Sharing Growth

Community-supported agriculture helped save Free Bird Farm in Palatine Bridge.

Ken Fruehstorfer, originally from Pennsylvania, and Maryellen Driscoll, originally from Boston, opened Free Bird Farm in 1999. The couple spent their first few years in the area traveling to various local farmers markets and selling goods to local restaurants, but had trouble making ends meet.

“It didn’t seem like there was this huge opportunity to move lots of produce, and we struggled I guess is the honest way to put it, in terms of making the business financially viable,” Fruehstorfer said. “And then when we decided it was time to have kids, we said, ‘We have to do something different, or one of us is going to have to have a real job, or we’ll have to stop farming.”

Fruehstorfer, who had spent a number of years working on farms throughout the New England region, had heard of the CSA concept: Customers buy a “share” in a farm at the start of the growing season, and then receive a weekly allotment of produce, eggs, meat and other farm goods from the farmer during the season, usually from around May to early November. Driscoll suggested they try it at Free Bird Farm.

Initially, they launched their CSA out of their own farm, and also teamed up with a CSA coordinator in Cooperstown. Their CSA now has about 450 members, spread out between its home CSA and through CSA-coordinating organizations in New York City, including Just Foods.

“The concept felt right; it made things easier,” Fruehstorfer said. “We weren’t standing at farmers markets all day; we knew how many people we were harvesting for. It made the whole planting and harvesting aspect more streamlined, and also made sales easier.”

CSAs have been growing in popularity in the U.S. and in New York since their introduction in the mid-1980s. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent census of agriculture taken in 2012, 12,617 farms reported marketing products through community-supported agriculture. In New York state, the number of CSA farms was 578, an increase from 364 reported in the 2007 census. Of those 578, 13 CSA farms were reported located in Montgomery County, while none were located in Fulton or Hamilton counties.

However, since that census, at least one has cropped up in Fulton County. Johnson’s Family Farm in Northville, run by Brad and Anne Marie Johnson, first opened four years ago, and is in its third CSA season. This season, the CSA has 28 member families.

“You get to see the same faces every week, and there’s food talk, recipe talk,” Anne Marie Johnson said. “We really get to know each other, and that makes it more than just a job; it makes it a lifestyle.”

Shareholders in the Johnson’s Family Farm CSA pay $400 for a small share or $600 for a large share in the fall, and receive their weekly shares from June through October. The farm holds pick-ups for its CSA members at the Sanford Stud Farm Farmers Market in Amsterdam on Wednesdays from 3 to 6 p.m.; at the Greenfield Farmers Market in Middle Grove, Saratoga County, from 4 to 7 p.m.; and at their own weekly stand in front of the Northville Post Office on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

What’s in the weekly allotments depends on what produce is in season at the farm, Johnson said. The farm, which according to Johnson specializes in greens, grows more than 40 varieties of vegetables and about 19 varieties of tomatoes.

“It’s definitely changed how I eat, because usually, you think of what you want to make, and then you go to the store and buy those ingredients,” said Lauren Draus, 29, of Broadalbin, while picking up her weekly share at a recent Sanford Stud Farm Farmers Market. “But now you get sort of a shipment of ingredients, and now you have to figure out, ‘What do I do with this, how do I use this?’ So it really opens up your palate and your experiences with food.”

The Free Bird Farm CSA runs for 22 weeks, usually beginning in early June and lasting into late October or early November. Along with a variety of produce, the farm also offers chickens, eggs and fruit in its shares, which cost roughly $500 for the full season.

The farm is also part of four different organizations in New York City that organize CSAs for groups of farmers and customers. These organizations collect the money from customers and set up pick-ups, leaving the farmers to simply deliver their food to the drop-off point each week, Fruehstorfer said.

“Basically, it’s enabled us to grow our business, because … it’s a more defined market for our product,” Fruehstorfer said. “In the spring, we know how many members have signed up, and we get a pretty good idea from how many we had last year, so if we want to grow, we grow, and if we want to stay steady, we can stay steady.”

Free Bird Farm is the largest CSA in Montgomery County, according to Crystal Stewart, a horticulture specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension. She said she has worked with three CSA farms in Montgomery County, and that all of them follow a similar model, reaching out to larger cities such as Albany and Troy for customers.

“I think there’s room for expansion [locally],” Stewart said. “Other communities like Glens Falls have CSAs working with local hospitals, and that’s been really successful. It allows a CSA to reach a lot more people in a very concentrated way.”

Jody Long, 41, of Fonda has been with Free Bird Farms’ CSA for about five years. Before that, she was a member of a CSA in Amsterdam, which has since closed, for three years.

“They really do a fantastic job; the quality is fantastic, and the model itself, it’s a sustaining business that supports local farmers,” Long said. “I feel like farming is a very important and necessary thing. I would much rather buy my produce locally than shipped across the country.”