After The Hurricane: CSAs and the Power of Community

photo by Erin McCarthy

When Hurricane Irene hit New York City on August 28th, turning out to be a nonevent, residents breathed a sigh of relief and even a chuckle at the extensive preparations made for this less than significant storm. But even though we city dwellers were spared, I had a terrible feeling that farmers upstate might not be so lucky. I was especially worried about the farmers who provided me with my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) vegetables every week. And before I even had time to pluck off my rain boots, I received an email that made my heart sink.

My CSA share was organized through Hazon; the produce came from Monkshood Nursery and Gardensin Stuyvesant, New York, which is managed by farmers David and Melinda Rowley. Monkshood was directly in the path of Hurricane Irene. After assessing the damage, David and Melinda sent an email to all of their CSA members with photos of the fields before and after the storm. Images of flooded fields full of ripe or nearly ripe pumpkins, beans and summer squash made it clear how much destruction had occurred in just a few days (check out the slideshow). It was devastating to see the work of a whole season destroyed in mere days. The tenuous livelihood of a farmer was driven home, hard. Farming is hard work, and that hard work is always subject to elements completely outside our control. The Rowleys quoted a friend of a friend, who summed up the concerns that face every farmer: "A dry year will scare you and a wet one will kill you".

Monkshood Nursery was certainly not the only farm to be devastated by the storm. A few weeks after the storm, we created a map on Ecocentric to demonstrate just how many farms in the Northeast were affected by Hurricane Irene.

I had joined a CSA for a few reasons: a direct relationship with sustainable farmer, the opportunity to support my local foodshed, and the camaraderie of sharing food with friends. Joining a CSA means sharing some risk, and supporting your farmer through thick and thin.

I'd split the season's share with two other Ecocentric bloggers and the weeks leading up to the hurricane were filled with a bounty of fresh and tasty vegetables. We took photos of each week's share (you can see them here and here) and divided the responsibility of the cost and the weekly pickup. The division of the harvest was a fun weekly ritual, one that led me to seek new and creative ways to prepare my share. I had joined a CSA for a few reasons: a direct relationship with sustainable farmer, the opportunity to support my local foodshed and the camaraderie of sharing food with friends. CSAs have gained popularity in recent years, and offer a chance to get farm fresh vegetables every week for about five months of the year, depending on the farm and its regional climate.

When I explained to a friend that my CSA share was cancelled for the rest of the season, she asked, "Well, do you get the money back?" It was a legitimate question and one that gave me the opportunity to explain what being a CSA member means. I gave my money in the beginning of the season as a lump sum investment directly to the farm. The money from CSA programs helps the farmer at the beginning of the season, when s/he needs it most and which sees them through the rest of the growing season. Of course I was disappointed to miss out on beautiful produce, especially at the height of the harvest season, but I was also glad to have helped our farmers through this difficult time.

The Hazon CSA ran from June 2nd to October 27th (a total of 22 weeks, minus the final 7 weeks) and the total cost was $600, so split among three people my share was $200. On average, per week we received approximately seven to ten different items in our full share (kale, tomatoes, beans, garlic, squash, onions etc). The missing shares didn't hurt me too badly for a couple of reasons: I was sharing the cost with two other people, so the financial loss didn't affect me nearly as much if I had bought it on my own. I was also supplementing my share with veggies from the market, which lessened the blow.

Such a loss could take a larger toll on someone who budgeted for the CSA veggies to complete their meals each week, and making the entire payment upfront at the beginning of the season can be difficult, too. Getting local, sustainable vegetables to lower income communities is an issue that farmers are aware of, and some models offer weekly payment options for those who can't pay it all upfront. CSA might not work for everyone, but when it does, it's wonderful, and many small and medium size farmers sell their produce through the CSA model because it provides them with better financial stability. (The CSA model has kept many a farmer in business, including the famous John Peterson of Angelic Organics, and a recent Hero, Sue Ujcic of Helsing Junction Farm.)

After our shares were canceled, I was on the lookout for new CSA possibilities and ways to support farmers in the winter. Recently, I happened upon a beautiful postcard in a local shop that read, to my delight: "Cricket Creek Farm Winter Cheese CSA: artisanal cheese from the Berkshires to Brooklyn." I snagged it immediately off the table and brought it into the office to share with my fellow cheese-loving coworkers. Three others gleefully agreed to split a share. This is our fifth week - we've received delightful cheeses. The first week we immediately had a taste test and I used it in scrambled eggs that following weekend to give them a tangy savory flavor.

If you're looking for a CSA share this winter, you can always search Eat Well Guide. If you're in the New York area, check out Just Food's list of Winter CSA shares. Buying clubs are another good option, offering people the ability to order local food and provide farmers with a steady income through the winter months.

Even though I missed those last nine weeks, I would absolutely sign up for another CSA (and will, come spring 2012). I really believe in the community it creates and hear from farmer friends that they value the stability and convenience it provides, as well as the direct feedback they receive that they don't get when people buy their produce from a store. You can count on me to be a CSA member for life.

I recently spoke with Melinda Rowley for an update on Monkshood Nursery. She was excited to tell me that they are almost recovered and have already begun soliciting members for their 2012 CSA shares. Immediately after the storm, people asked how they could help and the donations poured in.Melinda and David had to take out $10,000 from their line of credit in September and are still paying this off. However, they have been able to pay their bills successfully on time for the past four months. Additionally, Monkshood Nursery received a $500 holiday gift from Farm Credit East and was one of 62 farms chosen to receive $2000 donation from the NYC Greenmarkets. Currently they are selling salad greens grown in their greenhouse at local winter farmers' markets and beginning in January, they will begin selling at the highly coveted Saturday market in Union Square.