The afternoon sun beat down on the blacktop of the Morrow Memorial Church parking lot but no one seemed to care. They came by car, by bike, and on foot—some not wanting to use unnecessary emissions on such an environment-friendly endeavor. Eager customers toting armfuls of reusable bags perused a blackboard indicating which fresh-picked produce they would get that day. They are members of a community supported agriculture group, or CSA, coming to pick up their green goodies.
As participants in a CSA, they paid a farmer in advance—in this case $500 per share or $250 for a half share—for a portion of the season’s crops. This CSA has a pick up site at the church in Maplewood, where share holders receive produce weekly from June through most of November. The food is grown naturally, without pesticides, and the seeds are not genetically altered.
Rows of wood boxes are filled to the brim with various leafy greens including kale, collard greens, lettuce, Chinese cabbage and baby bok choy. This week’s booty also offered carrots, turnips, beets, Swiss chard and some other less recognizable prizes like pea shoots and garlic scapes.
What’s a garlic scape? Dan Geoghan, a representative of Rogowski Farm—the supplier for this CSA—enlightened some (namely this writer) as he unloaded his truck of fresh vegetables, herbs and prepared food. Scapes are apparently the flower stems that garlic plants produce before the bulbs mature. They look much like scallions and are a garlic lover’s delight.
Discovering new produce is part of the adventure. Members don’t have to sift through the items because they are entitled to something from each box and all of it was picked the day before or that morning. As they filled their bags, they chatted about how they used last week’s loot and checked out the homemade herb dressings and dips for purchase.
Geoghan, another member of the Rogowski Farm sales team, is always on hand to answer questions about when the food was picked, how to prepare it, and what to expect in future deliveries. He said he enjoys this CSA because it connects the farmer with the consumer.
“The atmosphere is nicer than a farmer’s market," he said. "The people are friendlier and happy to see you. We appreciate them because they get us through the winter. ”
This is the first year holistic health counselor and Maplewood resident Lea DeCosta is participating in a CSA. “I am very into healthy food and healthy living. It’s part of my job but it’s also part of my life. We always have this dilemma of choosing between organic foods and local foods so when I found there was an organic local source of food I was really happy and I jumped right on it.”
It started when Maplewood Deputy Mayor Fred Profeta met the farmer, Cheryl Rogowski, at an environmental event last year. He turned to Kerry Tilden—a fellow Morrow Church member and green activist—and asked her to help create a CSA in Maplewood. As a seminary student involved with the Morrow Church, she presented the idea to the church’s Global Outreach Committee which approved the concept of joining our community together with a local farmer to promote healthy living and a clean environment.
In just a few short weeks, Tilden was able to sign up 50 families, which was the minimum required by the farm in order to make it worth their efforts to deliver to Maplewood. Through word of mouth, by the spring she had about 150 families involved and has had to turn some away in recent weeks.
The W. Rogowski Farm is in Pine Island, New York, only about an hour from Maplewood. It’s a certified naturally grown producer located in the “black dirt” region of Orange County, where the soil is very rich. According to their brochure, they grow more than 250 varieties of produce annually, using only ecologically friendly and environmentally sound methods.
Cheryl Rogowski has been on the forefront of the CSA concept and was recognized nationally for her ten plus years of bringing together agriculture with urban communities in our area. In addition to the Maplewood group, the farm services CSAs in Brooklyn, the Bronx, a small group in Millburn and about 100 shares in Pine Island.
Having all the food delivered once a week saves the carbon emissions of having many trucks (and planes and trains) transporting food from other parts of the world. “There are 56 food miles for everything we have here. We’ve reduced greenhouse gases because one truck brings everything,” Tilden said proudly.
This CSA has made a big impact on the Rogowski family farm. Their existing farm jobs are more secure and the foreman can now be paid year round. They have also hired an assistant, five additional field workers and five more sales reps. They are able to rent more greenhouse space for seedlings and plant 40 additional acres of produce.
When asked about the difference between the CSA food and what she buys in the organic section of grocery stores, DeCosta—whose business, Wellness Extended, focuses on helping people eat healthier—had some advice.
”I think the quality is better," she said. "It tastes a lot better. It certainly is fresher. What people should be aware of is the food doesn’t always look as pretty as in the supermarket. I kind of consider that a plus. When I see something looking too pretty I figure it’s probably been manipulated in some way.”
A weekly email is sent out every Thursday to let members know what’s included in the Monday pick up. The only downside some members mentioned is that they get the same produce –especially lettuce—many weeks in a row.
The CSA experience seems to transcend food to create a sense of community among its members.
The farm asks participants to work at least one shift over the 25 weeks to help at the pick up site.
After receiving their share, participants will often barter with each other for more desirable items. One share holder has even started a blog to get a conversation going on how to prepare and cook some of the vegetables, complete with recipes. The group is also planning a potluck dinner in August and another possibly in the fall.
“It’s establishing a community in a lot of different ways. Rather than just eating the food, we’re also connecting with all of the other people that feel this is important also. It’s very nice,” said De Costa.
And at the end of the 2-7pm pick up window, the farm rep gathers what’s left and leaves it with the church. That food—and any more that participants chose to donate that week—goes to a homeless shelter nearby. The church is actively seeking a channel to donate the food to low-income families here in Maplewood soon.
Tilden says next year, the farm hopes to sell 200 shares in Maplewood. If you are interested in signing up for a share or getting more information on CSA’s, check out the Rogowski Farm table at Maplewood’s Green Day events on October 10. Or contact Kerry Tilden at firstname.lastname@example.org.