Fertile Ground For CSAs

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Quail Hill farmers Kate Rowe, Matthew Dell, Honna Riccio and Irene Berkowitz ducked in from the rain on Wednesday afternoon, taking a break from the Amagansett fields over lunch and laughs.

“If they ever finish up, they’ll get back out there,” director Scott Chaskey said from behind his desk in the next room, smiling cheekily under his considerable white beard. “We’re out there every day except for, well, right now. Any minute …”

Practically on cue, eight feet thundered down the stairs.

“Looks like they’re ready,” Mr. Chaskey said, not far behind the workers—some humming and singing as they geared up. Turning to Mr. Dell, the director asked, “Are you going to do some cultivating?”

“We’re gonna hoe,” the farmer said.
“I know that a couple people hoed the lettuces in the third block yesterday,” Mr. Chaskey said. “I know you did one of the ones in the second block, but there is another one that is nutgrass crazy.”

“Yeah, sure,” Mr. Dell said, toying with one of the holes in his jeans.

“Start with that one, in the middle there. You can’t even see the lettuce. Hack away at that nutgrass, because that’s where, when people come, they’re going to start.”

And that they did, on Tuesday, June 4—this year’s kickoff for the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program, also known as a CSA, which was the one of first of its kind 25 years ago in the state of New York.

But instead of serving 10 families, as the farm did in 1988, it now provides for 250—nearly 700 people total, Mr. Chaskey said. The growth of the demand at Quail Hill, which started slow, has been as steady as that of plants in a field over the last few years.

“Do they all come at once? No, ahh! We’d go nuts,” he said. “For the early years of the CSA, you said the word and nobody knew what it was, for 10 years or more. And now, almost everybody’s heard of it now, even if they don’t necessarily know what it is.”

A basic CSA offers a certain number of shares to the public, he explained. Typically, that includes a portion of seasonal produce grown in the fields—or sometimes supplemented by cooperating farms—in exchange for a paid membership. This way, the farmers receive payment early in the season, which helps with the farm’s cash flow, and the members eat ultra-fresh food straight from the soil, get exposed to new vegetables and develop a relationship with the farmer, or in Quail Hill’s case, the land itself.

“You see, it’s bypassing the normal, wholesale-retail system that is how our economy works,” Mr. Chaskey said. “So in its purest form, it’s a very radical idea. And I like that, being a child of the ’60s.”

Today, there are dozens of CSAs across the state and as many as 12,000 nationwide, though they exist in different models. Quail Hill is unique in that its members actually farm and harvest their own food, whereas Balsam Farms in Amagansett puts together baskets for its 20 members, which co-founder Ian Calder-Piedmonte said he hopes to grow to 50 by the end of the season.

“We did it very differently. We started with the farm stand and added the CSA two years ago,” the farmer said last week, leaning against a wagon. “The real reason we did it was because people were asking for it. I think that some people really want to feel part of the farm and when you’re tasting the harvest as it comes on, it’s a different experience than shopping. We try to make sure everyone gets a little bit of everything we grow at some point. They just have to be more open-minded about trying different things. I think people really like to be surprised by something that might show up.”

The CSA harvest season at Balsam Farms, which began last weekend, starts off with a lot of greens—spinach, lettuce and kale, as well as exotic greens, such as callaloo, a leafy Jamaican plant that hasn’t caught on yet, Mr. Calder-Piedmonte said, but he expects it will. Into the summer, the tomatoes, potatoes, specialty peppers, eggplant and cucumbers will be in full swing, not to mention Balsam’s famous sweet corn.

The farm also produces strawberries, raspberries, melons, herbs and cut flowers, he reported. Balsam also supplements its CSA shares with dairy, bread and orchard fruit from other local farms, he said. Depending on the length of the share, rates range from $420 to $740 for the growing season.

“We try to keep our prices as fair as we can,” Mr. Calder-Piedmonte said, noting that the farm leases all of its land, “while still making a living farming.”

Family shares at Quail Hill Farms, a stewardship project of the Peconic Land Trust, will cost members $875 this year. The price includes selections from 500 varieties of vegetables, fruits, cut flowers and herbs harvested by CSA members age 1 to 88—notably Mr. Chaskey’s in-laws, artists William King and Connie Fox, whose family was one of the original 10 to begin the farm.

Quail Hill Farms was once known as “Full Circle Farm” and was located in Bridgehampton, until Deborah Ann Light donated 20 acres of Amagansett fields to the Peconic Land Trust. Since 1989, it has housed Quail Hill, which has expanded to 30 farmed acres and more than 700 acres of land.

“We wouldn’t have guessed that we would have grown to this,” said Mr. Chaskey, who was named Farmer of the Year in January by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York. “But it’s never occurred to me that it wouldn’t keep going because there’s so many ways to adapt the model. I think the form we’ve got, where there is something holding the community together, that is what will continue. It is a fascinating thing that popped up.”

Outside, Mr. Chaskey shut the driver’s door to the pickup truck—marked with a Peconic Land Trust, Quail Hill Farms logo—and gave it two pats. Ms. Riccio and Ms. Berkowitz piled onto the bench next to Ms. Rowe, already seated behind the wheel, as Mr. Dell and latecomer James Walton jumped into the truck bed. The senior farmer gave them a wave, sending them on their way to the fields.

“Pick your weapons,” Mr. Dell said as he unloaded their equipment next to the lettuce beds, taking a hoe for himself. Ms. Riccio and Ms. Roe followed suit. Ms. Berkowitz swung a backpack sprayer onto her small frame and Mr. Walton grabbed the wheel hoe.

Then, they got to work.

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