By Emily J. Weitz
When Quail Hill Farms started as Full Circle Farm in 1988, it was the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative in New York State. With ten families harvesting fruit from trees in Bridgehampton, the idea of sharing the labor and sharing the fruits of that labor was born.
Now there are dozens of CSAs across the state, and as many as 12,000 across the country. Quail Hill, which found its current home in Amagansett in the early 90s, has grown from the original ten families to 250. Even the term CSA has become commonplace, and is being touted by senators like Kristin Gillibrand as a way to support local economies and increase healthy living.
As more and more people learn about CSAs and join them, there are some expected growing pains that occur. The whole concept has had to evolve, as has the practice.
“Serving 250 families is very different than serving ten,” says Scott Chaskey, Director of Quail Hill. “Serving more people, you use more acreage, grow more food, sponsor more events… We’ve grown in all directions.”
Steven Eaton, who got his start in organic farming with Quail Hill six years ago, has seen different angles of the CSA. After two years with Quail Hill, he became an independent farmer on Springs Fireplace Road, farming one plot of land and selling his produce to friends and neighbors, and at the local farmers’ market once a week. Last March he was hired by Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island as the crew leader, which means he’s out in the fields managing the work.
“From my perspective,” says Eaton, “the idea of CSA has changed from what the name suggests. Community Supported Agriculture implies a community around the farm, supporting farmers in their work to ensure their food security. These people are saying ‘We want our produce to come from farms in our area and we don’t want those farms to struggle.’ It was a way for the community to make sure these farms that they value survive.”
In recent years, though, Eaton has noticed a change in the reasons people are joining CSAs, and he fears that it’s sometimes more of a trend than a real connection to the land that attracts them. Of course, there are still the people who genuinely feel it’s important to be connected to a farm, Eaton says. They want to know where their food is coming from and have a relationship with that food.
“This is more than a farmer exchanging with the community through a retail space,” he says. “At Sylvester Manor we have our regular harvest days, where we get feedback and have conversations. That’s very supportive to the farmer.”
Eaton believes that the name CSA is growing outdated, and it no longer reflects the trends happening on the East End. When the physical connection to the farm and the farming practices is not there, there is a disconnect between the people and the farm, so that they lose the very understanding of the farm that a CSA is supposed to create.
“If someone is expecting vegetables delivered to their doorstep, what happens if the basket doesn’t come or something isn’t in it,” he asked. “If you’re actually engaging in all the dimensions of a farm, you can understand the delicate nature of food and farming and how rich and joyous and difficult it can be… The trend of CSAs moving away from multi-dimensional participation is a huge disadvantage. That understanding, that dialogue, between farmer and community becomes lost.”
At the same time, as CSAs become more popular, more small, local farms are able to flourish. Balsam Farms, which has been around for a decade, began its CSA just two years ago.
“The CSA is only a small part of our farm,” says Ian Calder-Piedmonte, co-founder and farmer at Balsam Farms, who also is the outreach director for EECO Farm in East Hampton. “We prepare a box with items that are in season, and members come to pick it up at the farm. For us, it’s all about growing food and seeing people. We want as many people eating our food as possible.”
At Quail Hill, Chaskey has no problem calling the farm a CSA in the truest sense of the word.
“It’s who we are,” he says. “We started as a CSA, and we’ve influenced the beginning of lots of other CSAs, not only on the East End. Besides people around here, I’ve traveled all over the country speaking about community agriculture, running workshops and presentations about how you do it.”
The difference between Quail Hill and all the other farms on the East End is, at Quail Hill, the members do all the farming and harvesting. They get an intimate understanding of what is growing and how because they are involved in the whole process. At Sylvester Manor and other farms, like Amber Waves in Amagansett, members do some of the harvesting. For example, Eaton says, if members get a pint of string beans that week, they might be sent to the fields to pick their own.
“Being at the farm when the CSA shows up,” he says, “they’ll get out in the fields and pick basil, they’ll start talking, and they start to see those dimensions of farming. That, to me, is the biggest asset to upholding and encouraging that nature of the CSA. It educates like no other. If you sign up for twenty weeks and you come and see the ups and downs on the farm for twenty weeks, that’s a good education. That’s a huge chunk of the community that understands the nature of food, and how real food is. The value of food and farms goes way up the more people are educated. The value of food goes down otherwise.”
Photography by Michael Heller