By Hiroko Sato
GROTON -- Barbara Laddaga sensed something was up with John Crow Farm earlier this year when it started to slip behind its schedule for meat deliveries.
After enjoying locally grown meat on a regular basis for the past two years as a member of the farm's Community Supported Agriculture program -- a service in which customers pay for their shares up front for an entire season -- the Pepperell resident assumed the scarcity of slaughterhouses in the state might be to blame for the delay. What she didn't know was that Robert Varisco, co-owner of the farm at 133 Old Ayer Road, was about to file for personal bankruptcy, leaving farm customers without promised food.
With little prospect of recouping about $500 still owed to the farm, Laddaga said she isn't bitter.
"I don't believe there was anything malicious on their part," Laddaga said of the farm.
But many other members of John Crow CSA members aren't as understanding. They created a Facebook page called "What happened to John Crow Farm?" to gather information and discuss how to get their money back. One member wrote he contacted the state Attorney General's Office after receiving no response from the farm to his inquiries.
The Attorney General's Office said it received 35 complaints regarding John Crow Farm's CSA between March 27 and May 2.
Varisco's bankruptcy case is the first of its kind in the state involving a CSA program -- a service that has grown popular among supporters of local farming in recent years, according to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.
The farm's shutdown has generated a lot of angst among CSA subscribers, said Brad Mitchell, director of government relations for Massachusetts Farm Bureau Relations Inc.
"I have never seen a case with this level of complaints," Mitchell said.
John Crow Farm, started three years ago, raised "grass-fed sheep and cattle, alongside pastured pork and poultry" plus vegetables, according to its website. It operated on leased land.
The farm recently closed its doors after Varisco, who owned the half of the farm, filed for bankruptcy in April. Varisco and Aidan Davin, who are both of Fitchburg, co-owned the business, according to farm trustee Anne White.
It is not clear how many CSA subscribers the farm had. But in court documents, Varisco listed more than 300 people as his creditors, including Davin. White said Varisco has more than $200,000 in secured debt and more than $300,000 in unsecured debt.
"It appears that his weekly and monthly cost seemed to be exceeding his revenue," White said of the reason for bankruptcy. The cost included that of meat processing, she said.
White has so far found no assets, such as farm equipment, that is free of lien, meaning CSA subscribers may never get their money back.
White asked those who went to a meeting of creditors in Worcester on May 19 not to file claims just yet as she continues to investigate Varisco's assets. If she finds anything that can be used for repayment, she will let creditors know, White said. In the meantime, she is encouraging creditors to contact her with any information or questions. White, an attorney at Demeo LLP of Boston, can be reached at 617-263-2600.
Varisco could not be reached for comment.
Community Supported Agriculture has grown as a new way for small farms to grow their businesses in recent years as the idea of eating local food and investing in small farms gained popularity. The 2012 USDA Agricultural Census showed there were 431 CSA programs in Massachusetts that year, a 95 percent increase since 2007.
John Crow Farm's CSA shareholders included many from the Boston-Cambridge area. Mitchell said the farm attracted those who like meat from grass-fed animals.
Mitchell said some farmers are concerned that the John Crow Farm closure could scare people off from CSA, but he said people should realize thousands of farms across the country are providing produce and meat through CSA without problems.
"This is a very, very rare situation," Mitchell said.
Laddaga said she may think twice before signing up for another CSA program, but that doesn't mean she won't be part of a CSA again.
"I do believe in local farms. Things happen," Laddaga said.