By Michael Blanche
Special to The Communitarian
Rushton Farm is one of many examples of Pennsylvania community supported agriculture, or CSA, which encourages relationships between farmers and local residents.
CSA members support farms through membership fees each year. Members take some risk with farmers in terms of cooperative weather, production, and possible crop failure.
Nestled inside Rushton Woods Preserve, the Rushton Farm CSA provides 150 varieties of fruits and vegetables, harvesting about 30,000 pounds of sustainably grown produce each year. Rushton donates around 10 percent of their annual yield to local food banks.
Rushton Farm is a branch of Willistown Conservation Trust, a group dedicated to preservation and appreciation of natural environments. As the trust’s center of education, Rushton Farm collaborates with 25 local schools. Fred de Long is director of the Community Farm Program and sowed Rushton Farm’s seeds seven years ago.
I was fortunate to accompany de Long while he harvested broccoli at the farm on a rainy Friday morning in October.
Q: Is there a daily routine for you and the other farmers here?
On a typical day in the fall, we’ll harvest in the morning and field work in the afternoon. We have a greenhouse that we will plant in to protect crops for the winter.
Q: How many varieties of broccoli are you growing?
So we have two varieties, Windsor and Acadia, and we will do two plantings. We are big on successional planting.
Q: What is successional planting?
It’s planting throughout the season, so we had broccoli in the spring, and in the fall since it handles the cool temperatures better. We grow 15 varieties of tomato; the diversity of the land is similar to the diversity of our crops.
Q: How is Rushton Farm different from the norm?
A traditional farm system will cut down all the trees, clear all the fields, and remove all the wildflowers and
just have an open plain. That’s why so many developments are built on farms because the farmer has created the perfect environment for building houses. When someone does that they have killed the diversity of the landscape, so you have no natural defenses for your crops. You don’t have the birds that feed off the insects; you don’t have the beneficial pollinators flying around.
Q: So the environment is one of your defenses?
Yes, and we actually use a mesh that covers the plants until they get larger, instead of spraying, and it works very effectively. We are looking into what we can do that is not chemical. We have really created a new image of what a natural landscape can look like, where you have the actual ecosystem but you have this smaller diversified agricultural system within. That’s really a new idea of agriculture; you can have food growing alongside a natural landscape without a detrimental impact on the ecosystem.
Q: Rushton Farm is reputable for honey. Can you tell me why bees are important to you?
We’ve had bees here since the beginning. I strongly believe that the idea of colony collapse is largely based on the fact that the majority of the bees in the United States are shipped by truck. The trucks will go to orchards where they spray chemicals, or plant other crops that have GMOs, and all these different interactions.
Eventually, the bees just disappear or die off. Every organic farm I have been on that maintains its own bee colonies and doesn’t spray anything close to them; I’ve never seen a colony collapse. So we started bees here to show that you could maintain bee colonies and produce a lot of honey, which is another health indicator. We get about 400 pounds of honey a year.
Q: What conditions affect honey production?
This year we are light because it was a cold spring, and they didn’t have a lot to feed on. We are above average in terms of not much loss, pretty much all our loss is due to cold in the winter. Another issue is mites, which is a recent development. People have introduced bees from other countries into the United States, and the other species have brought other
susceptibilities. When the domesticated European honeybees crossed genetics with these new bees, they became more vulnerable to the mites.
Q: What is a big issue for the farm and other farms like this?
I think our biggest thing here is trying to be as environmentally conscious as possible—most of all, our water usage. Farms use so much water. We use this plastic ground cover, which is actually biodegradable cornstarch that holds water in the ground during a dry season like the one we are in. The water does not necessarily get through, and we still have to water the crops, but it stops water from evaporating.
Q: How does this feel, coming to the end of a harvest?
We couldn’t have known a week ago that weather conditions were going to be
exactly like this, we just deal with it as we can. One morning we are going to wake up, there will be frost on the ground and the season will be over. We have had seasons where I am still picking tomatoes in November, or like this one where our last picking is before October.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
If you came out here in January in the snow, you wouldn’t know this was a farm. All this would be white except for the apple trees. It will be a clear landscape.
When I walk through in January and I look at how we are going to build out the land, it is creating something different every year. This year isn’t the best year, but every season is a different experience.