Getting closer to the source

Eating local is “not some lofty idea anymore”

31 Mar 2020 | 10:10

“Dear Friends, Good food is going to be an important part of the struggle we’re all involved in,” begins a handwritten note on the letterhead of Blooming Hill Farm. The distinctive scrawl belongs to Guy Jones, a back-to-the-lander who, over the decades, has built his organic farm in Blooming Grove, NY into a brunch destination where locals rub elbows with Brooklynites. Now it’s transformed into another kind of destination, where cars line up Fridays through Sundays to receive a box -- $25 minimum order, texted ahead of time -- of produce, delivered into their trunks with no physical contact.

Jones’ note, which appears on his farm’s website, ends with a quote from Cicero: “Salus populi supreme lex esto”: “The health of the people is the supreme law.”

He’s preaching to a growing choir. As gap-toothed grocery shelves become the new normal and stopping at the store grows ever more fraught, people are determined to get closer to their food any way they can, from curbside farm pickups, to CSA sign-ups, to rolling up their sleeves and growing their own.

“Everyone is cooking more, and fallen-away CSA members have come back,” said Nadine Imbriaco, who was ringing up in-person customers at the Blooming Hill farmstand this past rainy Sunday. Two jars of latex gloves greeted shoppers, along with chalked messages to “glove up” and “respect the distance.” Baskets were piled high with root vegetables from the root cellar, greens and herbs from the greenhouse. “We have stuff in the ground,” Jones reassured a customer. There were apples, cider from Roe’s Orchard in Chester, avocados and oranges that had been ordered in, and artisanal soap handmade by Skyler Jones, Guy’s son. Customers donned gloves and shopped at opposite ends of the market, and some wore masks as they filled bags and baskets. While the café across the driveway was closed for eating-in, there was a full menu for takeout, and customers carried coffee cups and cardboard boxes back to their cars.

White-bearded Guy Jones was stalking the grounds in a raincoat, refusing – as usual – to have his picture taken, growling, “I have a record.” It was something of a comfort that at least one thing hadn’t changed: Jones had not softened his stance on the press.

In the old days, Imbriaco arranged flowers for on-farm weddings, laughingly relating stories about hiding from the bridezillas. There will be none of those any time soon. “We’ve been extremely busy” with vegetables, Imbriaco said, “which has been much needed, but unfortunately at a cost to other” revenue streams. While on-farm produce sales are booming, no amount of rutabaga can make up for the collapse of the agritourism and wholesale sectors, with all restaurants closed.

Farmer Jesse Clark, the cheesemaker behind Nonchalant Cheese, was experiencing a similar brand of whiplash from the simultaneous boom-and-bust. She made a trip in her minivan last Friday with two of her four kids in tow, to source additional free-range eggs to fulfill customer demand. (Spring, when laying hen production peaks, is normally the time that farmers have trouble offloading all those eggs, not a time to be buying more. Full disclosure: It was my house she came to for eggs.)

“Probably ten to 15 people reached out last week asking for a contract” for a season-long CSA, said Clark, who farms the historic Meadowburn Farm in Vernon, NJ. “We have our standard regulars we can count on year after year, but 10 requests in a week – that’s unheard of.” In addition to offering an a la carte menu of wood-fired bread, meat, eggs and cheese at her Saturday farmstand, Clark is putting together $50 boxes that also include things like granola and maple syrup: “the quarantine special.”

“It’s not a lofty idea anymore; it’s reality. The idea of buying locally, knowing who’s handling your food, the quality control aspect of it,” said Clark. The surge of new customers will provide a welcome cash infusion, but it won’t make up for the cancellation of festivals, the loss of her restaurant customers, and the evaporation of orders for cheeseboards for weddings. “So it’s really the year that the neighbors need to show up,” she said.

The story is the same at farms across the region, at least the ones that have a sales outlet (the ones that don’t may struggle more, in a season bereft of the usual farm markets). “Yes we have been busy supplying our community with meat!!!!” wrote Christina Arellano of Vernon Valley Farm, who in all our past correspondence has distributed exclamation points one at a time. Arellano also runs the new Valley Farmers Cooperative Farm Store in Vernon, NJ, which sells farm products from a few “likeminded” farmers, including meat from Lowland Farm in Warwick. “Whew it has been quite the surge in customers,” she said. “We are encouraging social distancing, so we ask that people wait their turn outside. We are also offering fast pickup,” where customers order and pay online and they have it ready for pick-up.

There’s also been an explosion of interest in growing your own food, to the point where some seed companies – deemed essential services and allowed to stay open – were so swamped they temporarily shut down. “We are getting a ton of new orders right now. Dramatically, dramatically more. It’s really hard to figure out how we can, like, stay open and manage our inventory at the same time,” said Ayelet Singer, sales and customer service associate at the Hudson Valley Seed Company in Accord, NY. The company employs 18 people, propagating heirloom seeds that do well in our region, and packing them into iconic art packs designed by local artists.

