The evolution of America’s agriculture and food distribution systems has largely been shaped by the forces of efficiencies and price competition, with much less focus on sustainability. A majority of our food comes from large-scale meat, dairy, fruit and vegetable farms located far away from the places in which they are ultimately consumed. A resource-intense logistical system of planes, trains and trucks is needed to hold this model together. The drive to maximize food yields at the lowest possible costs comes at the expense of maintaining an ecological balance, and the genetic diversity of the food supply. This is evidenced by the abundant use genetically modified varieties, pesticides and fertilizers. The list of issues and corresponding consequences goes on and on … The COVID-19 pandemic has also shed light on some of the shortcomings of our current food supply system. The infrastructure required to support our agriculture and food distribution systems broke down at certain points along the system resulting in farmers being forced to plow over fields of ripe produce, dump millions of gallons of milk, and slaughter millions of animals.
In recent years there has been more awareness brought to sustainable farming practices and many consumers are now more informed about the issues that exist. One way in which the issues and corresponding consequences of our food system can be addressed is through the use of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSAs connect the producer and consumers by allowing the consumer to “buy in” to a certain local farm or group of local farms in advance of the growing season. The early payment allows the farmer to purchase the seeds and supplies needed, helping with their cash flow. Most CSA farms practice sustainable methods of farming and use natural fertilizers (including compost). During the season, farmers typically deliver a weekly box of fresh vegetables (and perhaps fruits) that are in season to each member. There are also variations to the more traditional model of receiving a standard box of vegetables for the week where members load their boxes with their own choice and leave behind what they don’t want, with extras given to local food banks.
Sustainability did not enter my mind when I first signed up for a share of a CSA in early 2016. To be honest, when I first heard of CSAs in my late twenties, I never thought I would join one. A coworker of mine joined a CSA that delivered a weekly vegetable box to his neighborhood YMCA in Brooklyn. He and his wife couldn’t finish all the vegetables and fruits they received, so each week he would bring some to the office to see if his colleagues would help him out. As a single woman living in New York City at the time, I was too lazy to cook meals for myself at night so had no interest in the free vegetables and fruits. Others were in similar situations, so he and his wife resorted to trying their best to make the most of their weekly box by researching many different recipes. One week, when he had his second or third delivery of basil, he brought in a basil cake that his wife had made. I knew they were desperate for ideas at that point and vowed to myself that I would never put myself through the torture of joining a CSA.
Fast forward to shortly after I moved to Ridgewood, NJ and I was no longer that healthy twenty something, but rather a mid-late thirty something mother of two who had just been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. On my doctor’s advice, I started following a paleo diet which focuses on high quality local meats and a lot of fresh vegetables. One day, while shopping for pastured pork and grass-fed beef at a local farm in Orange County, NY, I saw a sign advertising a local CSA. When I went to the CSA’s website, I saw that this CSA offered a larger variety of vegetables in their weekly box than my coworker’s CSA from years before and delivered to several northern New Jersey towns. I thought it would make sense to give it a try given my desire to eat better and to set a good example for my children.
As I researched more about the CSA, I was surprised to learn about the black dirt region of southern Orange County, New York and northern Sussex County, New Jersey. I grew up in Orange County and had no idea that ten thousand years ago a glacier left behind a shallow lake that was eventually drained into the Wallkill River by farmers. The soil that was left behind was rich organic “muck soil” or black dirt that is nearly pure organic matter and ideal for farming. Only the Florida Everglades has more of this type of soil than the Orange County Black Dirt region. In this New York Times article, Marie Ullrich, an agricultural extension agent in Orange County notes that, “With other soils, you’re lucky if you have 10 percent organic matter [but] in the Black Dirt, we have 30 to 50 percent and sometimes up to 90 percent organic matter. It’s basically a giant bowl of compost.”
Onions were the original crop of choice and were popular in the New York market. However, while being close to New York City was once an asset for the black dirt region, the drop in transportation costs and mass industrialization of the food supply made areas further away competitive. Farmers in the area have struggled and selling the land for residential development is not possible given the looseness of this “muck soil”. Luckily for those of us in northern New Jersey and southern New York, some farmers realized the benefits of a CSA and are able to share in the high-quality vegetables that are grown in this fertile soil.
I have now been a CSA member for five growing seasons, and it is satisfying to know I am contributing (albeit in a small way) to sustainability in New Jersey and I’m cooking with locally grown vegetables that come from some of the most fertile soil in the country. My family has been exposed to a variety of vegetables that we would not have tried before (I was so excited when my daughter asked me to make more pickled kohlrabi!) and I do believe we have seen health benefits from it. Our weekly shares have included various types of lettuce, spinach, radishes, carrots, onions, scallions, beets, garlic scapes, corn, potatoes, kale, tomatoes, garlic, eggplant, swiss chard, zucchini, cucumbers, basil, cauliflower, cilantro, parsley, dill, spaghetti squash, peppers, celery, green beans, broccoli, acorn squash, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, leeks, parsnips, popcorn, and shallots as well as other seasonal produce.
Additionally, our CSA hosts “pick your own” days when members are invited to the farm to get pick farm fresh vegetables and get some of this black dirt under our finger nails. It is a great opportunity to venture out of Ridgewood, breathe fresh air and sink your feet in the deep, rich black dirt. My kids love the experience of running around the farm with their shoes off and helping pick vegetables. And it’s a joy for us parents to watch them search through rows of plants and light-up when they find that unpicked green bean or cucumber.
There are many different opportunities to find sustainably grown food around Ridgewood and northern New Jersey. My focus on improving my health led me to seek out sustainably raised meats and sustainably grown vegetables, and to be honest I was surprised how it easy it was to find them. If you are interested in joining a CSA, I would recommend researching the different types that are available and choose one that suits your needs (delivery location, types of produce offered etc.) If we truly “are what you eat”, I personally would rather be a locally sustainably grown vegetable than an over-industrialized/pesticide laced vegetable that was grown hundreds or thousands of miles away.