From Soil to City

Good farmers, who take seriously their duties as stewards of Creation and of their land’s inheritors, contribute to the welfare of society in more ways than society usually acknowledges, or even knows. These farmers produce valuable goods, of course; but they also conserve soil, they conserve water, they conserve wildlife, they conserve open space, they conserve scenery.
– Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food

This past Sunday provided a glimpse into the goings-on of a few farms that supply our CSA. The full day included tours at three Pennsylvania farms, a communal lunch (consisting entirely of CSA goodies!), and a beverage break with farmer Ben at Wild Fox Farm. The day began early for a few adventurous Local Roots companions; after introducing and sharing a bit about ourselves in the car, conversation soon turned to (what else?) food. After all, what better way to get to know someone? Our eclectic backgrounds—Albanian, Thai-Italian, Chinese-American, and European-American became apparent in comparisons of our Thanksgiving traditions and favorite eggplant recipes. In the spirit of sharing, here’re some ideas for your next batch of CSA eggplant:

  • Thai eggplant curry
  • Albanian baked eggplant: hollow out a large eggplant, mixing beef, sweet peppers, and tomato with the eggplant. Season with salt and pepper. Stuff mixture in eggplant, drizzle with olive oil and bake until soft. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar towards the end of cooking
  • Wen-Jay’s Korean marinated eggplant
  • Ariel’s Mediterranean-style eggplant: toss sliced eggplant with oregano, salt, pepper, lemon, a pinch of sugar. Drizzle with olive oil and roast until soft, adding another squeeze of lemon and some fresh parsley towards the end

Our first stop began with hugs from the whole family at Taproot Farm, our vegetable grower for our Wednesday and Thursday CSAs.  Started in 2009, Taproot’s produce is certified naturally grown. As George explained, this means that they grow to organic standards using untreated seeds, no synthetic fertilizers, and no synthetic pesticides herbicides, or fungicides. CNG is a grassroots alternative to USDA organic certification. Taproot Farm sells to farmers’ markets, CSAs and food banks in Pennsylvania; Local Roots CSA is their first NYC endeavor. Over the past two years, Local Roots has connected over 800 New York households with Taproot’s beautiful, naturally grown vegetables.

Walking through the rows of beds, it became apparent that not only is there a significant amount of labor that goes into tending such a sustainable farm, but also a lot of planning. Thorough spreadsheets help George and their farm staff keep track of when to start planting, when to keep an eye out for certain pests, when to harvest, when to rotate crops… the list goes on. This organization and forethought has made Taproot a successful sustainable farm. As George said, “There’s a lot of planning, but if there weren’t… it wouldn’t be fun.” These year-round efforts and meticulous attention to detail show in all aspects of Taproot’s operations:

    • Careful crop and chicken rotation across the farm’s 25 acres keep the soil in the best shape possible; moving the chickens around the farm provides natural fertilizer, while the chickens can feed off the grubs and weeds. George says that where the hens have spent time is visible in the greater crop production
    • Taproot also makes use of the soil’s natural fertility: rather than using synthetic supplements to amend the earth, a combination grass and legume cover crop helps to restore the nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium balance in the soil. Further, cover crops help prevent erosion (and erosion from agriculture is the second biggest human impact on our planet!)
    • Row cover may mean many long afternoons for the farmhands at Taproot, but this spray-free pestprevention technique is one way that the farm avoids using chemicals
    • After harvesting and washing, Taproot runs some of their greens through retrofitted clothes dryers to get rid of excess water. This saves time and keeps their greens fresher for longer – don’t worry, the dryers have never been used before!
    • Think it’s starting to get a little chilly to be growing? The frost actually improves the flavor of many root vegetables! With winter coming, veggies like carrots, beets, and radishes will begin storing more sugars and taste sweeter
    • Tired of those red leaves that make your salad mix slimy? George has the answer: curly lettuce adds texture to Taproot’s salad mix, which ensures that leaves don’t stick together and get soggy!

