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Food pantries benefit as farmers share products

<span channel="BostonGlobe.com">Courtesy of Lindsay Grimes</span>/Courtesy of Lindsay Grimes

In 1981, Jim Ward’s father bought 30 acres in Sharon and quickly got to work planting 7,000 blueberry bushes. When they started producing, Ward said, he and his brother Bob “had no choice but to find a way to sell them.”

Ward’s Berry Farm now manages about 200 acres, most of which is leased by Massachusetts Audubon. The farm grows blueberries, strawberries, corn, tomatoes, beans, and “just about everything else you can grow in New England,” according to Ward. For the last two years, the Greater Boston Food Bank has been one of the farm’s most faithful customers, distributing fresh, locally sourced produce to 550 hunger relief agencies in Eastern Massachusetts.

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“Very few people have an intimate connection to agriculture nowadays,” Ward said in an interview. “There’s a distance between farmers and a large portion of the population, both geographically and in terms of information. A part of my job is helping to re-create a passion for the farming season.”

Farms of all sizes are finding ways to share their produce with people who don’t have the means to buy a regular share in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program or purchase fruit and vegetables at a local farmers market. In the last two years, Ward’s partnership with the food bank has brought about 130,000 pounds of produce to food pantries, soup kitchens, and other distribution programs across the Commonwealth.

“It’s been very rewarding for me,” said Ward, who sells his produce to the food bank at a discounted rate. “I’m putting local, seasonal produce in the hands of lots of people. Maybe that will inspire a passionate response in which they’ll really savor that tomato they’re eating and remember that next year when they’re in season again.”

Every year the food bank distributes about 50 million pounds of food, 25 percent of which is produce. Purchasing fruit and vegetables from local farms rather than depending on donations allows large clearinghouses like the food bank to control their supply and better meet the needs of local soup kitchens and other distribution programs.

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“A yellow tomato versus a red tomato is new for some people,” said Catherine D’Amato, the food bank’s president and CEO. “We’re sensitive to that in our purchasing. You have varied generations, ethnicities, and cultural differences to take into account. We try to err on the side of what products have universal appeal.”

Still, D’Amato noted that people’s palates have changed over time, and requests from local food pantries have begun to reflect a broader demand for, and interest in, locally sourced fruit and vegetables.

“We had to get our system in order,” said D’Amato. “We worked with outside agencies to understand what they needed and what they liked. Now we’re better equipped. We have the capabilities to manage lots of small purchases.”

Many farmers take a certain pride in introducing people to products they have never seen before. Requests for carnival squash, a small winter variety striped with green and gold, have been a pleasant surprise for Ward, who, like most people in his profession, ends the harvest with more gourds than he knows what to do with.

The food bank’s buyers are “surprisingly interested in some of the other heirloom stuff that’s not that common in the store,” said Ward. “It feels great to be at the peak of the season and bring stuff that’s at its best.”

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Partnerships with large organizations like the food bank have also created practical benefits for farmers who might otherwise struggle with the excess of a bumper crop.

“In the past these peaks have sometimes meant that things got wasted in the fields,” said Ward. “I’m happy that we’ve been able to avoid that.”

Still, not every farm benefits from the purchasing power of large organizations like the food bank. Some farms regularly donate excess produce instead. The size and makeup of donations by smaller operations such as Weir River Farm in Hingham and Freedom Food Farm in Raynham are mostly dictated by what is left after weekly CSAs, farmers markets, and restaurant sales.

“If we have a ton of kohlrabi, we’ll give them kohlrabi,” said Chuck Currie of Freedom Food Farm. “We love to encourage people to try all sorts of stuff.”

Freedom Food Farm has explored other ways of getting fresh fruit and vegetables to people in need. For those unable to afford the cost of a CSA, the farm offers a sliding scale payment option.

“We ask people how much they can afford and cover the differences for them,” said Currie.

Rory O’Dwyer, Weir River Farm’s CSA manager, has spent the past two years strengthening ties with nearby charitable organizations such as Weymouth Food Pantry and Father Bill’s & Mainspring, which runs homeless shelters in Quincy and Brockton. O’Dwyer estimated that the farm donates upward of 3,000 pounds of produce a year, relying on volunteer drivers to deliver anywhere from 50 to 200 pounds every week during the summer.

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“It all depends on the season,” she said. “We could be giving away a mix of heavy crops like squash and cukes, some tomatoes during the summer, and a smattering of things left from the farmers markets like radishes, kale, and chard.”

Between its two adult shelters, Father Bill’s & MainSpring provides about 60,000 meals per year. According to chief development officer Lucille Cassis, donations from Weir River Farm have been a godsend.

“When the weather’s warmer, people don’t think of us as much,” she said. “It’s great that the farmers markets kick in at that time and help us sustain the number of meals we need to produce for our guests. We really have come to depend on it.”


William Holt can be reached at william.holt@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @wb_holt.