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Bringing in the Harvest, Without a Farm in Sight

NYTimes

October 27, 2003
Bringing in the Harvest, Without a Farm in Sight
By KIRK JOHNSON

A lot of things are making it harder these days to bond with one's
broccoli.

The convenience of prepared foods and the siren song of takeout can
lure even ardent cooks away from the stove. The raging controversies of
modern agriculture, meanwhile, from bioengineering to pesticides, can make
serving fresh vegetables feel complicated and questionable. And in many
lower-income New York City neighborhoods, good produce is not even an option. Green markets tend to be concentrated where there is green to be spent.

But in tiny ways and still small numbers, a response is emerging in New
York around an old and half-forgotten word in the urban food lexicon:
harvest.

At least 6,000 New Yorkers, including many in the poorer parts of the
city, have joined together in buying clubs in just the last few years to get
organic vegetables fresh from the farm throughout the growing season.

They get bags of leeks and tomatoes in the mix one week, squash and radishes
the next. Farmers from around the region, trundling their crops into
neighborhoods like Harlem or East New York, Brooklyn, are meeting their
customers face to face.

Both sides of this culinary crossing say they are being changed.

Mike and Cheryl Rogowski, a brother-and-sister farming team from
Warwick, N.Y., who began selling their organic produce to mostly Hispanic buying
clubs in Brooklyn four years ago, altered their mix of crops to meet the
new demand. Subscribers wanted different kinds of beets, more cilantro and
more peppers. The Rogowskis now grow 50 different kinds of chilies.

Food club buyers, for their part, say they are being forced to learn,
or relearn, that seasons and weather have significance beyond the adjustment
of a thermostat. Nature's whims of heat and precipitation dictate weekly
vegetable mixes that vary in concert with what has taken root and what
has delivered fruit.

"It's become an education in how to live with the land and not
expect instant gratification," said Nora Bock, who helped start a buying
group last year in her building on East 28th Street in Manhattan.

But there is more at stake in these farm-to-table clubs than ripe
tomatoes or environmentally friendly farm techniques. The concept, called
community supported agriculture, or C.S.A. in farm-club jargon, aims, simply but
profoundly, to restore a sense of place to the food that people eat.
Knowing exactly where those carrots came from and who grew them makes people
think differently and eat differently, nutritionists and organizers say.

Even the sense of time can be affected. Some social theorists who
specialize in the cultural connections of food say they think that the harried,
time-starved American who craves kitchen convenience above all else is
at least partly a marketing creation of a food industry eager to sell its
profitable, but often unhealthy, prepared and processed products. The
weekly vegetable subscription that comes from participating in a C.S.A. club,
they say, short-circuits that marketing pitch.

Vegetables, in short, are not always convenient. In the C.S.A.
universe, this constitutes a selling point.

"We've been sold a bill of goods about convenience in American
life," said Alice Julier, a sociologist at Smith College and the president of the
Association for the Study of Food and Human Society. "Convenience
marketing has shifted people's tastes so that eating fresh from the farm is
almost something that people need to be re-educated about — what vegetables are
and what different apples taste like."

But the effort to push produce clubs in New York City is also an overt
economic and political calculation.

A nonprofit group called the Glynwood Center, founded in the mid-1990's
in Cold Spring, N.Y., with the goal of helping communities plan and
preserve open space, has worked to connect farmers and urban buying groups,
arguing that economically healthy farmers will stay in business, thus
preserving farmland. Food buyers with emotional connections to farmers, the
group's leaders say, are also more likely to favor open-land preservation next
time the subject comes up.

Today, at a ceremony in Manhattan, the group plans to give out its
first Glynwood Harvest awards to groups and individuals around the country
that are advancing that agenda. Recipients include the Rogowskis and a small
nonprofit organization in Manhattan called Just Food, which was formed
in 1995 to push community supported agriculture in the city.

Glynwood's president, Judith LaBelle, said that building bridges on the
basis of food was a powerful tool, with benefits that spiral in every
direction — from public health to environmentalism.

"It creates a new market for farmers," she said, "and a new constituency as
well that will understand and support farmers."

Hardly anyone is anticipating that New York City will become the ation's
veggie-crunching capital.

The C.S.A. movement began expanding in the United States in the mid-1980's
and came to the city later. Some experts trace its roots to an effort by a
group of women in Japan in the 1960's to find pesticide-free foods. Places
like Berkeley, Calif., and Madison, Wis., food experts say, are probably
at the vanguard. Smaller cities in the Northeast, where farms are closer
at hand, have also had access to organic-food-buying clubs for years.

But the numbers are increasing.

Of the estimated 1,000 C.S.A. groups across the nation, 28 are in New
York City, up from 19 over the last two years, according to figures from
Just Food and csacenter.org, a Web site that encourages and tracks the trend.
On average, a seasonal share for a family costs about $350 to $400,
although many groups also sell half-shares and have discounts for low-income
buyers.

"People tend to be more disconnected from their food sources here than in
other cities — and there are a lot of competing interests," said Ruth Katz,
the executive director of Just Food. The physical distances between
residents and farmers are great, she said, and the psychological
distances can be even greater. "If we have a smaller percentage of residents
than other places, it might be that we have more hurdles."

And maybe a few more culinary novices as well. Many of the city's C.S.A.
clubs invite cooks in during the weekly vegetable pickup to give advice
to people who might be mystified or intimidated by that bristly bunch of
bok choy that was just dropped into their bag.

Some members admit they have been perplexed more than once by the barrage
of things with cores and seeds and shells and husks and peels and pits that
the farmers delivered.

"Truthfully, some of these things — I didn't even know what they were.
Collard greens — I'd never had collard greens," said Audrey Goffin,
an antiques consultant in Manhattan who recently joined a Midtown
vegetable club. "But I was forced to learn, and I enjoyed the
challenge."

Cooking lessons can also stave off monotony during those periods of the
harvest season when some of the same vegetables show up week after
week, said Tina Fuchs, who organized a buying group three years ago at St.
Vincent's Manhattan Hospital, partly to encourage heart-healthy diets
among hospital employees and local residents.

"By the fourth or fifth week, you're really looking for a new way to cook
it," she said.

Fatima Shama, who was picking up her vegetables last week on Manhattan's
East Side — her farm's final delivery for the season — said she knew
exactly what she was going to do with her mix: prepare a vegetable potpourri
that her mother used to make called Crazy Kid Soup.

The virtue of the soup, she said, as she weighed out her two-pound allotment
of blue and yellow potatoes and packed her bunches of scallions and
carrots, is that it will accommodate any and all improvisation.

"It's the luck of the draw," she said. "So I have to be creative."

Some farmers who participate in buying clubs say they have been surprised
by how fervently city people have reached back to them as the clubs have
taken root.

Members have organized weekend trips to visit their farm. The Rogowskis
often have a barbecue picnic when subscribers come by, and sometimes
offer cooking classes.

"This is not for every farmer — it's a very different way of life, very
people-oriented," Ms. Rogowski said. "These people know where
you live, and they don't hesitate to knock on your door, and if you don't have the
personality to meet with them one on one, it won't work."

Farmers and club members say that the key to their dialogue is that despite
everything — the fading of family farms, the ever faster pace of urban
life, the endless choices of the convenience culture — the land and the
things that spring from it still carry a mystique.

"I like to think a lot of people still have a farming gene rattling around in their DNA somewhere," said Steve Gilman, the owner of Ruckytucks Farm in Stillwater, N.Y., who has worked with buying clubs in nearby Saratoga. "People find themselves in office jobs, but they still keep plants on their window sills, and I think they still want to experience, in some way, the farm life."


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company


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