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Farm-share programs, and angst, on the rise

Bounty of fresh produce daunts some locavores

Farmer Chris Kurth chatted with Jan Martin, who visited Siena Farms in Sudbury last week to pick up her share of vegetables at the farm.

Wendy Maeda/Globe staff

Farmer Chris Kurth chatted with Jan Martin, who visited Siena Farms in Sudbury last week to pick up her share of vegetables at the farm.

Katherine Ingraham adores having friends over for dinner. But as a member of Stillman Farm’s farm-share program, the Brookline hostess has an ulterior motive during peak growing season. “I need help eating all the lettuce,” she said.

That sentiment — and the unexpected stress an overstock of seasonal vegetables can exert — will be familiar to the growing ranks of urban- and suburbanites who are buying farm shares, and in return getting a grocery bag or a bushel of locally grown produce every week. For months.

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In the past five years, the number of Massachusetts farms selling Community Supported Agriculture shares, or CSAs, has more than tripled to more than 150, and waiting lists are not unheard of. Many CSA members love their weekly bounty and gush about getting to know their farmers, or showing their children where fresh food comes from.

Some locavores get so deep into the CSA world that they subsist on practically nothing but what they get from their prepaid farm shares: grass-fed meat shares, egg shares, sunflower shares, fish shares. They work their shares into casual conversation, and when they come to your house, the hostess gift is a bag of very leafy greens.

But a certain amount of stress — albeit of the affluent, first-world kind — lies behind the weekly responsibility of washing and preparing and eating all those parsnips and eggplants before they rot, and in picking up your farm-fresh fruit and veggies at a specified time. Think day-care pickup, but for cabbage.

“It’s like having a pet,” said Ingraham, a mother of three, and an 11-year member of Stillman Farm, in Central Massachusetts. “When you go on vacation, instead of needing a cat sitter, you have to get a CSA-picker-upper.” (Food that is not picked up is generally sent to charity or given to the farm workers.)

Like so many people, Eric Berman of Natick was full of optimism when he bought a half-share a few summers ago. “I liked the idea of supporting a local farm,” he said. “And I liked the idea of fresh vegetables.”

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Berman still likes the “idea” of vegetables grown right here in Massachusetts, but not, he came to realize, all vegetables, or the reality of driving an hour round trip so he could eat “local.”

“It was a relief when it was over,” said Berman, the communications director of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors.

Prices for a full share — about 10 pounds of produce a week — range from about $500 for a 20- to 24-week season all the way up to $1,000 at Sienna Farms, in Sudbury, which is owned by the husband of the revered Cambridge chef Ana Sortun.

The summer harvest will not start arriving until June, but for those ready to face the fennel, now is the time to sign up — except at a few farms that are no longer taking applications.

Those eager to join Appleton Farms, in Hamilton and Ipswich, will have to wait years. With a 90 to 95 percent renewal rate, Appleton is just now taking people who applied in 2008. Some wait patiently; others do not.

“There is name-dropping,” said Lise Holdorf, the farm’s CSA manager. People will mention farmers they know, she said, “or they’ll say they are a donor [to the Trustees of Reservations],” which owns and manages the farm.

This year, Rachel Rothe was one of Appleton’s chosen, but when she got the acceptance e-mail, the Manchester-by-the-Sea mom did not run to her vegetarian cookbook. In the interim she had bought a CSA membership at a different farm — it will remain unnamed — and had a less-than-ideal experience that involved getting closer to the land than she had hoped.

“A lot of it was ‘pick your own,’ ” she recalled. “I got scratched by thorns and stung by bees getting sugar snap peas and wildflowers.”

But who turns down what may be the Harvard of CSAs?

“Two friends said I’m crazy if I don’t do it,” Rothe reported. “They said people have to die for your name to come up on this list.”

Even enthusiastic CSA members can have issues. Although several farms offer a delivery option — by Somerville’s carbon-footprint-friendly MetroPedal Power — most require members to pick up their goods at the farm or a drop-off point. On pickup days, the staff at Lexington’s Wilson Farm regularly hears from people who are running late.

“They call in a panic,” said Peter Latvis, the farm’s marketing manager. The most common excuse is traffic, he said, but there are others. “We’ve had people say, ‘My mother’s in the hospital.’ ”

Small-scale farmers like CSAs because they allow them to reach customers directly, and also provide reliable income. The more farms that offer them, the harder it can be for those that do not. In Concord, farmer Stephen Verrill, an owner of Verrill Farms, is offering a CSA for the first time this year, in part to keep his shoppers from buying memberships at other farms.

Many farms determine what goes into a weekly basket of produce, but Verrill says he has heard complaints from people who do not want squash or beets, a situation he hopes to avoid.

“We’ll probably put limits on a few things, like strawberries and tomatoes,” he said, “but we won’t make anything mandatory.”

Although farm shares have soared in popularity, they have been around for decades. The CSA movement started in Japan in the 1970s, showed up in Europe in the early 1980s, and arrived in the Berkshires in the mid-1980s, according to Elizabeth Henderson, an author of “Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture,” and a farmer.

Henderson’s co-writer, the late Robyn Van En, is widely credited with being a founder of the movement, at her Indian Line Farm, in the Berkshire town of South Egremont. That was almost 30 years ago, said Henderson, noting that the “buy fresh, buy local movement is finally sweeping the country.”

Farming is so trendy that it now has its own high-end magazine. “Modern Farmer” is written and edited by a staff with high-profile New York and San Francisco media experience. It is sold at Whole Foods.

Farmers, said founding editor Ann Marie Gardner, have captured the “cultural zeitgeist.”

“From those Geico commercials mocking farmers’ markets to the buzz around a new farming (!) Zac Efron movie [“At Any Price”], it seems like farmers are on the verge of replacing chefs as the go-to foodie celebrity,” she said in an e-mail.

“It helps that every trendy restaurant has taken Alice Waters’s lead and put the farm-to-table sources right on the menu,” she added. “But ‘Modern Farmer’ was founded with the idea that it’s not just cool to be interested in farming, it’s vital; not a nice-to-know thing, but a need-to-know.”

But as Kate Shamon of Wellesley has learned, eating your farm-fresh broccoli is not always easy. Several years ago she signed up for a farm share, at Powisset Farm in Dover, and promptly spent the growing season watching vegetables go bad in her fridge, and fending off pleas from her grade-schooler for mac ’n’ cheese — or anything but more eggplant.

Shamon was ready to quit after year one, but her husband was enthusiastic — he even learned to grill lettuce — and the family is in its fourth year.

Recently, her 12-year-old son uttered the words every modern mother wants to hear. Not: “I want to be a doctor,” but rather, “Mom, I love kale.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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