Big Train Farm Might Be Rhode Island’s Favorite Little CSA

Posted by Soren Sorensen

You’d be forgiven for wondering what is going on behind West Providence’s Bell Street Chapel on Friday afternoons between the hours of 3:30 and 7 p.m. Starting November 4th, Friday afternoons are Big Train Farm’s Fall/Early Winter Community Sponsored Agriculture pickup days.

Participants in the sold out Fall/Early Winter CSA can look forward to root vegetables, greens and hardy vegetables like potatoes and winter squash.  While Community Sponsored Agriculture is a bit less predictable than a trip to Whole Foods, for Big Train Farm’s loyal customers, it beats the same old grocery store experience.

New England Post recently got a behind-the-scenes peek at the farm in western Cranston and spoke to the two farmers—three if you count Sally the dog—responsible for each week’s bounty.

“We don’t have any more shares available this year,” Big Train Farm manager, 30 year-old John Kenny told New England Post of the CSA’s popularity.

Mr. Kenny started Big Train Farm in 2008 on half an acre of land.  “At the beginning of the 2008 season, we built a small CSA, did a few farmers markets and basically took any account we could get.”

“By the end of the year,” Mr. Kenny continued, “ we had turned over another acre and a half so I was working two acres.”

For the uninitiated, a CSA share is a portion of groceries purchased in advance and distributed weekly at a predetermined time and location. Big Train Farm sells full shares and half shares. Work shares are also available for those who have the time and inclination to farm their own food.

“Now I’m out here running the place with Mindy,” Mr. Kenny said of one such work share participant.  “She came along in 2009 and was working part time and now she’s full time and we’re working about three acres of land.”

“I work at Whole Foods during the winter,” Mindy Walls told New England Post. Big Train Farm’s new greenhouse, she said, will allow them to serve members well into December.

Referring to the recent explosion of urban farmers markets and the local food movement, Mr. Kenny told New England Post that he began to get into organic farming in the late 90s before it was all the rage.  Still, he said, the popularity of local and organic meat and produce doesn’t surprise him.

“The experience I’ve had on farms,” John said, “has involved a lot of enthusiasm from the public.  It’s getting progressively more popular, less trendy and more mainstream, but the enthusiasm has always been there.”

“I feel people are starting to understand,” Ms. Walls added, “the large scale system of food coming from all over the place isn’t as economically sustainable as it once was.”

Mr. Kenny also points to increased educational opportunities—college courses in sustainable food production and the like—as one of many factors spurring on Big Train Farm’s recent success. However, he stops short of calling his CSA “recession proof.”

“Everything’s been on a steady progression upwards,” he said, and added, “I haven’t really seen a downtick and I haven’t heard many organic farmers complaining about the economy.”

The perception that only solidly middle class families shop at farmers markets and join CSAs is certainly pervasive, but the numbers seem to suggest that purchasing CSA shares can save participants a good amount of money.

According to Mr. Kenny’s calculations, 2010 full-share members received $80.00 more in product than their initial investment.  When the product is healthy, locally grown and relatively inexpensive, Mr. Kenny told New England Post, everybody wins.

“It’s nice to see, in my CSA, a lot of working class people coming back year after year,” he said and continued, “The lower income community needs to be better served and that’s one of my goals.”

By cutting out big supermarket chains, Mr. Kenny can charge less for his product, even during tough economic times.

Regarding Fertile Underground, a new community supported grocery on Providence’s West Side, and Urban Greens, a buying club currently seeking members and a location for a food co-op, Mr. Kenny is cautiously optimistic.

“The co-op scene and the wholesale clubs will only take us so far and I say that as much about my own CSA, Mr. Kenny said. “I’m speaking holistically about local agriculture.”

“There needs to be a paradigm shift. A co-op on Westminster Street is only going to serve a limited number of people, just like we do.”

Reiterating the importance of serving lower income communities, he continued, “Farmers markets are probably the most progressive right now because you’re seeing a lot more EBT [Electronic Benefit Transfer] acceptance.”

Mr. Kenny is currently in the process of gaining an official USDA organic certification and looking forward to a productive fall and winter. Though Big Train Farm doesn’t advertise, you can bet people will start asking about 2012 shares very soon.

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Posted by Soren Sorensen on Nov 7 2011. Filed under Featured - For home page featured article, Lifestyle. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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