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The sun's out, but early rains leave some community farms with slim pickings

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The sun's out, but early rains leave some community farms with slim pickings

BRUNSWICK — This time of year, farmer Seth Kroeck is usually handing his 226 customers at Crystal Spring Community Farm a bounty of mixed greens and vegetables every week. The customers own shares of Kroeck's crop for a handsome price – $515 for the entire season – but most consider the resulting smorgasbord of fresh, organic food a bargain.

That's during a typical summer. This summer has been far from typical.

This year, rain and unseasonable cold have forced Kroeck and some other operators of Community Supported Agriculture to dial back the variety of weekly offerings. Instead of several varieties of Asian greens, Kroeck has been handing out kale on a weekly basis.

"They're probably getting a little tired of it," Kroeck said. "At this point I'm pretty sure some of my customers would do hand-to-hand combat for arugula."

Despite the occasional dissatisfied customer, Kroeck still considers himself lucky. So does Ralph Turner, owner of Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport, who said years of experience have helped prepare him for a trying growing season. Both CSA operators have been able to give their customers their weekly share.

Other CSAs haven't been as fortunate, having been forced to either sell late-season crops early, or withhold the weekly share altogether. The latter hasn't been the case for John Bliss, co-owner of Broadturn Farm in Scarborough.

At least not yet.

"We're close to it," Bliss said. "I've already had to rob the cradle and dig up potatoes and market them as baby potatoes."

Bliss also worries about the future of his corn and watermelon crops. Heavy rain didn't allow him to plant his winter squash, which produce the farm's late-season offerings like pumpkins and butternut squash, and his cucumber seeds rotted in the ground.

"It sucks," Bliss said. "We're trying to stay positive, but it's not easy right now."

Bliss acknowledged that some share buyers weren't happy with the result, underscoring what he described as the CSA "fad." The model, during which customers pay up front for a share of the season's crop, and therefore sign on to a growing season's inherent risks, has grown more popular along with the organic food movement.

While Bliss applauds the consumer shift toward organic and local farming, he said some "mainstream" CSA customers were less understanding of its risks.

"It's been hard to communicate to some of our CSA members," he said. "Some of them have short memories. They see that the sun is out now and forget that it rained for 28 days in June. ... We'll see how many of them come back as CSA customers next year."

Turner, meanwhile, said that he was experiencing far less angst with his CSA members, a result he attributed to planning a diverse selection of crops and educating his members about the farming process and its risks.

"We actively involve the CSA members in the farm and how it works," Turner said. "We want them to know exactly what goes into (the process)."

Turner acknowledged that some newer CSA farms are struggling.

"We've been doing this a lot longer than a lot of people," said Turner, who has run the Laughing Stock CSA for 12 years and been a farmer for even longer. "The newer, younger people will likely learn from this and plan better in the future. ... We try to learn from the failures and adjust."

Customers pay $550 for a full share of the season's crop at Laughing Stock. Turner acknowledged that his CSA customers have had to sacrifice some variety, but said they're still getting considerable bang for their buck. 

"On balance we're doing pretty well," Turner said. "The real story is that there are a lot of creative people dealing with this challenge in creative ways."

For Turner, that means offering crops that have actually thrived during the unseasonable weather.

"We've had green peppers earlier than we ever had before," he said.

At Crystal Spring, Kroeck has also experienced some successes, particularly with strawberries, a labor-intensive and finicky crop that he's lost before. This year, however, the strawberries were ready before the heaviest rains.

"We had a solid two weeks of strawberries," Kroeck said. "The quantities were just a little less than we'd like."

Kroeck was also encouraged by the recent stretch of sunny, warmer weather. Still, he said, the rain has expedited some diseases that typically arrive late in the season, forcing Crystal Spring and other CSAs to take preventive measures.

In late June the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association released a late blight alert for potatoes and tomatoes. The disease has already been spotted in New York and Pennsylvania. MOFGA responded by advising CSAs and organic farms to take the unusual step of preventive spraying. Usually organic farms don't spray fungicides until a disease has infected a crop. 

Kroeck has already started treating his tomato plants, which he said, are doing well despite the recent cool, wet weather. Still, he said, spraying this early would drive up costs, a problem a long stretch of sunny weather can't mitigate.

"Once disease arrives, it's generally here to stay," Kroeck said. 

Turner, meanwhile, is staying positive. With the growing season not yet half completed, Turner said there's plenty of time to give CSA customers the organic bounty they've come to expect.

"We're cautiously optimistic that the summer and fall will make everyone forget about June," he said. 

Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net.