This Week in Jewish Farming: The community thing


Folks in the food scene love to talk about how farms build community. It’s a trope that always makes me roll my eyes a little, both because sardonicism is generally my default setting, but also because I’m skeptical that any kind of thick communal ties are likely to arise between people who happen to shop at the same farmers market or subscribe to the same Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. I also find it a bit depressing to think we now have to engineer something that for most of human history just happened.

Whatever it is, somewhere along the line, I started using this language myself. When my parents’ synagogue asked me to come give a talk about the farm, I went on a little riff about the sweet Jewish couple who ran the small family farm in Vermont and the epic Shabbat dinners they hosted for a motley crew of locals and random itinerants. I heedlessly issued invitations to come visit the farm with highfalutin talk about closing the “psychic gap” between field and fork. And I made much of the fact that running a CSA was a values decision, not merely a marketing preference.

I remain somewhat dubious that these kinds of bonds amount to something deserving of the title community, but it’s undeniable that there’s a gravitational pull to what we’re doing. When I decided to sell my members a weekly share of landlord Joe’s farm-fresh eggs, the shares sold out in hours. When I was looking for some worthy local nonprofit to whom I could donate my market surplus, a single phone call had a woman in an SUV at the farm the same day. Almost weekly, someone stops by the market stall to tell me they read my blog posts or met my parents somewhere or saw the article on me in the Hartford Courant. I’ve been invited to speak on panels and had my photo hung in a gallery of Connecticut Jewish farmers. Even as I’m writing this, an email popped up with a link to a blog post about a flower chat I had with a market customer last week.

There’s an energy around the farm right now that seems magnetic. I don’t know that all this equals the vaunted “community” we’re supposedly so hungry to build. My ties to these people, and they to the farm, are for the most part tenuous and thin. And maybe expanded connectivity is inevitable when you move to a new place and start a new business.

Either way, I’ve never had the experience of putting so many balls in the air, let alone seeing so many of them take flight. It has all felt so effortless — not farming, that part is really hard. But the connection part. That side has been a breeze. Perhaps it’s just easier to extend a hand when there’s something delicious to eat in it.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.

 

This Week in Jewish Farming: The cardinal truth of tomatoes


I will now share a cardinal truth of the life agrarian: If you give them tomatoes, all else is forgiven.

OK, the truth may only be trivial. It might not even be true. But some conviction along those lines must have lain behind my decision to plant 1,000 — yes, 1,000 — tomato plants this year. How this came to be is something that unfolded in typical fashion: I seeded a couple hundred plants in drill trays in early spring, looked at them after germination and — freaking out that they wouldn’t be nearly enough — ran to the computer to rush order more seeds that I plunged into soil immediately upon arrival, hoping they would catch up.

They did. In fact, I had hundreds extra, a predicament born partly of the local farmers market informing me after the second week I was no longer permitted to sell potted plants. Thus began a frantic effort to give away these suffering tomatoes, suffocating slowly in their pitifully inadequate four-inch pots. That endeavor was only partially successful. Earlier this week, a few dozen plants, some throwing pathetic little fruits in a last ditch attempt to pass on their genetic material, wound up in the compost pile. (It wasn’t necessarily a bad fate; there they were greeted by several hundred pounds of rotting carrots and cucumbers.)

The vast tomato planting also raised the question of where to store all those fruits between harvest and market. The answer presented itself in the form of a 14-foot box truck that hadn’t moved in months from its parking spot at the auction house across the street. Its owner was more than willing to me let me stash the truck in the shade and use the box as a ripening area, but the engine wouldn’t start when we tried to jump it. So my neighbor — a man I will write more of later, as he has quickly become as indispensable to our success this season as Fred — threw a chain under the body and towed the thing over to the farm.

All this chaos led last week to a milestone of sorts: The first appearance of tomatoes in our CSA boxes. To me, this is the real beginning of summer, the moment when the northeast’s signature warm-season crop makes its debut. If all goes well, our plants will produce a swarm of fruit over the next eight weeks. With a little luck, many will go even longer.

The inaugural tomato variety is the one I consider the finest I’ve ever tasted: The sungold. The product of the breeding genius of a Japanese seed company, this cherry tomato has a deep yellow-orange color and a flavor that is more than just sweet. With their addictive syrupy tang that bursts in your mouth, sungolds are a reliable sellout at the market. On average, I eat one for about every 10 that I harvest.

I had never encountered a sungold before 2010, when I wandered into the greenhouse of the farm I was working on in Vermont, plucked one off the vine and was transformed. Now, no self-respecting small farmer is without them. I’ve seen half pints of these things selling for as much as $4.50 at the farmers market. That’s about a quarter per cherry. Not too shabby.

The onset of the tomato harvest — now a daily task on the farm — is an opportunity to test just how eternal the truth of abundant tomato giving actually is. Not that we have anything to be forgiven for. Our boxes these last weeks have been teeming with seasonal goodness. Squash, kale, beets and basil have all made regular appearances.

But the sight of all those plants weighted down with fruit, one or two of which begin to blush red each week, has removed some weight from these shoulders, now starting to stoop with the fatigue of high season. If all else fails, there will still be tomatoes. And for that, I rest a little easier.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.

 

 

Community-supported agriculture grows on local Jews


Every Wednesday at noon, the Westside Jewish Community Center becomes a market where families pick up fresh, seasonal and certified organic fruits and vegetables grown by farmers who are part of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) project established by the Tierra Miguel Foundation. About 12 families participate in the program, which was launched last May and which does not require JCC membership.

“People love the produce,” JCC Executive Director Brian Greene said. “They feel good about buying vegetables straight from the farm and supporting organic farming.”

Inspired by a Jewish Journal editorial about ethical eating (“Moral Diet,” Jan. 5, 2007), Greene began looking into affiliating with a community-supported agriculture project giving families the opportunity to purchase a seasonal or annual share in an organic farm for a predetermined payment and, in return, receive a weekly box full of fruits and vegetables.

“This is a community-building activity,” Greene said, explaining that the project connects families with farmers, allowing both to share responsibility for stewardship of the land.

Additionally, Sinai Temple is starting the first Tuv Ha’Aretz community-supported agriculture project in Southern California. Tuv Ha’Aretz is the first Jewish CSA in North America and a program of Hazon, a New York-based community organization that sponsors physical challenges and engages in food-related work.

Families who sign up — who do not need to be Sinai Temple members — will commit to buying an entire season of fresh, organic produce from the McGrath Family Farms in Camarillo.

Besides receiving the food, the families are required to participate in a social action component by volunteering at least once during the year at the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition.

“We are creating a community of people who care about health and the sustainability of the world,” said Michelle Grant, Sinai Temple’s Green Committee co-chair.

A meeting for families interested in Sinai Temple’s Tuv Ha’Aretz project, slated to begin in the spring, will take place on Jan. 22. For more information or to R.S.V.P., call (310) 481-3243.

Those interested in becoming shareholders in the Westside JCC’s community- supported agriculture program can call (323) 938-2531.

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