Welcome Table Farm plucks fresh food for customers

Subscribers to the program get an e-mail telling them what to expect so they can plan their menus.

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Emily Dietzman shares some attention with her two draft horses at Welcome Table Farm before harvesting produce for CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) customers. Tuesday, June 22, 2010

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Andy Asmus slices tops from freshly harvested and washed red and yellow radishes at Welcome Table Farm as he and his wife, Emily Dietzman, prepare boxes for their community supported agriculture (CSA) customers. Tuesday, June 22, 2010

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Wooden boxes for community supported agriculture (CSA) customers fill with fresh produce as it is harvested from Welcome Table Farm. The farm provides a box full of fresh produce for CSA customers weekly from mid-May through the beginning of October. Tuesday, June 22, 2010

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Farmer Andy Asmus carries a bounty of empty boxes to the fields at Welcome Table Farm so he and his crew can harvest some of the early summer produce for customers. Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fresh produce from the fields of Welcome Table Farm arrives on local dining room tables through a journey that begins Tuesdays with one early alarm, two pairs of rubber boots, 50 crops and one baby monitor.

In the hours before 1 1/2-year-old Hazel Asmus awakens from her slumber, her parents Andy and Emily Dietzman Asmus assemble sawhorse tables in their backyard to hold 50 wooden produce boxes they will fill with the bounty of a morning harvest.

The boxes are packed for subscribers of the Community Supported Agriculture program -- a direct-buy initiative where consumers pay at the start of the season for produce they receive once a week from May through October.

With the help of a small staff, including one volunteer who trades labor for produce, each box is packed with a cooking green and salad green, a root crop, something from the allium family, a fresh herb, berries and any other extras that might be ripe for picking.

The trickle of Titus Creek and the sighs of a sleeping baby inside serenade the couple a little after 5 a.m. as they start the routine, which also includes feeding two draft horses, three pigs, a small flock of sheep and a several clucking chickens. Employee Kirk Huffy ventures out to the property to harvest while the tables are set up.

The pace breaks when the baby opens her eyes, Dietzman Asmus explained. Then the family unites for breakfast before the day's work resumes.

The setting and pace are the idyllic ingredients of a lifestyle celebrating fresh food and family. And the boxes of produce are their way of sharing it.

"It's a way to live outside, and a way to spend time with our daughter," Dietzman Asmus said under the cool shade of the tree-lined yard that abuts the 6- to 7-acre farm.

Fueled by every kind of movement from organic to locavore to thrifty dining, interest in the program has grown since it began four years ago. In 2007, 18 customers signed on to receive the weekly produce boxes. This season 50 families pick them up at Welcome Table Farm's location, as well as a couple of other places in town.

Though raised among the rolling farm hills of the Walla Walla Valley, Dietzman Asmus wasn't introduced to the concept of a small-scale diversified farm until she moved to the Willamette Valley.

"My picture of agriculture was big wheat fields," she said.

The daughter of a pediatrician and a school nurse, her exposure to farming came in high school when she kept three chickens in the FFA barn at Walla Walla High School. A future in farming came to the environmental studies major after seeing that two people could grow food for themselves and feed others.

The couple came to Walla Walla in 2007 with a lease in hand for the Mill Creek property that neighbors the turnoff to Rooks Park.

The farm may be known among some because of Avi and Dandy, the resident American Beligan draft horses that plow, disk, harrow, cultivate and pull loads at the land, 3 miles east of downtown Walla Walla.

But sandwiched in the rows of sweet peas with the sun blazing down, Andy Asmus said the increased attention on healthy food and living has raised awareness of the kind of work local farmers are doing.

"There isn't a week that goes by when NPR doesn't have a story about it," he said.

A vibrant Walla Walla Valley Farmers Market has also introduced more consumers to local food, Dietzman Asmus explained. In front of her, the wooden boxes were being packed by volunteer Erin Griffin with two pints of strawberries, salad greens, kohlrabi, sweet peas, bulb fennel and more.

Subscribers to the program get an e-mail telling them what to expect so they can plan their menus. In addition to the CSA clients, additional produce goes to about a half-dozen local restaurants.

For Welcome Table -- as well as several other local farms that operate CSA programs on a more limited scale -- the signup allows them to spread the word about their operation, get "seed" money for major expenses when cash flow is most needed and introduce their food. The $500 price averages to about $24 a week when spread through the season.

Besides vegetables and fruits, the couple raise cut flowers and eggs. They now have sheep and a few pigs and plan in another year or two to offer meat. For the first time this fall they'll have broilers.

Dietzman Asmus hopes to grow the farm and the program to even larger numbers in the future. Despite two community gardens and her work with Walla Walla schools coordinating the planting of gardens for student clubs, she believes there's plenty more space for the local food movement.

"There's a demand for fresh, local food," she said.

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