Commission issues cease and desist on couple’s CSA

Whitney Miller-Caporaso gathers some summer squash for a shareholder on her and her husband Chris's farm on Straitsville Road in Prospect Aug. 19. The couple is operating their farm as a CSA, or community-supported agriculture. The town believes that it is a retail operation which is not permitted on their property and has issued a cease-and-desist order on the operation. - RA ARCHIVE

PROSPECT — A married couple’s venture to operate community-supported agriculture at their farm has been put into jeopardy.

Whitney Miller-Caporaso and her husband Christopher Caporaso, who live at 176 Straitsville Road, have been running community-supported agriculture or CSA on their property at the corner of Straitsville and Porter Hill roads.

Each CSA is a bit different. Generally, consumers prepay for a share at the start of the growing season, and they pick up a box of produce at a certain time from the farm, or the farm delivers to members.

This operational model has taken center stage in a matter of interpretation.

Miller-Caporaso says this isn’t retail.

The town’s Planning and Zoning Commission contends that it violates a special permit that the Caporasos were approved for in March 2008 for two commercial greenhouses in a residential zone. The permit states that no direct retail sales are allowed on the property.

Earlier this month, commissioners directed the town’s land use inspector, William Donovan, to issue a cease-and-desist order to the Caporasos.

Community-supported agriculture is a growing trend in Connecticut. It provides a way for farmers and consumers to connect with each other to get fresh local produce, said Bill Duesing, executive director of the Connecticut Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. The CSA model is flexible, he said. Some offer veggies, while others, fruit. Some even provide seafood or meats, he said.

They are open to members only. Many farmers of CSAs use member labor and may provide a discount for shares, Duesing said.

Miller-Caporaso, who is a member of the town’s Inland Wetlands Commission, said this farm is her primary source of income, and a cease-and-desist order would make it so she cannot support herself.
“This whole thing came about because of that ‘direct retail sale’ phrase,” Miller-Caporaso said. “I believe what I’m doing now is not in conflict with that.”

She said the zoning board is having difficulty understanding her project.

Under her CSA, people pay a membership fee at the beginning of a growing season. Members then pick up a bin of a variety of fresh vegetables twice a week between at the farm. She also delivers to markets in New Haven.

Consensus from commissioners last Wednesday was that people are paying for produce, and that is inconsistent with what was approved, said Donovan. The commission had asked Caporaso-Miller to address the board after it received questions from neighbors of traffic and of people picking up vegetables on site, according to a letter from Donovan to Caporaso-Miller.

According to town records, the commission chairman, Don Pomeroy, spoke with the town attorney who told him that there is a transaction taking place, and it could be interpreted as retail.

One of the challenges here is about understanding what smaller operation agriculture is all about, said Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau.

There is a trend to bringing agriculture closer to the consumer, he said. Talmage said people want to know where there food is coming from.

“Farming is hard enough,” Talmage said. “When you have additional challenges, it makes it that much harder.”

On their 1.7-acre parcel, the Caporasos run a microfarm, which offers a bit of everything. They have sugarbush at another site in town. Christopher Caporaso produces maple syrup, and also operates a carting business elsewhere in town.

Miller-Caporaso said she tries to provide her members with groceries for the week. Their produce depends on the season, but their offerings now include tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cabbage and herbs.

She has about 25 members in Prospect, and about 50 in New Haven. She said she prefers running a CSA and wants to stop going to markets because she has the best success working here at the farm.

The Caporasos originally thought they would produce flowers in the greenhouses, but the zoning process took so long that their partner pulled out. They were left with the greenhouses, and decided to do veggies.

“I am trying to find a solution that is quiet, works for us, works for everybody involved,” Miller-Caporaso said. “The CSA has minimum impact on the neighborhood.”