Wednesday, July 18, 2007 Northwest Indiana Times

Sharing a love of the land 


Leann Landgrebe Pelzel is rebuilding her small organic foods business after it nearly bit the dust in a 2005 drought.

In a unique arrangement, members invest in Pelzel Creme de la Crop farming operation on 10 acres in Valparaiso.

In return, they get a share of the harvest, including the tender green beans.

"Because we don't have to worry about growing things for transport, we can grow them for flavor and pick them at the peak of freshness," Pelzel said.

She and her husband, Michael, started the business four years ago, originally selling Christmas trees and later running a small farmstand on the acreage.

By 2005, she had made Creme de la Crop part of the Community Supported Agriculture program, which is gaining momentum in the U.S. after arriving from Europe in the 1980s.

The idea is for community members to become shareholders in the farm, investing not only with their pocketbooks but, in theory, their spirt, according to information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Their return is a share in the harvest, each one taking home a basket of homegrown veggies and fruits weekly.

Along with bountiful harvests in good years, CSA members share the risks all farmers share, including too much, or too, little rain.

The 2005 dry spell knocked some of the wind out of Pelzel first shot at the program, but handed her an unexpected gift.

"It was a good learning experience," she said.

She took time out last year to invest in new equipment meant to keep the ground moist and nourished, even in a drought.

By this year, the Community Supported Agriculture program had 90 members, with room for another 30, Pelzel said.

While terms of membership vary from farm to farm, Creme de la Crop investors pay between $245 and $599 to take part in summer harvests between June and September, and from $35 to $69 for an early winter harvest in November.

Crops range from tomatoes, lettuce, peas and peppers to the more exotic chard, edamame, fennel and garbanzo and fava beans.

Pelzel and a small crew of farm hands plant by hand and grow without using chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.

Now 31, Pelzel started her career as an interior designer and for a time worked for a firm in Valparaiso.

The land kept calling.

"Farming is in my blood, on both sides," said Pelzel, whose family farmed land off of U.S. 30 in Valparaiso for four generations.

Eventually she hopes to add a line of frozen and canned foods, and someday open a bed-and-breakfast catering to organic-food lovers.

She expects Creme de la Crop to operate in the black within five years.

"To me it's a passion," Pelzel said. "Eventually it will turn a profit."

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