By Eileen Weber
Add one more farm to your CSA list—Belta’s Farm on Bayberry Lane in Westport. Family-owned and operated since 1945, they’ve been at farmers’ markets and sold wholesale to such well-known corporations as Stew Leonard’s and Campbell’s Soup.
But about four years ago, that changed. It just got to be too much to produce a ton of tomatoes for one display at Stew’s. So, they decided to stay small and go organic.
“It’s harder to go organic,” said Angela Belta, who with her sister Laura Loffredo, are the third generation to work on the farm. “But, nobody wants chemicals in their food. Customers know if the leaves have holes in it it’s because we’re organic. It’s a choice—you want holes or chemicals? They chose the holes.”
They don’t have organic certification because it’s expensive and a long process to get it. But, they follow organic farming practices and are green in other ways. They reuse and recycle just about everything (bags, egg crates, jam jars, you name it). And, there’s a pile of compost large enough to hide a small city where they pull all the topsoil.
Belta’s has their own roadside farm stand at the base of their 26-acre property (only about half of which is reserved for crops). There was too much waste from the farmers’ markets. They’d cut and pick from their crops hoping to sell it all and sometimes that wouldn’t happen. So the produce became chicken feed. It still does, but usually only once it’s gone to seed. Now, if they need more for the stand they just go pick some.
What do they sell? Except for the occasional few containers of blueberries later in the season, they’ve got all vegetables all the time. Lettuces, kale, herbs, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, peppers, eggplants, and a whole host of different kinds of tomatoes. As Belta says, “Tomatoes are kind of our big thing.”
They sell flowers and jams. In the fall, it’s squash as far as the eye can see. But let’s discuss their eggs. People actually fight over them.
They said people like to know where their food comes from. And for these Westporters, knowing these eggs come from chickens that eat organic produce and are free to range in a wide enclosed space makes a huge difference. Belta and Loffredo pointed out that many of their customers no longer want to buy their eggs from the supermarket since the last salmonella outbreak in 2010.
“When they get to the store, the eggs you can buy are already a month old,” said Belta. “Ours are maybe a day old.”
They have 75 people picking up their CSA share and they get regular calls to get on the waiting list for next year. They hope to expand to 100 by next summer. They send out a notification in January to their regular members to secure their spot before they open it up to their waiting list. The cost is $500 for 20 weeks from June through October.
After so many years of being one of the only working farms in Westport, why jump on the CSA bandwagon now? It’s partly because the farm stand has gained popularity through word-of-mouth. Another part is that customers are conscious of the food chain and they want something better than what comes in a Styrofoam box.
“[T]here’s definitely been a change in the past few years,” said Lofreddo. “Four years ago, people didn’t really know what GMOs were. People are more educated about farms and where their food comes from. Food comes with dirt on it.”
While consumers have been increasingly voting with their forks like Michael Pollan instructed us to with his original 2006 blog post in The New York Times, the food movement depends on farms. But this country has lost a ton of farmland to urban sprawl. Fairfield alone had over 200 working farms only a few generations ago. With Greenfield Farm on Congress Street, we have only one.
That may be starting to shift, however. According to a survey by the Economic Research Service of the USDA, the United States currently devotes 40% of its acreage to farmland. More people are devoting some of their property to farmland. Some experts cautiously state that we’re in a farmland bubble. But does that mean we’re doomed to repeat the housing market collapse only this time on cropland? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, there’s another shift in farming that may keep farms steady and productive for the long term. According to a June 13th blog post on NPR, a USDA survey shows a major increase in women farmers. They jumped from 5% in 1978 to 14% in 2007. While many of these women start out small, they have the potential to grow exponentially. The majority of these female-run farms either focus on raising poultry or specialty crops—exactly what most consumers want in a CSA.
It can be rather tough, however, to feed your family when your job is so weather dependent. This rainy spring alone has already washed out one whole section of their fields. Ducks were actually wading in it. And, that’s not counting what happened last year after Hurricane Sandy. Some CSAs in the Northeast cancelled the rest of their season because their crops were destroyed.
But the Belta family has a little formula they use to guard against weather. They don’t put all their “eggs in one basket,” so to speak. They rotate the crops and spread them out.
There are pockets of tomato plants in different sections of the farm with different gradients. Some years, it’s so hot the tomatoes on high ground burn out early. Other years plants get washed out in the low-ground gullies. The other plants are treated the same way and extra plantings are put in their greenhouse. As Belta said, “It’s easier to do that than run short.”
On the rare occasion when they have run short, they supplement their CSAs shares with something else. No tomatoes? Here, have some pumpkin bread we made for you. Ran out of herbs? Not a problem. There’s a jar of homemade jam for you.
So the next time you find yourself on Bayberry Lane, drop by the Belta’s farm stand on Fridays and Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. In July and August, they add Sundays at the same time, too.
For more information about their CSA waiting list, call them at 203-454-2293 or e-mail them at email@example.com.
128 Bayberry Lane