Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Earth That Nourishes Us: A Visit to Our CSA Farm

Every year Ted and Jan Blomgren of the Windflower Farm in Washington County, NY invite their CSA shareholders to the farming for some camping over, a pot luck dinner and a farmhouse breakfast. I have always wanted to go, but between diapers and pregnancies, nursing and overflowing bags of baby equipment we just haven't been able to get it together. This year however we really wanted to make it. It was a priority!

The weekend was originally scheduled for the last weekend in August, so that everyone could go to the Washington County Fair. But Irene blew through that Saturday night, so everything was cancelled and rescheduled for the weekend of September 10-11th. Frankly I was relieved to be out of town on September 11th. The 10th anniversary of that awful day meant tight security, an increased threat of terrorism, street closures and tons of out of towners. I didn't lose anyone in the tragedy, but my husband lost several of his high school classmates, guys he played football with. I was downtown that day as I was a manager at a South Street Seaport store that fall. The images of people walking while holding their shoes, tawny colored dust billowing through the sky and sheets of paper catching the sunlight as they gently wafted in the breeze are burned in my mind. Equally burned are the memories of the first building which splintered from the top down while I stood watching in Chatham Square and the second tower which seemed to split in the middle and just free fall to the ground. I will never forget the shock and the ungraspable reality that such a thing could happen in our glorious coutry. I worked in the World Trade Center during college, I can still hardly believe that the places I remember so well are wiped off the face of the earth. But this life is ephemeral at best. I walked nearly 100 blocks that day to escape downtown and ran the last two into DH's arms who wasn't even officially my boyfriend yet. Though the events of that day cemented us together like nothing else could. So understandably I didn't want to watch the ceremony on TV and I didn't want to explain it to the kids. I don't worry about forgetting. I never will.

So off to the farm we went on a glorious clear late summer day. We left Saturday late morning an arrived in the early afternoon. Ted had parked the tractors on the back lawn and I can't thank him enough!! My boys were thrilled to pretend to drive them and sit in the big wheels. Thing 2 just kept repeating 'Big Big Tractor' over and over.

Ted led a farm tour shortly after we arrived where he showed us the plastic covered greenhouses or 'tunnels' which housed the nursery, herb pots, onion curing areas and big beautiful tomato plants. Ted spoke plainly about the focus of his operation, how he tries to invest in affordable equipment, juggle small working spaces and attempts to limit his waste. But he admitted that his farm, while they look for recycling opportunities wherever they can, does create some waste. I appreciate that they even consider and make efforts to reduce their ecological impact. But I appreciated even more his honesty in discussing such matters. It is easy for us city folk to wear our rose colored glasses proudly and believe that wasteless farming and clean country living are easy things if you simply have the commitment to ecologically responsible living. Ted informed us that no, they are not always easy. Such ideals require hard work and money and ingenuity.

After the tunnels Ted led us up the road to his equipment parking lot. I was very impressed with his wealth of knowledge. He took us through each machine, where it was purchased, who made it, what it did, it's strengths and weaknesses. He told us his yearly equipment budget and how proper equipment could not only help fewer people do more work, but help them do it more comfortably. Ted cited all the hours he has spent hunched over in the fields planting seedlings. The farm has machines that water and poke holes in the ground, machines that lay drip tape, that till the soil, you name it, they have it. Yet much of the work is still done by hand.

Ted also talked about their efforts to control weeds and pests since they don't use pesticides. They cover some of their fields in a fabric that lights water and most light in but still effectively covers the plants, keeping pests out. He does this especially when the plants are babies (though I might have fabricated that in my mind). Also to keep pests at bay they separate plant families and rotate the beds every season. The bugs he explained have evolved alongside certain plant families. So some pests might attack mustard family greens, but not lettuces. Keeping specific family plants apart from one another in the field is important because it gives the bugs less of a feast day. And since many insects lay eggs in the soil the pests can return the following year when you till and replant. Rotating crops around from bed to bed keeps the soils fresh but also keeps you one step ahead of the buggies.

There is one fungicide that is allowed in organic farming and that is copper. A bluish liquid that can be sprayed, copper does something to keep fungus or molds from getting into the plants system. Ted expressed concern over the use of systemic fungicides in farming conventional. These are fungicides that are incorporated into the systems of the plant itself, so that a chemical sprayed on the top of the leaf of a plant could also protect the underside of it as well. Frankly I share his concern. While I have heard rumors of "pesticides that get into a plant" I had never had the process explained to me in terms that I could understand. What I want to know now is which conventional crops are more likely to contain systemic fungicides. However a short Google search yielded very little. The most common fungi mentioned were late blight of potatoes and tomatoes, but the articles I looked at mentioned cereal crops like wheat and barley too leading me to believe that the use of systemic fungicides is widespread. This makes me want to eat organic even more. I know that the EWG keeps sending out their 'Clean Fifteen" list, but if the chemicals are INSIDE the plant, who cares if you peel off the outer layer. It is my body and I buy organic.

What struck me the most was the complexity of what Ted discussed. From farm maps and plan-o-grams to specialized equipment, it was clear that Ted has many years of experience under his belt. My thoughts turned to my own misguided attempts to grow tomatoes in my house. Farming is not easy. It is possible, but organic farming especially, requires a lot of effort and specific action. It is far easier to grow crops in huge fields of monocultures. It is far easier to douse your crops with pesticides and fungicides and fertilizers than to run around covering crops with expensive batting to keep away the bugs and wind. But the biggest irony? Even the farmers that do farm conventionally don't make a ton of money at it. So it is time to stop always associating conventional farming with evil huge wealthy factory farms. According to USDA data 49.2 percent of all the farms in the US are less than 100 acres. 34.7% are between 100-500 acres. Only 16% of farms are larger than 500 acres. Windflower is run on land totaling about 50 acres, of which around 35 are in use. I was surprised by how small 35 acres is. If the land were flatter, it is likely that you could see from one end to the other. Yet they manage to feed almost 1000 CSA shareholders. Of course we eat other things besides his vegetables, but Windflower produces a lot of good food for such a small acreage.

The experience of visiting our CSA farm was meaningful in two ways. First it was wonderful to see the actual farm where our food is grown. It was wonderful to meet the hands that harvested it. I have a sense of understanding now. These acres 160 miles north of my city are the bits of dusty earth that nourish me and my family. We are what we eat. So we are this land. But secondly I realized how rich farm life could be when you can actually produce a product. Ted and his team grow around 45 different vegetables over the course of the year in a brilliant polyculture. All around me I saw the abundance of overflowing tomato vines and raspberry brambles and greens surging out of the ground. It looked like such a plethora of food!! But I don't own this land or any other land. As a Manhattanite I am vulnerable, at the mercy of those who grow food. I am fortunate to have found an organization like the Washington Heights CSA. But how many others have not? All of us who are not prepared to grow food in our backyards or do not have backyards will always be looking to buy. Shouldn't our culture and our country do more to promote and sustain the hard work of people like the Blomgrens and their team? Couldn't we use a few more of them? I for one am thankful for what they do. Although Ted is clear, his farm is a business that he has passion for, I rather think Windflower is performing a public service. They are taking me a little closer to 'off the grid' all from the comforts of my 12th floor apartment.

This post is shared with Simple Lives Thursdays and Foodie Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays and Traditional Tuesdays and Real Food Wednesdays

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