Dittmar builds backyard plot into CSA serving 30 customers
FELTON, Del. — Zachary Dittmar has two jobs, two children and a shortage of time.
He drives a bus for the Milford School District and works three 12-hour shifts Saturday to Monday at a nearby Walmart distribution center.
He also puts fresh fruit and vegetables on the plates of more than 30 nearby residents through a growing CSA he built off a small farm he worked years to create.
“I’m glad that this week will be the last week of our season,” he said as his wife Jenny watched his two children on Oct. 24. “Both of us are working 80-plus hours a week between her taking care of the kids, the home and helping with the farm, and me doing my two jobs seven days a week, sun-up to sundown, so it gets tiring.”
It’s a reality Dittmar, 34, was determined to create, however, when he built a quarter-acre vegetable garden in his backyard at a previous home in 2014.
He’d grown up in a dairy farming community in Wisconsin, was a third-generation farmer and had moved east after college. He grew traditional vegetable crops: tomatoes, squash, zucchini, cucumbers and peppers, among others. It occurred to him that his neighbor hated mowing his own yard, so Dittmar asked if he could expand his garden into his neighbor’s backyard. His neighbor said yes, so he asked others at the end of his cul-de-sac. They said yes as well.
Within a year or two, the garden doubled in size to half an acre, and the Dittmars decided to be more ambitious.
He and his wife joined Delaware State University’s Farm School program in 2016, which taught them, in addition to the finer points of farming, the business of agriculture, such as how to create a limited liability corporation to protect your personal assets from your farm’s.
“We always wanted to make sure we did things right,” he said. “For me, coming from a farming background, I did learn some things, but a lot of it was familiar to me. But for someone like my wife, who had no background at all in farming or growing a garden or taking care of animals or anything like that, it was a very, very good foundation that was laid for her.”
They purchased a 40-acre farm on Paradise Alley Road, and began the work of ramping up production.
They started a CSA last year for eight members. In one year, it’s grown to more than 30 who pay more than $500 for 18 weeks of produce, including fruits, vegetables, and if they want, eggs, pasture-raised poultry and pork. It’s not drastically different than what they raised on their garden at their last home, but they’ve begun the work of making their farm Certified Organic.
“Looking at Americans and our health, we think the majority of our health issues are directly related to our food, more importantly, how it’s raised, how it’s grown and what’s applied to it,” he said.
It’s also cheaper on such a tiny operation — so far, he’s only growing on about an acre — to limit inputs and equipment purchases. There’s no need for a large tractor or sprayers and cultivators. He said he’s happier to focus on soil health and raising food more harmonized with nature.
“If I went out there and sprayed it, I probably would have a little bit of a higher yield, but we produce more than what we need,” he said.
The CSA has grown mostly by word-of-mouth, either through Facebook or occasional talks he began giving on organic farming at libraries, churches and other venues in the area last winter.
“I’ll advertise myself. I’ll pay for it,” he said. “I enjoy public speaking very much. I really believe in education. I want to see people learn how to do this. I really believe that the way we’re farming is the future.”
It isn’t without challenges, however, particularly with rain and flooding over the last six months. He’s begun developing relationships with nearby producers who can trade with him in tough times. He exchanged lettuce for cucumbers recently.
He still manages to produce a diverse array for CSA members. In June, they may have gotten asparagus, beets, carrots, kale, lettuce, turnips and onions. In July and August: Beans, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, scallions and watermelon. In September: Seasonal herbs, potatoes, cantaloupe and broccoli.
The Dittmars said they hope to expand the CSA to 200 members.
“We want to create a sense of community. We want to know the families we’re providing for. We want them to know us,” he said. “I think it’s important that people know where their food comes from, that they can see how it’s raised.”
It’s a four-year plan. If all goes well, he’ll transition into farming full-time.
“My wife and I, we always sit down at the end of the year and talk, like, was this worth it? Putting ourselves through it,” he said. “And we always come back to yes.”
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