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New Utah community ag program puts members to work

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gardening assistant Xiomara Bella, left, shows a new group of gardeners with Live and Thrive the mixed greens growing in the groups greenhouse in Holladay. Live and Thrive is unique. Member-volunteers pay $100 tolearn and work on farms around the valley and share in the bounty.

By Heather May

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Apr 23 2013 08:50AM
Updated Jul 7, 2013 11:35PM

Courtney Hartsfield wanted to feed her 4-year-old twins organic fruits and vegetables, but she couldn’t afford the retail prices. And, as a novice gardener, growing her own produce didn’t seem like an option.

Luckily, the 38-year-old Sugar House resident was willing to work. She joined Live and Thrive Community Supported Agriculture program, one of the few CSAs in Utah that require members to work for food. Members like Hartsfield are learning to garden and in turn are able to take home organic produce.

"I’m trying to eat as locally as possible and as seasonably as possible," she said. "I just like the idea of knowing where my food is coming from."

And she knows it intimately.

In traditional CSAs, consumers buy "shares" or a membership in a local farm early in the year and then collect produce once a week when it’s ripe. (CSA’s are different than a community garden where plots are rented and tended by individuals.)

CSA members may know their farmer, but they don’t do the tilling, planting, weeding or picking — though some let members visit the farms or they seek volunteers.

At Live and Thrive, members pay $100 for 10 months of food, but they can’t get the goods unless they’re at the garden, working the fields. During the harvest, it’s a ready-made farmers market, and whoever is there helping can fill their bags.

"I always tell people, ‘If you come more often, you’ll get more food,’" said owner Sheryl McGlochlin, adding that the CSA has no paid employees. "I can’t just give them the food in our group. They need to want to learn how to grow food."

Recent to-do lists at Live and Thrive included tilling in compost, weeding morning glory, raking and planting new seed starts. Members have already received salad greens, spinach and garlic.

In the six years since McGlochlin started the business, she’s learned people are excited to volunteer in the spring, when they’re anxious to get outside. But even the allure of fresh tomatoes can’t get some of them out during the dead of summer.

"I liken gardening to raising a child, an infant. They’re demanding. Sometimes they’re really cute and sometimes they’re just obnoxious but they still need attention," she said.

Speaking of children, Hartsfield usually brings hers along to "help." Last year they helped dig up carrots, pick tomatoes and shoveled dirt, she said. "Having them play in the dirt is really good for them."

In the beginning • McGlochlin isn’t a gardener by training. But random events inspired her to learn. The seeds were planted two decades ago when her husband was laid off from a job and she realized the family should learn how to be self-sufficient. Later, she started a hiking club and saw people were willing to put in effort to an outdoor activity. And during a hiking trip to the Swiss Alps, she tasted the fruits that grew in terraced gardens at 6,000-foot elevations.

She returned to the flat backyard of her Holladay home and — after seeking advice from neighbors, friends and acquaintances — planted tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce.

Today, she oversees 14 gardens throughout Salt Lake County — all are privately owned but loaned to Live and Thrive.

Some 150 members have joined, though no more than 30 ever show up at a garden at a time. When they do, McGlochlin said she feeds them lunch from produce put up from last year.

There’s a similar CSA model in Ogden. Members of the Skyline CSA are expected to work a couple of hours each week. They’re assigned certain sections of the garden, but they get to harvest from the entire plot on an honor system.

Wes Groesbeck, a master gardener, started the CSA in 2007 on his 3/4-acre property to "see what would happen if we work together communally." He said the group is close-knit and they do a good job.

"We’re probably going to have the best herb garden in all of Ogden," he said.

Judi Amsel joined the Ogden CSA a couple years ago. "I’m paying for the privilege of going and working really hard," she said, noting that she is someone who "thought I couldn’t even learn to grow dirt."

Now, she’s learned enough to start her own vegetable and herb garden at home even as she tends to the group onions and arugula.

Another benefit: The members hold a monthly potluck, making dishes with ingredients from the garden. Last year, when she was in charge of eggplants, Amsel made a dessert with the nightshade as a pie crust, covered in layers of ricotta cheese, almonds, cinnamon and chocolate.

The CSA, the 58-year-old said, "has given me such a completely different relationship with the Earth and with organic food and the cycle of eating following the season."

Kim Johnson already knew how to garden, but her backyard plot can’t grow as much variety as Live and Thrive’s three acres. She joined this year.

"I like to have my hands in the dirt," the 48-year-old Millcreek resident said. "Some people like to go to the gym and work out. I like to garden."

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