February, and the Yoders finish the final harvest before Thanksgiving. During the winter, Eli often works off the farm, but by later winter, he’s back to the farm.
He also attends educational events during the off-season, where he learns new ideas and networks with other growers.
Because he doesn’t use herbicides, he relies on cultivating to help control weeds. He also grows cover crops in the off-season, which helps control weeds and provides a source of “green manure” when those living covers are plowed under.
Sometimes the insects and the weeds do get out of hand. But he said “it’s all part of farming,” and, like other farmers, he starts over and replants.
The Yoders could expand their acreage, but Eli said they’re at a size now that keeps them busy, and sustains their needs.
This is his 10th year in vegetables, and he wants his farm to remain committed to its values.
“In today’s age, you’ve got to have some connection with the farmer, or you have no idea what you’re eating,” he said.
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