Living in a big city, it is very easy to have no relationship whatsoever with the food that we eat every day. We go to the grocery store, the deli or the bodega and buy our necessities—boxed, bagged, canned or bundled up. Back in college, one of my favorite professors, a man of the old school, told me a story about a student who thought raisins grew on trees. He found this hilarious and horrifying at the same time, perhaps it was his ultimate proof of youngsters’ ignorance. But really, who can blame someone for such misconceptions? As far as any of us know, raisins grow in cardboard boxes.
Recent food scares, and uncoverings of FDA cover-ups have shed some light onto our problem with food. The whole system that supplies us with the food we eat has been purposefully centralized, making it extremely vulnerable to contamination. It is also impossible for us to know where the corn in our tortilla was grown or where the cattle in a hamburger was raised (or how many different cows it actually contains, some have estimated it to be up to a hundred). So, we can simply stop buying salmonella-contaminated peanut butter, tomatoes and other mystery food, or we can take it upon ourselves to seek out food whose origins we actually know.
The concept of Community Supported Agriculture existed in various forms in Europe and Japan for decades before the first CSA was started in the United States in 1985, by a tireless food advocate from Massachusetts named Robyn Van En. The membership of her Indian Line Farm quickly grew from an initial 30 shares to 150 four years later. The CSA model spread rapidly throughout the country, there is no official database of how many are in existence today, but LocalHarvest has over 2,500 listed in its grassroots database.
So, how does it work? Each member buys a share in the coming season’s harvest, paying upfront to, essentially, fund the operation of the farm and make the farmer able to focus on farming during the season instead of having to struggle to market his food. Shares are typically distributed every week, at a pre-determined pick-up point and contain a set amount of whatever fruits and vegetables are ready for harvest that week. This ensures that the produce is always fresh and highly seasonal. You will very likely find yourself in the kitchen trying new recipes for vegetables that may not have been on your culinary radar before—exciting and educating.
I have been intrigued by CSAs ever since I moved to NYC, but to find one that actually accepts new members turned out to be very difficult, which just proved how popular this type of food shopping had become. Finally, through chance connections, I found a newly formed CSA that was, in fact, accepting members and had a pick-up point three doors down from my subway stop!
Excited about the whole CSA experience, I went to meet the farmers at a meet-and-greet party held at my future pick-up location. Paisley Farm is situated on 25 acres in Tivoli, New York, and this is their first season running a CSA (they have previously catered mostly to high-end NYC restaurants). The farm is run by Michael Kokas and Jan Greer, with the help of their two children Julian and Augusta. I got a chance to chat with Michael and Julian at the party and was immediately struck by their gentle demeanor. They told me what they were really excited about was the community aspect of running a CSA—getting feedback and suggestions from members about what they like, dislike, would like to see more of and so on. “I hope you like tomatoes,” Michael said, “I’m crazy about tomatoes. We grow at least thirty different kinds on the farm.”
I do like tomatoes, very much, and I can’t wait until my shares start arriving in June. An upfront sum of $500 pays for 22 weeks of fresh produce, which may seem hefty at first, but comes out to a very reasonable $23 per week. And, if Paisley Farm’s produce satisfies the tastes of New York City’s top chefs, then it will surely satisfy mine. Maybe it will even make me a better cook?