NORRISTOWN >> In the food desert of Norristown, the county is seeking to put an oasis in Norristown Farm Park.
A stated mission in the county’s comprehensive plan to achieve community supported agriculture in Norristown Farm Park could be accomplished soon, possibly even by year’s end.
“Depending on how long the review process takes, and other factors, we may be able to have a group on the ground preparing for a fall crop, this could still get off the ground in 2016,” said Lee Soltysiak, deputy chief operating officer for the county. “All is not lost for 2016 for people who want to see this happen.”
Community supported agriculture, or CSAs, is a model of farming where community members can buy shares of vegetables, fruit, flowers and other items the farmer harvests. Farms like Pennypack Farm and Education Center in Horsham provide fresh, often organic produce to shareholders.
The county isn’t alone in hoping to accomplish the goal. A group called Sweet Fields has put into motion a plan to start an educational CSA on the 8-acre parcel of land set aside for the project. The group’s proposal included a letter of support from the Food Resources Center at CADCOM.
“The Food Resources Center … has long had an interest in this area. We have supported the development of the Pennypack Farm and Education Center and other projects in the county that help bring fresh produce to low-income consumers and raise awareness of environmental principles,” the letter said.
While the group hoped to get seeds in the ground as early as the first week of April, it has faced some challenges moving forward. For one, the county is planning to open up a request for proposals to other CSA groups that would bid against Sweet Fields.
Members of Sweet Fields’ team came to a recent meeting of the board of commissioners to object to the request for proposals. The group has since met with county officials for feedback on how to proceed with its plans. Donnini called the meeting “positive and productive.”
“I think everybody obtained a clearer understanding of the total situation. As a result, it looks like we will be moving forward with an efficient RFP process,” she said.
The group was hoping to skip the RFP, something Soltysiak said is a possibility when a strong proposal comes before the county. However, the group was notified a few days before the March 17 meeting that the county would be issuing an RFP. County officials were unsure if Sweet Field’s proposal could succeed as it was.
“We had concerns that they could do that successfully, with the timing and the number of things that had to happen for the farm to be prepared to yield any crops,” Soltysiak said. “It was more of a timing issue.”
Sweet Fields didn’t see it that way. The group believed that they had all ducks in a row to start planting seeds in the first week of April.
“We’re not going to have people coming out and picking up CSA shares until June, so we have the rest of April and May to do last minute things,” Donnini said. “We have a payment system, we have the facility figured out, everything is a go. We have an educational element. It’s a pretty straightforward proposal.”
This is not the first time the county has issued an RFP for the project. The land, which has not been farmed since 2010, was open to proposals for groups to open a CSA for a 2012 harvest. The sublease was never awarded, after a prolonged negotiation with a group that has since settled on another location.
The request will be issued at the April 7 meeting of the commissioners and Sweet Fields plans to be among the bidders for a sublease to start farming in the park. Soltysiak said the county provided feedback to Sweet Fields, and is willing to provide the same guidance to any other groups that are interested in submitting a proposal.
This time around, the county isn’t just going to back one horse. Soltysiak said the county is looking for a proposal with a high chance of success, one that “can become a model as an example how they would do this kind of thing.”
Sweet Fields’ members, community partners and county officials agreed that an organization that could bring fresh and affordable produce, easily accessible to residents of Norristown and the surrounding areas, is an important goal.
James Johnson, a former resident of Norristown, spoke at the meeting, saying that the options for sustainable and fresh produce and goods is something “vastly overlooked” in the community.
“You end up having two options, you can go far away and you end up at the Whole Foods, you can go that route,” Johnson said. “Or you can get something that is not only supporting this community and the members of this community, but you’re promoting your own personal wellbeing as well.”