Community-supported farms big in Fairbanks

Posted: Tuesday, May 25, 2010

FAIRBANKS - Seedlings sprouting from garden beds and buds shooting off vines around town foreshadow a summer full of fresh salads, herb infusions and vegetable lasagnas.

Within the next few weeks, members of community-supported agriculture (or CSA) farms will be picking up their first bushel of lettuce, radishes, turnips and other early season produce.

"Fairbanks is the Mecca for CSAs," said Michelle Hebert, agriculture and horticulture agent at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. "We have more CSAs than other regions of Alaska. This is where you see the most farmers utilizing the model," she said.

Demand for local produce is equally strong, and the marketplace is just about sold out, say Fairbanks farmers.

"Our waiting list is very long, and our CSA list is full," said Brad St. Pierre, farm manager at Rosie Creek Farm.

In a CSA program, consumers buy shares of a farm at a set price at the beginning of the season and receive weekly boxes of vegetables - and sometimes other goods - throughout the season. The deal gives farmers financial security and spreads the risk of a bad harvest. In return, members get a stream of fresh, organic produce, the knowledge of their food's origin and a way to support local business.

For $425, each of Rosie Creek's 160 members get one box - starting in two weeks - every week until mid-September.

"We grow around 70 varieties of veggies. There's enough to feed four people for a week in every box," St. Pierre said.

Spinach Creek Farm has observed an equally large appetite for vegetables, said owner Pete Mayo.

In 1997, Mayo and his wife Lynn were the first Fairbanks farmers to take on shareholders. While they had no waiting list in the early days, for the past few years they've been at maximum capacity with 40 members, Mayo said.

Calypso Farm & Ecology Center, the biggest of the three, also is almost full. For $600, members get weekly installments of organically grown broccoli, tomatoes, carrots and much more from next week until the end of September.

"I think the interest in local agriculture is enormous," said owner Susan Willsrud.

To keep up with demand, Calypso has branched into school gardens, where more than 100 teenage students are hired to harvest and sell produce at individual farm stands four nights per week.

While Calypso is taking longer to fill up, Willsrud said, she attributes this to more people buying organic produce from Outside or gardening at home.

Hebert confirmed a surge of calls and inquiries from home gardeners at the Cooperative Extension Service within the last year. And what people can't grow, they are increasingly buying from Fairbanks.

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