Farmer Has Carved Out a Niche for Survival: Community Supported Agriculture

Polly Hieser lives off the land with the help of an unusual business concept -- attracting advance buyers to her unplanted crops. They agree to purchase in bulk and to volunteer in helping with the harvest. It may not be a concept familiar to young Future Farmers of America types, but it works for her.

Polly Hieser lives off the land with the help of an unusual business concept -- attracting advance buyers to her unplanted crops. They agree to purchase in bulk and to volunteer in helping with the harvest. It may not be a concept familiar to young Future Farmers of America types, but it works for her.

Hieser is no stranger to a landscape that's unfamiliar to most women. She runs a farm. That alone sets her apart among the career ladders more common to her gender; only 11 percent of American farm owners are women. And that number is up 12 percent since 1977.

Once primarily focused on beef cattle, female farmers have diversified in the past 20 years to specialize in horses, aquaculture, fur-bearing animals, and other kinds of livestock. On average, women operate smaller farms than men, and are far more likely to inherit their farms.

Farming is, after all, a tough business in which failure is all too common. Virginia lists 47,600 farms, down 4 percent from 1997. Nationally, the number of farms has remained stagnant at about 2.1 million.

Still, Hieser persists as a survivor in a niche that she and increasing numbers of others are carving out around the nation: community supported agriculture. CSA is a unique model of local agriculture whose roots reach back 30 years to Japan, where a group of women initiated a direct growing and purchasing relationship between their group and local farms. This concept traveled to Europe and was adapted to the U.S. and given the name "Community Supported Agriculture" in Massachusetts in 1985.

The number of CSAs, nationally, has increased to more than 1,000, up from about 50 in 1990. Virginia lists 21 CSAs.

"I like the community aspect," Hieser said. "I didn't want to go to the farmers market. I don't have the loud voice like a hawker. I like the idea of growing food and having people come to pick it up." She relishes the idea that groups of people support the farm and share in the bounty.

Hieser draws up a budget reflecting the production costs for the year, and prices her shares accordingly.

She charges $690 for a full share, and $410 for a half share. The prices are higher for those who do not want to volunteer during harvest.

But she's also known for her generous heart.

"She enjoys the CSA concept because there's not a lot of sales involved," said Kim Schwenk, an employee. She added that Hieser isn't bossy. "She treats me as an equal. She gives me the run of the barn."

Hieser's unconventional approach to farming is yet another wrinkle in the special tactics that many farmers have resorted to in recent years to thrive, expand and sometimes just to stay afloat during dicey economic times. Individual owners have tried everything from turning part of their homes into bucolic bed-and-breakfasts to pick-your-own retailing.

But anyone who seeks to emulate Hieser's strategy should be aware that her annual income of about $12,000 is below poverty line. Yet her true bottom line, the way she sees it, is boosted by bartered goods and the fruit and vegetables she grows for herself. She takes in a couple of extra thousand dollars from the sale of seed and plants.

Hieser chose her business model largely as a way to get close to her market of choice -- about 90 families who demand organically grown products. They are kindred spirits to her and being part of their lifestyle provides Hieser a certain camaraderie with which she's comfortable.

Brigitte Williams, a shareholder, said "Polly is a good role model. She made choices in her life. What's important is she's at peace with herself and people sense that."

The 52-year-old farmer with gritty nails is likely to be found at her Seven Springs Farm, picking herbs and vegetables in the evenings and on weekends.

"She's persistent," said Fred Erdman, an apprentice who worked for Polly this summer. He admired her ability to remember every nuance of each herb and vegetable. "She's very good about remembering which crops need weeding," he said. "It's important to have everything in your mind at once. "You can't forget about the sweet potatoes for three days."

The farmer, who came to Check from the outskirts of Philadelphia, prefers old-fashioned methods of getting things done. At first blush, her combination barn and office is reminiscent of "Little House on the Prairie."

There's a makeshift clothesline to dry bags, antiquated scales, a chalkboard with all the pertinent information, lots of hand-written notes, sinks and boxes of herbs and vegetables. A black cat with a white chest and paws strolls through at its leisure. But the fax and copy machines, computer and printer in one corner quickly remind you of modern times.

Hieser's home, which she built, also reflects her Bohemian lifestyle. She does not spend any of her earnings on cable or satellite. She does not watch television. She does not pay a gas bill. She does not get an electric bill.

She built her modest home using solar panels. She heats her home with propane.

She does pay for car insurance and her monthly premiums to her health insurer.

Her grocery bill is next to nothing. She grows a lot of her own food and trades out with other producers. Her clothing expenses are minimal. She shops at Goodwill. "And that's not very often," she said. "I don't like to shop." She does not go to movies.

Living at poverty level is not hard, she said. But "it's not easy," either.

"I couldn't do it if I had children and a mortgage."

She's raising the share prices next year so she can earn $20,000.

Her parents have given her some financial gifts over the years, which helped Hieser spend three and one half months in Ghana, where she indulged in her other passion of drumming and dancing. She teaches drumming -- for a nominal fee -- to adult women in Floyd County and dates Nii Anang, a Ghana native who's a drummer in the Kusun Ensemble.

For Anang, drumming is a form of worship. For Hieser, growing herbs and vegetables is her form of worship. "It [gardening] really makes me cry, sometimes. It's the most profound work I can ever imagine."

Her spirituality flourished when she started growing food for other people.

"I feel like I'm doing sacred work," Hieser said.

She believes in separating church from state, shunning the costs and red tape for getting her farm certified from the federal government.

A "certified organic" label was not required for her products because she does not sell to retailers or to the wholesale market. "My customers trust me and pay me for the cost of the garden," Hieser said.

One state official has heard this mantra from many organic farmers.

"You don't have to be certified if you sell less than $5,000," said Tom Sleight, director of division marketing at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Hieser prefers to spend her energy on growing and learning more about organic farming.

"Farming in this country is in real trouble," Hieser said, "because of long-distance shipping and the cost of farming unfarmable land." She's disturbed that many people continually hurt the soil with chemicals and heavy machinery.

It was the heavy use of chemicals that drove Hieser and her business partner, Ron Juftes, out of a Philadelphia suburb, where the two had a landscaping and tree surgery business. That was in 1990.

"We started to get sick from the lawn spray. We couldn't work in neighborhoods where the lawns were sprayed. It was nasty stuff."

They searched for the right farm. On her rural homestead, Hieser has found a cleaner place. "Polly's a very good steward of the earth," said Jill Loftis, a shareholder.

"Every time I think I'm not being a big consumer; trying to not buy things with as much packaging; trying not to use as much water or electricity. I think of Polly. She treads lightly on air."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News