WARSAW, Ohio – Margaret McCoy loves vegetables.
She can’t get enough snow peas or green peppers or zucchini or green beans.
And berries? Loves those too, enough to brave the beating sun and thorny vines to get a pint, and eats most of the luscious fruits herself. She’s been known to ‘taste-test’ quart after quart of strawberries before she saves her pickings to market.
But we’re not talking about a young child here. Margaret’s almost 18 years old.
“What?! You have to make sure they’re OK first!” she says with a knowing giggle, one that reveals she’s aware how fortunate she is to have a field with row after row of berries and vegetables instead of a boring grassy landscape around her home.
And, through her family’s community supported agriculture initiative on Princeton Valley Farm, she’s earning – and sharing – a love for fresh-from-the-farm vegetables with a new generation.
The idea. The community supported agriculture, or CSA, concept isn’t hard to understand.
A farmer sells CSA memberships to the neighbors too busy to tend to a garden, to the elderly who want the same fresh and sweet-tasting vegetables they grew up with, to the urbanites and suburbanites who like the idea of knowing a bona fide farmer.
The farmer – in this case, George and Janet McCoy and their daughter, Margaret – does the work. Members share in the risk of planting and harvesting.
That means if the fields are flooded, if the tomatoes are a failure, or if bugs eat holes through all the cabbage before it’s cut, the farmer still gets paid.
Members just get a smaller portion, sharing what’s salvageable.
Bounty. But the bountiful payoffs for the consumer almost blur that risk completely, according to the McCoys.
They forget it all when they see what they do get: in early July, each member got a selection of red, white and blue potatoes – their flesh, not just the skin, is colored. Through the rest of the season, they get Swiss chard, Italian lettuce, cucumbers, zucchini, cabbage, blueberries or raspberries, and dill.
They get enough to last a week, but not too much to overwhelm them, Janet McCoy says.
“You should see them all go crazy for the stuff,” she says, recounting stories of Moms arriving home from their delivery drop point to find their kids, in the backseat, have already eaten a good portion of their weekly allowance.
“You actually see kids excited about eating vegetables.”
Variety. Princeton Valley Farm, named after the crossroads near the farm, grows 40 kinds of vegetables: lettuce, corn, zucchini, potatoes, Swiss chard, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra. The list goes on.
That list is also broken down one more step: There are 23 varieties of lettuce, six varieties of corn, 10 varieties of zucchini and about a half-dozen varieties of potatoes grown on their 17-acre homestead.
To the eager eater, it’s a garden with no end.
Hothouses. Even with Ohio climate extremes, the McCoys have learned to work with Mother Nature to get the most from their growing season.
They’ve figured out how to use hothouses and greenhouses made from scrap plastic and the gas company’s throwaway lines to start their vegetables.
And some of their crops – zucchini and cucumbers in the two houses just down the road – are grown completely under cover.
In the hoop-shaped houses, where the temperature soars above 100 degrees and the humidity sinks into a haze, the vines thrive free of bugs and sunburns and their blossoms grow quickly.
One week this summer, George and Margaret picked eight bushels of cucumbers from a 14-by-100 house and “didn’t even try,” he says.
The best part? The houses let the McCoys stretch the growing season through November.
Tradition. The McCoys didn’t always call this gardening explosion their livelihood.
George McCoy, a native of Coshocton County, has always been a farmer. But in his younger days, he fled to New York to work as an antiques apprentice with clients like The Smithsonian and Sotheby’s. He met Janet, a New Jersey girl, and they eventually settled on raising hogs in the middle of upstate New York dairy country.
By the spring of 1990, at his father’s request, the couple and baby Margaret came home. They bought a farm here – today’s homestead was part of their original property – to raise hogs and milk cows.
Turning point. Then George ordered 500 broiler chicks.
He talked about his project, and before he knew it, he was taking orders for the birds.
“They went poof.”
And so, too, did the cows and hogs.
He and Janet got in true touch with their chicken customers’ needs – fresh foods – and their CSA was born.
Excitement. That first year they had only one-third of an acre, but seven member families signed up to get fresh produce each week.
George admits he lost sleep, lying awake from anxiety over whether he’d be able to feed all those families.
Today, with his market base grown more than tenfold in 10 years, he still loses sleep, he says, but today’s sleepless nights are caused by excitement for what he’s doing.
“People really love this to death,” he says.
Inexpensive. The McCoys’ produce is picked fresh two days a week for delivery.
Some of it, like lettuce and sweet corn, is picked only as the delivery truck heads out the driveway on its way to dropoffs in Mount Vernon or the northwest Columbus suburbs of Powell and Dublin.
“Some things can’t sit at all, and you learn that,” Janet says, noting she and Margaret have to take their 90-minute route to Columbus into account when they plan picking and hauling.
The freshness is worth a premium to the members. A full share, which is designed to feed a family of four, averages $21 a week. Some families are signed up for more than one share.
Short of having a backyard garden, these are quite possibly the freshest vegetables the customers can get, the McCoys say. And they’re getting them at a fraction of the price they’d pay for the same products at a grocery store.
Something more. But the Princeton Valley CSA doesn’t stop at vegetables. There’s also fresh-cut flowers, fresh chickens, whole or half hogs and hamburger available for an additional fee.
“All they see is all this food. It really flips them out,” George says. “They just want to smell the dill. And to know their chickens were just dressed, that part really hurts their heads.”
“They’re so used to going [to the supermarket] and buying food for every single meal. This lets them slow down and gets them to begin thinking about the food they’re eating,” he says.
“And they get to know a real farmer!”
Advocate. The McCoys are advocates of the CSA style of food production. They like the idea so much, they say, that they’re not afraid to share what they know with anyone who’s interested.
Two years ago, they had an apprentice farmer learning the ropes at their place. At the end of her stint, the McCoys handed her their entire list of Coshocton-area customers.
“It’s a great system. You don’t have to be big or fancy to do it, either,” George says.
He cites Ohio State research that says there’s profit potential for upward of $9,000 per year per acre of vegetables grown under plastic and in hoop houses.
“Think of all the people out there. They all want three meals a day, they want it fresh, and it’s got to come from somewhere,” he says.
Real treat. The McCoys picked up three new customers this week, bringing their grand total – at least for now – to 88 families, plus a couple of restaurants, too.
And new customers can come at any time, clamoring for the chance to get produce straight from the soil onto their dinner tables.
“What we take for granted is a real treat for them,” George says.
And Margaret, her lips and fingernails stained from the juices of fresh-picked raspberries, couldn’t agree more.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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