I confess -- it started about 12 years ago when a neighbor upstate was talking about the vegetables she was getting from a Putnam County organic farm. There was an air of mystery surrounding her description of where they came from.... one had to apply... you had to become a member to receive the produce. I had never heard of such a thing -- an exclusive vegetable club. What were the criteria and would they accept or reject me. The exclusivity was so alluring.
Two years later, once my fear of rejection was put to rest, I had figured out that if I got my application and full payment in early enough, there would be room for me and I would become a member of the Ryder Farm CSA. I wasn't taking any chances and promptly became the proud recipient of a full share.
Pick up at the farm on Starr Ridge Road in Brewster, NY was after noon on Friday or Saturday AM. A working girl, I rarely made it on Friday, but would scurry over Saturday morning to see what the green goodies of week would be. Often Sam and Sylvia, both still in PJ's and snug in their car seats, would come with me. We had rituals, like visiting the chicken coop and chasing the lone loony scruffy turkey. Sounds innocent enough but little did I know where this connection would take me.
The first sign of this being an out-of-the-ordinary CSA membership was my inability to pass a farm stand without seeing what they had which might be different from my big fat farm share. And invariably, I would haul home a neglected bushel of peaches or tomatoes for sauce or jam; or a bag of corn to share with neighbors. Two years later I was introduced to another farm that sat on the Putnam/Duchess boarder -- Cascade Farm. They apparently, were hungry for members, so I joined. Ryder Farm often sold fresh eggs by the dozen and Cascade had their own honey and maple syrup -- and I would indulge in those offerings as well. Add to that my patronage of Dykeman Farm just north of Pauling, NY and my visits to Greenmarkets -- and you can imagine the tyranny of the weekend vegetables that ensued. What to cook, how to cook it, and to whom to feed it would dominate the latter half of my weekend. Never mind that I developed an aversion to kale, which was always in abundance in my CSA bags. 1001 Ways to Cook Chicken pales in comparison to the Zillion and One Ways to Cook Kale, which finally ended in my simply dropping the raw greens off to my neighbors.
In 2006, life brought my family and me to a 60-acre parcel in Columbia County, which would fulfill our dream of establishing Katchkie Farm. This year we celebrated our 5th year of harvest and the 3rd year of our CSA. Our initial CSA had about 35 members at the Tribeca JCC. The following year we grew and relocated to the 92st Tribeca Y and this year, we expanded to include a second residential community in Hell's Kitchen who pick up from our Port Authority Greenmarket site. We also launched a Corporate CSA Program with collaborative efforts from the Just Food CSA wizards. Our total number of CSA members exceeds 245. As we prepare for 2012 growing season, we anticipate tripling that number.
So what's it like to go from member to provider? Even though I was an ardent member of my CSA (attending members day events, bringing potluck dishes etc.) I had no idea of the complexity involved in executing the process or products. Or understanding the stress one feels when committing to delivering delicious and diverse produce weekly.
This year was challenging. In the spring, about 2 weeks after the first wave of seedlings were transplanted; we were hit by a freak and powerful hailstorm. The fragile plants were pummeled. While some recovered, many were lost. We had to push back the start date of all our CSA's by about 2 weeks; Mother Nature had beat us up and we needed time to recover.
The 2011 growing season has been atypically wet with too few stretches of long sunny hot weeks. Onions thrived, tomatillos struggled and faded, field tomatoes were late and watery, watermelons were absent their sweetness, cucumbers were brief and zucchini as always -- were triumphant. We had a good harvest overall save what we lost to the freeloading deer that will find a new fence in place before 2011 comes to an end.
We planted corn (successfully) for the first time and our small strawberry patch was pleasing for a short and sweet burst. We tried a range of Mexican herbs, which didn't make it. Our artichoke plants were too confused by the weather to yield results. Our flowers were brilliant.
August was heartbreaking in the farm community as Hurricane Irene left a trail of destruction. Though we were drenched, the damage at Katchkie Farm was light in comparison with farmers who lost entire fields and crops. Our CSA distribution has continued, though the mix of vegetables is not exactly what we had planned. The heartbreak of hearing that some CSA's had to abruptly end their season brings a measure of wondering why we were lucky. Then I think about the hail in June and realize that sometimes the storm is over your field and sometimes not. The loss for some farmers has been devastating and the agricultural community, along with CSA supporters on the consumer end has rallied -- and will continue to do so -- to provide financial assistance. Over the past several years, it is the CSA movement that has succeeded in building the bonds between farmers and urban consumers.
The CSA model is close to perfect on so many levels. It provides a solid economic foundation for the farmer. It has a built in incentive to provide excellent 'guest experience', so that members rebook year after year. It encompasses the joy of putting great food in front of many appreciative buyers. It inspires us to provide great produce and explore new possibilities in connecting growers and consumers. We are encouraged to experiment with planting new crops. The ownership and trust each party invests in the other that is the foundation of this unique symbiotic relationship.
My personal evolution from member to 'farmer' is like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. But at least I don't have to be looking at all that kale on the kitchen counter Saturday morning and wonder what to do with it!