At Hay Way CSA on a hot June morning, Adam Ottavi stares at a robin investigating his row of chard. His gaze is riveted and his smile as bright as the sun.
“Look at that,” Ottavi says, beaming. “Isn’t that fun?”
Fun is indeed Ottavi’s motto at his small community supported agriculture farm off Sheep Creek Road. In 3,000 feet of space, he grows enough food for 10 families. He started the farm last summer with five members. When he decided to expand this year he spread the word out through email and Facebook, filling the new slots in 10 minutes.
“It’s fun to grow food for friends,” Ottavi said. “I grow for people I know.” Members help out with weeding and harvesting. “If I grew only for myself it would be nothing but stress.”
Two years ago Ottavi earned a master’s degree in fine arts and photography from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and his creative side shines at the farm. The garden is near perfect, the greenhouses exquisite and the fowl yards inviting.
Growing up in Iowa, Ottavi was surrounded by the farming lifestyle. His great-grandparents sold their farm in the 1940s to start a farm implement business but his family continued to grow their own food, something that Ottavi appreciates to this day. “It’s part of our culture,” he said. “It’s always been one of my interests and when I moved here I couldn’t help myself. I think it’s a lot of fun to grow my own food.”
He loves to cook, so he puts to good use the vegetables, herbs and poultry he raises.
Hay Way is run similar to a non-profit organization, Ottavi explained. He doesn’t take a salary. “It’s a real CSA, a community garden with me as the proprietor,” he said.
He follows organic principles, purchasing $1,000 of organic fertilizer each year and enriching the soil with compost, blood meal and bone meal. “The soil is rich and beautiful and we get a lot of sun,” Ottavi said. “It is really a blessed little garden.” He uses a solar-powered water pump to distribute water he collects off his roof.
Ottavi is experimenting with Yukon Chief and Early Snow corn varieties this year. He is also trying Early Moonbeam watermelons, along with broccoli, celery, squash, peas, beans, strawberries, carrots, parsnips.
The farm is home to 14 egg layers, seven chickens and seven ducks. Eggs are included in the shares. There are also magnificent Royal Palm turkeys, which will end up on Ottavi’s dinner table.
One greenhouse boasts 55 tomato plants and the other cucumbers and herbs such as basil, rosemary and parsley.
Prior to starting a CSA, Ottavi was a member of one. While he enjoyed it immensely, he said he heard comments from other members who were overwhelmed by the vast amount of greens. “I decided to grow things people wanted to eat,” he said.
On harvest day, members show up with their children and grandchildren and everyone helps pick the crops. If members have no interest in fennel they simply leave it for someone else.
Ottavi works every morning for three hours, weeding and watering. “It doesn’t feel like work,” he said. “I’m obsessive compulsive about weeds.” Two members are also committed to serious weeding and the dedication shows in the clean rows.
By July, Ottavi will begin combining his two passions, photographing the beautiful vegetables using an old-style glass photographic method. He was inspired to do this by the 19th century British photographer Charles Jones. “He documented what he grew and had strong composition and technique.”
Ottavi is an adjunct professor at UAF and is vying for an artist-in-residence in Japan. He is working toward having a show outside of Alaska, with a few things pending.
Whatever direction the art takes him, Ottavi plans to continue the farm. He is keeping his options open, such as cutting back to five members and selling the rest of the crops through a co-op or to a restaurant. He’d also like to expand the garden and keep focusing on ways to grow food in a northern climate in a viable, organic fashion. “Part of that is we have to accept that we’re going to pay a higher price for food because it’s harder to grow,” he said.
Ottavi credits friends with giving him good advice. He also reads a lot and experiments. “Luckily I haven’t made too many mistakes,” he said. “What works for one farmer may not work for another. That’s the beauty of biology.”
The only challenge is to maintain the momentum from February when seeds are planted to September when harvest is done. “When the frost hits I’m happy,” Ottavi said. “But it’s not a challenge; it’s so much fun and so rewarding.”
A Tour of Farms will be held for the public in Fairbanks July 28. Hay Way CSA is one of 13 local farms that will welcome visitors that day. Watch for details in the News-Miner!
This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer.