By Margarida Correia
A small winter squash was stirring a big debate one afternoon this month in a
Lower East Side community garden.
“It’s a Delicata,” someone said.
“No,” argued another, “it’s a Hubbard.” Whatever variety of winter squash it was, all agreed it would taste great when baked.
Thesquash lovers were among 35 neighborhood residents who flocked to the garden to pick up their share of fruit and vegetables produced by a local farmer, Ted Blomgren, owner of Windflower Farm in Easton, N.Y. People emptied their boxes of produce — each containing parsnips, beets, carrots, onions, garlic, green cabbage, winter squash, bags of salad mix, arugula, scallions and apples, and a half-gallon of apple cider — into canvas bags, shopping carts, backpacks and even baby strollers.
“It’s always fresh and eliminates shopping,” said Rainer Keller, 43, of his share of winter produce, as he walked away with one of two bags slung over his shoulder. For three years, Keller has been bypassing supermarkets and buying his produce through Community Supported Agriculture or CSA.
As the locally-grown food movement takes off, CSA communities such as this one — the Stanton Street Settlement CSA — are popping up throughout the city. Through community supported agriculture, New Yorkers deal directly with a farmer, who provides them with seasonal produce fresh from his or her own farm. This new concept in food production has been catching on as people look for a connection to the harvest cycle and to the farmers who grow their food.
“There’s been a surge of interest in local food,” said Paula Lukats, CSA program manager at Just Food, a New York-based non-profit that helps organize CSA groups. “People are looking for alternative ways of getting their food and supporting local farms.”
Currently four CSA groups covering 21 communities in the city are participating in winter CSA programs, and many of them are sold out for the season. The winter shares consist primarily of storage crops, like potatoes and parsnips, but also include kale and winter greens that are grown in greenhouses.
CSA groups bloom in the spring and summer. According to Just Food, more than 11,000 New Yorkers bought produce through 50 CSA groups from May to November last year, up from 30 CSA groups in 2004. And the interest shows no sign of slowing down. Just Food anticipates that seven to 10 new CSA groups will be formed in the spring, bumping the number of farmers supplying the New York market to 22, from 18 last year.
What’s more, CSA groups are getting filled faster than ever. All but two of the 50 CSA groups were sold out last year, with most sold out by May and some even earlier. Typically CSAs close by mid-June for the regular season, according to Lukats.
“We have waiting lists at every one of our sites,” said Blomgren of the six communities his farm is serving this winter. “We’re beginning to recruit for the springtime.”
In a CSA, members pay a farmer in advance to produce their food for a season. A winter share in Blomgren’s Windflower Farm, for instance, costs $130, which covers four monthly deliveries of produce at the community garden from December to March. Summer shares, in contrast, are delivered weekly and vary in price depending on the content and duration of the share. A 24-week vegetable share in Long Island-based Garden of Eve Farm, for example, goes for $495, while a fruit share costs $255.
While farmers aim to supply their customers with a variety of seasonal produce, nothing is guaranteed. The crux of community supported agriculture is that members share in both the bounty and risks of the farm. Customers, for example, may eagerly await the arrival of brussel sprouts, but if the crop is delayed or destroyed, customers may wind up with carrots or rutabagas instead.
“If one thing doesn’t do well, we give extra of something else,” said Dan Machin, 26, farm manager at Garden of Eve Farm.
The element of surprise is precisely what appeals to Joseph de Dominicis, 55, a member of the Stanton Street Settlement CSA. “That’s the fun of it,” he said. “You feel like you’re on the farm.” Dominicis, a vegetarian, is an avowed locavore, buying all but limes and bananas from local growers. He shops at a neighborhood farmers market to supplement his CSA food.
The desire to eat seasonal food is only one reason New Yorkers buy CSA shares. Many appreciate the taste and variety of vegetables available locally and the chance to learn about new crops. Andrea Wershof Schwartz, 26, became a huge fan of beets as a result of her membership in the Tuv Ha’Aretz CSA on the Upper West Side. “It’s really important for my husband and me to support local farms and eat local foods that are in season. It tastes better and it feels better,” she said.
CSA members especially value the personal relationship they have with farmers, important given growing skepticism over the quality of mass-produced food. Members like the give and take with the farmer and having a say in what’s grown.
Stacey Ornstein, a member of the Astoria CSA in Queens, noted that the group had asked its farmer, Matt Kurek of Long Island’s Golden Earthworm Organic Farm, to plant vegetables ranging from artichokes and asparagus to heirloom tomatoes, squash blossoms and Tuscan kale. Members even had T-shirts made up asking, “Who’s your farmer?”
“The food I eat is no longer about a nameless, faceless mass producer,” wrote Ornstein in an e-mail message. “I can look my farmer in the eye and ask him about what he is putting in his fields or how he is treating his workers.”
The relationship is just as important to farmers, who go to great lengths to build good rapport with their customers. Farmers typically invite CSA members to their farms once or twice a year, take surveys of what they want more and less of, and distribute newsletters with updates on the farm. “We’re in contact all winter long with 180 people,” said Blomgren. “We tailor what we grow and what we include in the feed box based on feedback from our customers.”
Environmental concerns are another reason why New Yorkers join CSAs. Because the food is grown locally – within a 250-mile radius – it doesn’t leave as large a carbon footprint as food that travels from afar. And because most, if not all, of the food in a CSA share is organic, it is easier on the earth. While the farms supplying New York CSA communities are organic, farmers – to diversify their shares – sometimes procure fruit from local growers that are not. There are only a handful of fruit farmers in the Northeast that are organic, explained Blomgren of Windflower Farm.
In terms of price, CSA organic food holds up well against conventional food in a supermarket. CSA members pay about the same as they would in a grocery store for conventional produce, according to Lukats. When compared to organic food at grocery stores, CSAs provide a better deal.
“It’s hard because you pay pre-season all at once and it’s like, OK, here’s $500, I hope there’s no tornado,” wrote Ornstein of her CSA’s summer share program. “But when the season comes along you’re no longer paying for vegetables over a six-month time span. I spent a lot less time in supermarkets in 2007, which meant less time waiting in lines, under those horrible lights, and less plastic bags accumulating in my apartment.”
For small farmers near metro areas, community supported agriculture is a way to remain economically viable. Because they have a guaranteed market for their produce, they’re able to plan better when planting for their growing seasons. They also avoid the cost of having to borrow from the banks for seed and equipment because they get paid up-front.
“We have a customer base that is established, which is a stabilizing thing for a farm,” said Kurek of Golden Earthworm Organic Farm. “It takes a whole aspect of worry about the market out of it.”
Winter's Weird Veggies
Winter participants in CSA programs often find their monthly deliveries filled with hearty vegetables, like onions, carrots and sweet potatoes, but sometimes more unusual veggies come, too. “It’s really more of a treat each month – you get a box and look in and see what you get,” said Just Food CSA in NYC Program Director Paula Lukats. Here are some of the odder options you might find.
Romanesco Cauliflower: Pale green and cone-shaped cauliflower.
Daikon: A mild, white Asian radish.
Celaric: “It’s an ugly, knobby root vegetable that’s very tasty,” said Lukats.
Rutabaga: A root vegetable that originated as a cross between cabbage and turnip.