Community agriculture: CSAs benefit growers and consumersWritten by Rebecca Mott Colnar
Carol LeResche loves gardening so much that after 22 years working as a CPA and fiscal analyst in Juneau, Alaska, she decided she wanted to move back to Wyoming where she could grow a large garden. Decidedly, Wyoming is not the ideal place for vegetables to thrive, but it beats Alaska, and her roots were deep in Wyoming soil.
“My grandparents homesteaded in Wyoming and I was born and raised in Sheridan,” explains LeResche. “In 1995, my husband Bob and I decided we wanted to come back to Wyoming. My grandparent’s original homestead had been sold, so we looked for a place in the country where I could garden. We found our ranch east of Clearmont in Clear Creek valley, named for the good water flowing down from the Big Horn Mountains. The Valley has a lot of irrigating with great water, especially in the spring when it’s important to have good quality water.”
When the couple purchased their place in 1995, they were still working in Alaska and came only for summers. Over the years, they built a cabin and started other infrastructure.
“We moved to the ranch permanently in 2002, and I grew a great garden in 2003,” LeResche remembers. “In fact, it was so good that a friend and I decided we needed to go and sell our produce at the Farmer’s Market in Sheridan. What we discovered was that people were hungry for fresh produce.”
They sold at the farmer’s markets for several years.
“It wasn’t that profitable, but it was a great way to meet people,” she says.
In 2009, the two decided to start Clear Creek Valley Produce, a community supported agriculture (CSA) project. A CSA is an agricultural marketing model where customers buy a share in farm produce and receive a weekly delivery of that produce.
LeResche explains that your loss is their loss.
“They realize there can be crop failure due to weather, heat and even insects,” she says.
In 2009, they began delivering their tasty, fresh vegetables to CSA shareholders in Buffalo, Gillette and Sheridan. They sold in Gillette, Buffalo and Sheridan, but as of this year, LeResche is serving the Sheridan Market, as well as Eaton’s Ranch in Wolf.
Growing a garden
“The hardest part was deciding how much to grow. I did a lot of research on the internet to determine how much people will eat of a certain vegetable. As time went by, I got better at estimating, although sometimes I still might miscalculate,” LeResche says.
The Clearmont gardener says her growing season technically begins in February, when she starts selecting seeds. LeResche has a greenhouse for starting some seedlings, and also uses growing “tunnels” where she starts the lettuce and spinach in April, followed by chard, kale, onions and carrots that are planted in late April or early May. Her second plant rotation is geared toward the warm weather crops, which include cucumbers, squash and eggplants.
“I need to be cognizant of the weather and of freezing temperatures, especially because we irrigate on top of the ground. You have to make sure it’s not going to freeze,” she says. “Normally we water a lot at once, maybe twice a week. This year, however, because of the heat, it’s hard to keep water in the dirt, so we are watering more often.”
She says usually broccoli and cabbage are spring crops, planted in late April and early May, but because of this year’s heat, her broccoli never flowered, and the cabbage hasn’t headed yet. Plus, flea beetles are enjoying the broccoli this year.
“But I’m going to keep watering these plants and hopefully I might still get a crop. It will just be a later crop,” she adds.
The first bounty delivered to customers is usually lettuces, spinach, onions and radishes, generally available in June. July’s crop includes some of the lettuces, along with peas, green beans, summer squash, beets and cherry tomatoes. August’s bounty changes to corn, cucumbers, carrots, green peppers and fingerling potatoes, to name a few, with September seeing much the same.
LeResche does not strictly grow vegetables but has decided to try growing strawberries, and fruit trees have been planted just outside of her gardens.
She sells mostly produce from heirloom seeds, except spinach, and is certified organic. Although, she says, not everything organic tastes good, so keep that in mind when you’re shopping.
She uses hail and insect netting to protect her crops from the elements and pests, mentioning, “I learned my lesson. In 2008, I lost most of my crops to hail, so I’ve found this hail netting definitely helps.”
She explains that because she doesn’t spray to kill weeds, her gardens are not tidy.
“You really have to weed a lot by hand if you’re not going to spray,” LaResche notes. “It’s great if you can have someone who wants to help weed come by, but if you don’t have help, you just won’t have a neat garden.”
In addition to growing produce, she has planted a bee garden, complete with sunflowers and other plants bees like, so the helpful insects will be plentiful to pollinate her gardens.
Today, 30 shareholders enjoy receiving fresh vegetables 18 weeks. Summers are especially busy.
On Tuesday, she harvests and washes the produce. On Wednesday, LeResche packs everything in large plastic bins in her refrigerated truck and heads into Sheridan where from 4 – 6 p.m., people stop by to pick up their produce. On Thursday, she sends an email to Eaton’s Ranch to see if their chefs, who prefer to use local ingredients, are interested in what vegetables are available. If she gets the thumbs up, she heads toward the Big Horn Mountains to deliver the produce.
LeResche explains most of her business is word of mouth.
“The CSA idea came about because a group of people decided they wanted the home-grown vegetables. It works because people buy up front. We used to ask who wanted what vegetables, and we’d pick them, but then they might not show,” LeResche explains.
End of the season
At the end of September, Bob and Carol begin to clean up the gardens. They plant a cover crop, which this year will be red clover. Bob plays a large role in developing an irrigation plan and using the equipment. Their small tractor is used for breaking new ground. As winter sets in, Carol starts thinking about next year’s plantings, starts poring over seed catalogues, and the cycle begins again.
LeResche enjoys all of the aspects of gardening.
“I got my love of gardening from my father. He was always in the garden. I used to follow him around as a child and eat fresh peas. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything but homegrown tomatoes,” she says. “I love getting my vegetables out of the garden. It’s good for my soul.”
Tips for planting in Wyoming
Wyoming grower Carol LeResche comments on planting in Wyoming and lists the following tips for people to use:
• Figure out the quality of your water. If you have bad water and can find an affordable filtration system, do it.
• Test your soil. You need a lot of plant material to break up the heavy clay that’s prevalent in a lot of Wyoming.
• Weather tends to be inconsistent in Wyoming, which makes plantings challenging. Use tunnels to have a more consistent temperature. The larger the tunnel you have, the easier it is to regulate the temperature.
• Hoppers and Hail. Use netting especially designed to save your crops from hard hail and greedy insects.
• Experiment. Don’t be afraid to try different crops and experiment with that works best for your area.
• Ask for help. “I found that my local NRCS office in Sheridan was wonderful,” she said. “If I had a question they didn’t know, they’d look research it. Plus, they can sometimes help you get funding for things like tunnels or irrigation systems if you plan on starting a small business,” LeResche says.