Home News and Features Creating Food Sovereignty: Ananda Gardens’ CSA Model Works for Farm and Family

Creating Food Sovereignty: Ananda Gardens’ CSA Model Works for Farm and Family

Melisa Oliva and Patrick Sullivan with their daughter, Munay, in one of their greenhouses where salad greens are still “waking up” this spring. Photo by Avi Zimet.
“We say the same food we are going to give to our kids, that’s what we want to provide to the community,” said Melisa Oliva, co-owner of Ananda Gardens Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which provides fresh, local food in Montpelier.

“The service that we’re providing has names, faces, and stories,” Oliva said.

Oliva and her husband Patrick Sullivan own and operate Ananda Gardens, with a handful of employees. They live with their two daughters on the six and a half acres of production on Horn of the Moon Road near Wrightsville Reservoir.

Sullivan, who manages the farming and production, moved to Vermont fresh out of college at the age of 22.

“We met in El Salvador when he was doing an exchange, farmer to farmer through NOFA [Northeast Organic Farming Association] Vermont,” said Oliva. About Vermont, she said “I like the community, I like the vibe, I like the values of food.”

“My first major was philosophy. And then slowly, I was moving more into wellness. And that’s what actually brought me to really want to invest my life in farming,” said Oliva, who is also a certified health-and-wellness coach at UVM.

A CSA is a kind of subscription service for farming, where customers sign up each season for a weekly delivery of fresh produce. Oliva explained that most farms begin by buying materials before planting, using a bank loan or savings. Then “they sell whatever they sell.” With the CSA model, customers sign up and Ananda Gardens knows how much food to grow, so it’s “very safe” — with the exception of the weather.

“There are other really skillful farmers around us, but their business model is different,” said Oliva. “We are creating, together with our customers, food sovereignty to strengthen the fabric of the economy in our community,” she said.

“We started with home delivery. We were the first ones in Montpelier,” said Oliva.

Oliva and Sullivan are in the process of building a new farmstand. The original farmstand was on their front porch, with signs in the windows. Since then, they remodeled the house and used a wedding tent as a farmstand for years until it collapsed under snow. “The tent was glorious,” said Oliva.

For the new farmstand, “we’re kind of thinking like a mural on the end wall of that structure, something just to bring it to life,” she said.

People can sign up online for the CSA. “We have a QR code on our signs, but not everybody feels comfortable with that,” so some people come in person, said Oliva. “I’m totally okay with that. I like people.”

“Sustaining members,” who sign up for all seasons, support the farm through the winter. This is the only income during the winter months, said Oliva. 

This spring, they have 91 customers between delivery and the farmstand. Ananda Gardens started the CSA in 2017 with fewer than 40 members and has “ramped up” since then, Oliva said. The pandemic was a “rocketship” year, during which time they grew 300%, hitting 150 members in 2020.

Since starting, they have constructed seven greenhouses.

Ananda Gardens has stuck to the CSA model because it works well for business and for the family. “We went to the farmers market for a season, and that didn’t go as well, because it’s a very hard model for a farmer,” said Oliva. “There’s a lot of unknowns,” she said, like in warm weather when “all these beautiful vegetables start to wilt in front of you.” Plus, bringing their young children to the market every week was a “tax on us as a family.”

Building Community

The wood for Ananda’s newest structure is local, and the compost on their field came from an East Montpelier business.

“We’ve met guys that were in elementary school when we started the farm, and now they’re like highschoolers, or they’re out of university. And some even have come to the farm to help in the summer,” said Oliva. “What we have here is opening our doors, for the community to come and witness their food growing in front of their eyes.”

Ananda Gardens hosts the soil health program for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont and has hosted music and dance events as well, Oliva noted. 

Embracing New Farming Techniques

Sullivan said rather than doing something no other farm is doing, “I would say we’re like early adopters for technologies or practices that are going to become more popular.”

Sullivan said he’s moved toward mulching and cover-cropping to build up soil nutrients, avoiding the use of a tractor on the gardens. He adopted no-till practices five years ago, and said he knows a lot of new farms “that are just going right into this style.”

“Our labor-to-land area is really high,” said Sullivan, noting that a farm five times their size could have the same sized team. “I think our team in general is really great,” he said. “We couldn’t be doing what we’re doing without them.

A practice they’ve adopted from larger farms is automated temperature control for the greenhouses. Sullivan can remotely control temperatures through his smartphone. “Before, we couldn’t go out,” said Oliva. “It’s like a game changer for the family.”

Leveraging Vermont’s Resources

Ananda Gardens was awarded the The Spirit of Enid Wonnacott Award this year from NOFA Vermont.

“We’re actually certified organic through them, and they have been great partners,” said Oliva, adding they have training with NOFA.

While the state of Vermont provides financial support for small-scale agriculture, there’s “not as much as it should be. And it’s pretty competitive,” said Oliva, noting 300 to 600 farms apply for the same grant funds.

After the July 2023 flood, Ananda Gardens received financial support from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture through the Local Food Purchase Assistance Plus program, and a grant from NOFA. “But the only reason that grant was available to us was because of the flood. A lot of the farms around had very significant losses.”

“Sometime, we’re going to reach out to the community and do a big GoFundMe thing to supplement the grant that one day we’ll hopefully get,” said Oliva, because most grants require matching grants. “For example, they give you $50,000. But you have to come with $50,000 yourself,” she said. “So it’s challenging.”

Sullivan said he hoped to “do what we do better. That’s our goal, and add blueberries and apples.” The fruits are being planted now and will begin to yield in the coming years. He added that few other farms mix growing fruits and vegetables.

“My husband hasn’t been sleeping. He’s been dreaming about this orchard since forever,” said Oliva.

Just up the road from the farming operations, Oliva and Sullivan are building new housing, intended ultimately for farm workers. “One of those things that deter people from working here is you know how hard it is to find a place in Montpelier, and it’s expensive,” said Oliva.

“We should be doing what we feel called to do, even if it’s for a period of life, we should engage, and go, and fulfill that call and explore it and see where that takes us,” said Oliva.

The farmstand has opened for the CSA and non-members Thursdays from 3 to 7 p.m., and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Farmstand and CSA information can be found at anandagardens.com.