Talking with the Director of the Only CSA Farm in the New York State Parks System

Photo courtesy of Jen Campbell

Jen Campbell serves as Farm Director for the Bayard Cutting Arboretum CSA in Great River, New York (on Long Island), and 2017 marks her fourth year in this role. Her love and knowledge of organic gardening combined with her organizational talents have resulted in a brilliantly maintained farm with high quality produce, a dedicated volunteer crew and 125 member families. Oh, and 150 chickens! Located on land that was a former cow pasture, this Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, founded in 2011, is the only CSA farm in the New York State Parks system. Consistent with the Bayard Cutting Arboretum's mission, the CSA farm maintains the principles of sustainable and organic agriculture in order to protect soil and water resources and human health. The farm harvested its first crop of vegetables - without using pesticides or chemical fertilizers - during the summer of 2012. Read on to learn what inspires Jen, what is the one thing she wishes more people knew about sustainable agriculture and how the Bayard Cutting Arboretum CSA got its start.

What inspired your interest in sustainable agriculture?

I read an article in a local paper about a small CSA fairly close to where I live. I had always had an interest in growing things but had never grown vegetables. I visited the CSA and helped to pick green beans. I was instantly intrigued and thought: I can do this. At the time, I was involved in a church which sat on several acres of property so I approached them with an idea to start a small vegetable garden and they agreed.

Tell us about your role with Bayard Cutting Arboretum CSA.

I manage a small two and a half acre farm on the arboretum property that provides 125 member families with over 160 varieties of organically grown vegetables, flowers, berries and herbs that are harvested weekly from May through October. In addition, we care for 150 egg laying hens.

What was the genesis of this CSA?

The Bayard Cutting Arboretum CSA farm was created on a parcel of land which overlooks the Connetquot River and is adjacent to an historic barn that was once used by the Cutting family for their herd of Jersey milking cows. After the estate and property were deeded to New York State in the 1950s, the land was maintained and the barn used for storage until 2012 when the Arboretum's Director decided to devote a portion of the land for growing crops. The land was turned over and prepared for planting, and the barn is now used as the information center and pick up area of the CSA.

The Bayard Cutting Arboretum CSA is rather unique. Tell us why?

The arboretum is a New York State park, co-managed by a Board of Trustees. We were able to avoid some of the usual obstacles of starting a CSA, including the high cost of land and equipment. The park's land was readily available, the Arboretum's Director was enthusiastic, the Board of Trustees underwrote some of the startup costs and much of the equipment - including a tractor and tools - was already here. We are currently the only CSA in the New York State Parks system, but I am optimistic that creating CSAs on other state parks can work with the right combination of factors.

What are some of the challenges you confront in running this CSA?

The arboretum, which is beautifully maintained, welcomes thousands of visitors. We feel the pressure of maintaining the farm area to the standards of the rest of the park. We strive to be an intensely planted, highly productive small farm while also being a meticulously maintained public vegetable garden which can at times be difficult.

What's one thing about sustainable agriculture that you wish more people knew?

People have become so dependent on processed foods they don't even realize what real food is. They don't understand that there are consequences to what they eat in terms of their own health and the health of the land, water and wildlife. I wish more people knew that it is possible to grow your own food using sustainable methods. Food that tastes great, is good for you and is good for the environment.

What are some specific ways your CSA encourages people to take a greater interest in sustainable agriculture?

Every day we welcome and encourage visitors to walk up and down the rows of vegetables. We talk to every single visitor who asks us questions about what we are doing. We send out a newsletter and invite the public to participate in our farm events, which include lectures and our popular speed weeds where we work out in the fields for an hour and then spend an hour socializing by the farm fields. Visitors are encouraged to volunteer and get their hands in the soil. We have an education program for schoolchildren.

What do you find to be your biggest source of inspiration from day to day?

I am inspired by my farm members who are so grateful when they come to pick up their weekly produce; by the volunteers who love to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty; by the look on the faces of the schoolchildren when they grab a warm egg from the nesting box in the chicken coop or dig up a potato or pull a carrot from the ground.

If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the regional food system?

The arboretum is located in a densely populated area, but that doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of good land on which to grow food. Everybody should get rid of their lawns and plant something they can eat. Imagine how much food there would be.

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