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Mount Gilead Farm Thrives on Produce Subscriptions

Much attention is given to the problems facing family-owned farms in Ohio and elsewhere. Problems include weather, disappearing farmland, pollution from field run off, and a population that is increasingly non-rural. A small but growing idea tries to address all of these issues, except - of course - the weather.

At the Clintonville Farmers' Market on a picture perfect Saturday morning, farmer Ben Sippel is helping customer Peter Craigmile put together his produce share for the week. Sippel and his wife Lisa run a Community Supported Agriculture operation, a CSA. Craigmile is one of their 175 subscribers. Each subscriber paid $560 for 30 weeks of produce deliveries like this one in Clintonville.

While the number of farmers' markets in Ohio is around 600, the number of CSA's is barely four dozen with many of those having only a handful of subscribers or shareholders.

Holly Born is a member of a Community Supported Agriculture group- CSA - in Lewis, Iowa. She is also an expert on sustainable agriculture. Born says CSAs started in the U-S about 20 years ago and the number now is about 15-hundred. The growers and the consumers are sharing the risks of food production, says Born.

Even though farmers and consumers share risks, CSA farmers are expected to juggle dozens of different crops. The challenge of being able to provide a variety of produce in as long a growing season as possible is difficult, even for experienced growers, says Born.

The Sippels grow more than 120 varieties of 40 different crops. They are planting on one or two days per week every week during a growing season that runs from early February to October.

This week's produce includes: Romaine lettuce, summer squash, beets, garlic, basil, and two pounds of tomatoes. Ben and Lisa Sippel say, diversity is important because no one wants, for example, four cabbages a week.

The Sippels bought their 77 acre farm in Mt. Gilead four years ago. Lisa Sippel says having a CSA subscriber base made it possible for them to get a loan even though they were both only 23 years old. They now have 25 acres in produce and the beginning of an apple orchard.

Ben Sippel has a degree in environmental studies and geography. As a student, he says he listened in classes to all the problems facing agriculture global climate change, field run off and some factory farm practices. He made a decision.

We don't really have an option of whether we participate in agriculture, says Sippel. We need to feed people. So, all of these problems that were covered in great detail that were wrong with agriculture, I started to think, we need to fix those.

Sippel says agriculture should be sustainable in three ways - ecologically, economically and socially. Keeping those three balanced, he says, makes it possible to feed larger numbers of people. Otherwise, he says, those working in CSA's and other sustainable operations is just, playing in the dirt.

While he hopes to encourage more young people to get into farming in the future, Sippel's present is filled with planting, harvesting and boxing produce sometimes late into the night and delivering to customers. Subscribers Megan Kadel- Edwards, Isaiah Harris and Kami Niehoff all have their reasons for investing in the Sipple Family's CSA.

It's knowing where your food comes from, getting to know the person who's producing it, says Kadel-Edwards. There's a level of safety and security doing that.

It's important to me not to pay for fuel for it to be shipped, says Harris.

Salad greens, you don't want any salad dressing at all. There is that much flavor, says Niehoff.

Andy Ingraham Dwyer says buying produce through a CSA is more expensive, but he is willing to pay ,his words - fair money for a fair product. Ingraham Dwyer also doesn't worry about the less polished appearance of produce grown organically.

So long as I can look the farmer in the eye when I'm taking it from him, he says. That means a whole lot to me.