After our tour of the farm, we had worked up appetite for lunch! Taproot had set up a beautiful table for us overlooking the fields, complete with hay bale seating. We unloaded our spread of CSA goodies and chowed down–cured fish and meats, breads, pasta and ancient grain salads, radish top pesto, Grace’s squash cookies, and a gorgeous salad prepared by Ola helped to fuel us for the rest of the day.

Heading down the road to Lenhartsville, PA, we were greeted by Matt and his family at Primordia Mushroom farm. We can thank Matt for introducing the us to Taproot–Matt and George’s families are close, and the kids even carpool to school together.

Taking us through the steps and facilities involved in mushroom growing, the tour started in the substrate production room. Here, Matt showed us how the materials he uses mimic the composition of a decaying hardwood log. These materials are bagged in a contaminant-free environment—wearing sterile hazmat suits, the cultivators at Primordia take all precautions to create the ideal growth conditions for their mushrooms. Otherwise, Matt explains, what he’s left with is “an expensive bag of compost.” Here’s some highlights from along the way:

  • Matt designed the entire substrate and ventilation system himself, using multiple air filters and a converted pasteurization tank! Mushroom farming requires not only perseverance, but also significant infrastructural investment
  • All of the mushrooms cultivated at Primordia are those that grow on decaying hardwood trees. Most of these could be found locally in the woods, though Matt’s method of creating prime growth conditions with uncontaminated substrate and controlled environmental conditions allows Primordia to harvest all sorts of fungi
  • Mushrooms are super sensitive to environmental conditions, so Primordia’s growing rooms are carefully controlled to replicate conditions that mimic the onset of autumn. As Matt says, “you could be doing 90% of this right, but just that 10% off could significantly reduce your yield.”
  • While Primordia specializes in chemical-free production of over eight different types of mushrooms, not all mushrooms can be cultivated. Some, such as chanterelles, can only be foraged because of how they grow. Good thing Matt is also versed in foraging: he and his wife met at age 15 and went foraging on their first date.
  • Primordia is a family operation: Matt’s son even helps him harvest mushrooms! The staff at Primordia is also close-knit with the nearby Taproot. As it’s just down the road, the farmhands at both share a house.

For our last stop, Wild Fox Farm, farmer Ben and his wife Karah greeted us with drinks and a bonfire. Gathered around the firepit, Ben explained the significance behind the “wild fox”—the farm’s name is reference to Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer Liberation Manifesto, pointing to the beliefs that ground Ben’s work: having faith in love and loving the earth. Ben and his family began cultivating the land at Wild Fox four years ago, and moved onto the property just three years back.

With a still-growing farm and two young boys, the Davies have their hands full. This hasn’t stopped them from starting a successful CSA in Pennsylvania and expanding their line of value added products (credit due to Wild Fox’s squash-ginger butter for fuelling our hungry tummies on the drive home). Local Roots CSA is the farm’s first entry into the NYC market and we are proud to support them through our poultry, vegetable, and farmer share.

Here’s a few more bits of info on the last idyllic farmland that was our last stop on this trip:

    • Set in PA’s Butter Valley, Wild Fox Farm’s 40 acres include vegetable fields, pastured poultry (the delicious chicken broilers you find in Local Roots CSA!), egg hens, pigs, and free range sheep
    • Daily rotation of the poultry means that Wild Fox chickens constantly have access to fresh feed and new land
    • One of the few local farms to have a moveable greenhouse (they’re more expensive and difficult to build), this allows Ben to rotate crops throughout the entire year
    • Respect for the land and animals underlies all of the practices at Wild Fox Farm, which is probably why their meat tastes so good!

Exhausted from our long day, it was a quiet drive back to the city. In just a few hours, it’d be Monday morning, and we’d be gearing up for another week of CSA. And our farmers would be working just as hard as they do every day of the year. After all, farmwork is a 365-day enterprise (as Matt said, “Mushrooms don’t even stop for Christmas”). But having seen the passion that underlies this work and the vegetables that would be in this week’s CSA, it starts to make more sense. George, Matt, Ben, and all of us here at Local Roots–we share in a common desire to bring people good food. So this week, next week, the week after… we’ll keep doing what we love (and of course, loving what we eat!).

 

To see more pictures of our farm trip, visit our Facebook page!