Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Good Old Days: The Beginning

by Andrea Scharff

Andrea & Her Son
When I look across the country from my home in San Francisco, to the Farm & Fork Society in Millburn, I get a warm, fuzzy feeling. It’s the same kind of feeling I get looking at my teenage son. I nurtured him as a baby, and now, without taking too much credit, I see maturity and beauty that just seems like it’s going to be really good for the world. I like what he’s doing, and I can’t wait to see what he will do later. Thanks to Melissa Goldberg’s utter devotion to the task of nurturing, and the stamina of a community sticking with local organic farmers, what started years ago has become something to be really proud of.  

I was born and raised in California. About eight years ago, new to living in Millburn, I was wishing I could sign up for a CSA, something I’d heard about from friends in San Francisco. I’d never been a member of a CSA, and had no real idea of how they worked. But I knew these west coast friends received a box of fresh, dirty, organic vegetables and fruits once a week. It sounded like something that would make me feel good about my parenting, my eating, the environment, and might even help some lucky farmer.

My grandparents tried organic farming in Nebraska in the ‘70’s. They actually just called it “farming,” but didn’t use chemicals in the process of raising their plants or animals. In the end, they couldn’t remain financially competitive with the other farmers who relied on chemicals, and they became schoolteachers instead.  

Perhaps my grandparents were in the back of my mind when, as a new member of the Millburn community, I decided to hold an open meeting in my little living room for a group of twenty-five strangers who were answering a call to possibly start a CSA. We had a very simple and rather uninformed discussion about what a CSA was, and whether there was any interest whatsoever.  I felt free to let the idea evaporate unless there was a significant amount of energy in that room.  And honestly, it was a mixed bag.  Some people came hoping to save money, nothing more.  Others were more idealistic, and offered their garages, ideas, and hours.  What no one had to offer was expertise.  

That week I began to call farmers, though I didn’t really know what to ask them. I had only the most basic idea of what organic farming was. From them I began to learn about the politics of the term “organic” (like the controversy about having to pay for the “organic” certification when one has farmed organically for generations), about the length of time away from chemical farming that makes a field officially organic, what kinds of qualities and supplies a farmer needs to support a CSA (like a reliable truck), and how we could support a farmer considering the burdens of uneven farm yields.

And little by little, conversations between Melissa, Rachel Pasternak and me, led to Melissa’s garage for distribution, the choice of the first farmer, a promising collection of members’ checks and plans to help with distribution… it all took shape. The shape, at first, was unexpected. Unlike those big leafy boxes my California friends got, our early spring “bounty” was just a few items, with a promise from the farmer that it would increase as the season progressed. And it did, though not always as planned. Once we each got five heads of lettuce. Another time mid-summer I brought home 70 tomatoes, because members didn’t want their shares – so much pasta sauce!   

Over time, things improved, the number of families reached its capacity, and we started to get the hang of choosing more than one farmer. I eased out of my role, and moved back to California, leaving Melissa in charge.  And that’s when the miracle of its current incarnation evolved.  

Every week I get my CSA box delivered to my porch in San Francisco, just like I dreamed of in New Jersey. I get to choose between the many CSA’s in the area. My farmers are wonderful. But what you have is so much harder won.  New Jersey has a climate that challenges, a culture that doesn’t universally believe in the value of organically grown food, and nobody’s going to get rich from this endeavor. Yet Farm & Fork Society thrives, thanks to its members, its leaders, and of course, its farmers! What you have is incredible. I’m proud of you.