By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
In the age of corporately owned mega-farms, CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) is helping small farmers compete in a very large playing field.
The practice of community sponsored agriculture started in Japan, a country with limited land and few resources. However, people still wanted to eat healthy diets, so they made deals with nearby farmers, sponsoring crops and trading work hours for a share in the harvest.
The practice made its way to the United States in the 1980s, and Wynn Heritage Farm was the first in Madison County to adopt the practice. Melvin “Mel” Wynn operates the 49-acre farm, which his parents, Jack and Velma Wynn, purchased in 1949. The “baby” of six children, Wynn now runs the farm with the help of Roxy and Daisy, two reddish-brown boxers whose official jobs are as “greeters” during the day and “varmint control” during the night.
“I have to plant enough for the possums and the raccoons, too,” he jokes. He has tried trapping them, but they become “trap-wise and trap-shy.”
They’ve never learned how to handle the dogs, however. If Roxy or Daisy finds them, “they’re up a tree.” Deer are another problem, he says, pointing to a set of deer tracks near a field.
Wynn credits his success to his family members, who support his endeavor with use of tractors and other farm equipment, but the most credit by far goes to his number one helper and right-hand man, Larry Morris, who can fix anything that needs to be fixed and do anything that needs to be done. If not for him, says Wynn, “Most of what gets done around here wouldn’t get done at all.”
Wynn enjoys his work, and left 30 years in the jewelry business to come back to farming. He and Morris have a favorite saying that “what we do should be illegal because it’s so much fun.”
The members who buy into his community sponsored farming either purchase a share for cash at the beginning of the planting cycle, or put in work hours at the farm, or both. In return, the members receive one box a week of six to eight different items during lean times, and up to 14 during times of plenty. The popularity of what he does has grown so much that he has tripled his membership in the last year. If he triples a couple more times, his farm will be maxed out. “It’s hard to do what I do on a large scale,” he says. Most CSA farms have an average membership of about 100, although he has heard of farms with membership numbers in the thousands.
This helps not only the community but the farmer as well. Wynn doesn’t have to borrow money for buying seeds and plants at the beginning of the plant cycle and he doesn’t have to guess how much to plant or how much he thinks he might be able to sell. He knows how many members he is growing for. Any extra he has, he sells to the public, but if supplies are limited by unforeseen things like droughts, members will get theirs first. “I treat all of them like family.”
Like a family, they share in the good times and the bad times. Sometimes a harvest will fail, or not be as abundant as usual, because Wynn cannot control nature. This year, the cantaloupes failed because of the drought (last year they thrived because the rains were “absolutely perfect”) and even with irrigation, some of the corn is suffering. The watermelons are half the size they usually are, “but they’re super-sweet.”
He will also make “u-pick” arrangements with members of the public in addition to selling at the market. All they need to do is contact him. Also, if anyone donates a piece of equipment that he can actually use on the farm, they become members of the CSA.
The list of things he grows on his farm is a long one; as he says himself, “there’s not much I don’t grow.” He has several acres of vegetable gardens spread out everywhere, growing broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, four or five kinds of lettuce, onions, sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, pole beans, wax beans, butter beans, zipper cream peas, black-eyed peas, purple hull peas, three varieties of purple eggplant, white eggplant, okra, mustard, turnips, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, honeydew, kohlrabi….
He also grows fields of sweet corn and field corn, which must be planted at least 500 feet apart to avoid cross-pollination of the two varieties; that would mar the taste of the sweet corn.
Additionally, he doesn’t plant the entire crop all at once, but over several weeks, so he can make the harvest last longer for members. It is a constant chore to maintain the plants at different ages, requiring a constant switching out of plows to accommodate the different sized plants. It is a marvel that he can keep up with all of it, but he does.
He tries to incorporate as many organic practices as possible into his farming; but his farm is more what he calls “transitional;” not completely organic because sometimes the bugs have to be sprayed, but he uses the safest spray he can find. He also enlists the help of purple martins to control the insect population, and each year he tries to incorporate a few more organic growing techniques if he thinks they might be feasible.
If anyone else wants to start up a CSA, he’ll be glad to answer any questions and give them any helpful information they might need in the process. “We’re not in competition with each other,” because the goal is sustainability.
As he drives around in a cart pointing out the spread-out gardens over multiple acres, he admits that the work is hard, but still he hopes that this will soon be a full-time endeavor, as he gradually reduces the amount of time he spends running his lawn-care service on the side. “I love it,” he says, looking over the fields of peas, peppers and corn. “I just got tired of living my life at 550 miles an hour. I love the quiet, the peace, the solitude of God’s world.”
To learn more about Wynn Heritage Farms, visit the website at www.localharvest.org/wynns-heritage-farm-M32301, or contact Mel Wynn at (850) 973-2729.