A glut of tomatoes, yellow and red, jiggle in their crates as upstate farmer Claudio Gonzalez unloads his truck outside the New Song Community Center in Harlem. There are hundreds of them, all slightly different sizes, but plump and redolent of hours and hours of sunshine – poles apart from the red uniform rubber balls in the supermarket.
Inside the triangle-shaped building on 120th Street and 8th Avenue, peppers, beets, zucchini, greens and squash sit on a bench awaiting the New Song Community’s weekly CSA collection.
Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, brings a neighborhood together to front the start-up cost for a small-scale farmer, paying him or her for a season of produce.
Each member purchases a share of the season’s farming, helping to diminish risk for the largely organic farms while allowing members access to a plentiful supply of seasonal, locally grown vegetables.
Last August, Gonzalez’s farm in Pine Island, two hours north of New York City, was underwater. The Wallkill River, swollen after Hurricane Irene’s lashing, burst its banks and inundated a number of small farms, leaving CSA shareholders with slim pickings.
The group debated whether to abandon Gonzalez for another grower. “The choice was, should we believe in the CSA philosophy of supporting the farmer, or do we believe in providing fresh produce?” said Vivian Kurutz, director of New Song-Harlem Center for Healthy Living.
Out of the 40 CSA-operated farms in New York, 10 were significantly affected by the hurricane. Ultimately, Kurutz said that some New Song members switched to unaffected farms, but the majority stood by Gonzalez.
“A lot of farmers said to us, ‘If it weren’t for CSAs we wouldn’t have been able to keep farming.’ It was definitely challenging for consumers, especially for farms that had to miss weeks, but this was the only time something like this has happened in 17 years,” said Paula Lukats of Just Food, the umbrella organization for CSAs in New York City.
Most farmers tried to channel produce from other farms to honor their CSA commitment, but “it was definitely a struggle, a learning experience, and really showed how tenuous farming can be,” she said.
Gonzalez began farming in 2004 on a quarter acre of land he received from his farmer-employer while working in Middletown, N.Y. When success at farmers’ markets followed, Gonzalez’s family began to rent more land. Now, he sells his vegetables in eight greenmarkets and three CSAs, bartering with nearby fruit farms to add to his supply.
A year after the flood, New Song has branched out, offering shares in eggs, with the possibility of meat and fruit soon. Kurutz said the idea is to change Harlem residents’ relationship to food, using cooking demos “to expose people to new ideas rather than preach to them.”
CSAs are seeing more people buy half-shares than ever, Lukats said, because they want to try membership without making a big commitment. At New Song the fall share cost was $17 a week plus a $20 administration fee and a $5 JustFood membership, for a total of $374 a share for 22 weeks.
“We receive six different items per week, which could be a bunch of carrots, a bunch of beets, one cabbage, four tomatoes, bunch of lettuce, three zucchini squash. They increase in bounty as the season progresses,” said Kurutz.
“I believe that we’re getting a better deal,” compared to greenmarkets, Kurutz said, “The farmer said that his prices are higher at the outdoor markets where he sells. The point is to reward us for helping his family out during the non-producing/harvest months when they need the money most.”
Not every CSA member is impressed, though.
“It’s always the same and it’s not that plentiful. There’s too many peppers and not enough greens,” said Linda James, who has had a share for two years but is thinking of moving on to another farm with a wider selection.
Martha Linde, a pianist who lives on neighboring West 124th Street disagrees. After being on a wait list for over a year,she’s eager to receive her supply of tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini.
The weekly drop-off also gives people the opportunity to test-drive unusual vegetables.
“I had never heard of purslane before the farm share,” said Kurutz of the crunchy, lemon-flavored green weed. “On the occasions we get it, I prepare it as our farmer suggested — with lemon, sea salt and olive oil.”
Just Food is now making a push to add workplace CSAs and is considering uptown hospitals, offices and schools.