Singer was working from home, putting orders together as fast as she could on Friday afternoon. “It’s pretty obscene, and crazy, but good. We’re trying to stay open as much as we can because we feel like we’re providing an important service for people, but a lot of other seed companies have had to pause, at least temporarily. Baker Creek, Southern Seed Exposure, Renee’s Garden, we were all communicating yesterday, trying to figure out what to do.” A red banner across the Hudson Valley Seed Company website reads: “Current Shipping Delay: Up to 10 Business Days.”

“We’re starting seedlings this year because we need food sooner than later,” said Ali van Stolk, who lives with her partner Innis Sampson in Warwick. For the past three years the couple has direct sown seeds into their garden – “winging it every time lol,” noted van Stolk – but this year they’re going to start seeds in the bay window of the house they share with three others. They’re planning to grow herbs, zucchini, squash, peas, beans, and medicinal plants like borage and chamomile. Root vegetables will not make the cut, since they “always end up being like two inches tall,” said van Stolk, and that space could be better used for greens.

Their aim is “less trips to the grocery store,” said van Stolk. “It’s pretty stressful” to go out in general, she said. “It takes a lot of preparation, just to get in the car. Mental stress.”

Van Stolk is taking a hiatus from her job at Down 2 Earth, a health food store in Florida, NY, and Sampson’s job working for Warwick artist Jed Bark is, like many jobs at the moment, up in the air. “We’re just trying to grow what we know we’ll eat,” said Sampson. “I feel like we’re actively trying to reduce going out. Reduce having any contact with people, and to work with what we have available. We’re not going to run to the hardware store just because we need screws. Work with whatever we have.”

Dan Daly, owner of Dan’s Pro Grow in Goshen, was “running around crazy” serving customers who were coming in for seeds, seed starting supplies, soil and grow lights. Finally, on Monday he found five minutes to talk on the phone and eat his lunch at the same time. “A lot of times people don’t think of gardening as an essential need, or farming as an essential need. A lot of times we’re taken for granted,” he said. “It’s exciting to see the revitalization.”

His one-man shop is sold out of beet, pepper and tomato seeds, and lettuce, kale, broccoli, Swiss Chard seeds are flying off the shelf. Many of the new faces he’s seeing, “they just come out and say: I’ve never grown plants before, I want to be able to grow my own garden. We appreciate any help and guidance you can give us.”

For new gardeners, Daly’s advice is: “Really just keep it simple and keep it realistic. Having a garden doesn’t mean you have to be a farmer. Most gardeners start off with probably more than they can take care of. So start off small, then grow with your experience.”

Daly has growing in his blood: his grandfather was an avid gardener, his parents were farmers, he grew up working on a farm and studied agriculture at Ulster-Orange BOCES. But he has no illusions that all the newbies coming in looking for “quick-turnaround greens” are all on the path to becoming lifelong gardeners. “I think it is a bit of a panic-fad, we’ll call it,” he said, “but nonetheless a certain amount of people who started will continue with it, then a certain amount of people, when food becomes more available, will stop growing.”

These new customers are “being mindful” about purchasing lights that they’ll use again in the fall, to grow greens through the winter, said Daly. There seems to be a push to incorporate growing food into regular life, he’s noticed.

“We’re seeing more and more people looking for raised beds and container gardening, mainly just to make maintenance a lot easier, making it more part of their everyday routine,” said Daly. “People want their raised beds on their patio, pots on the back deck, so it’s involved in their day-to-day activity, so it doesn’t involve a special trip out to the garden.”

Get Fed

Valley Farmers Cooperative Farm Store: Sat. and Sun. 10am-4pm

438 Rte. 94, Vernon, NJ

Lowlandfarm.eatfromfarms.com for fast pick-up

Warwick Indoor Market: Sun. 10am-2pm

115 Liberty Corners Rd., Pine Island NY

Blooming Hill Farmstand: Fri. 11am-3pm; Sat. and Sun. 10am-2pm

1251 Rte. 209, Monroe, NY

Text 845-273-8887 to pre-order for pickup

bloominghill.farm

Nonchalant Cheese: Sat. 10am-4pm, preorder only

42 Meadowburn Rd., Vernon, NJ

“Quarantine special” box $50

Text your order to 732-644-9909 before 6pm Thurs for Sat. pickup

FB: Nonchalant Cheese

Freedom Hill Farm Store: Mon.—Wed. 3:30pm-5:30pm; Thurs. and Fri. 2pm-7pm; Sat. 9am-7pm; Sun. 9am-5:30pm

115 Grange Rd., Otisville, NY

845- 386-5798

Freedomhill farm.net

Did we leave you out? Email editor.dirt@strausnews.com, subject “Get fed” with your farmstand information

Garden SOS
Questions about pests, native plants, invasive species, diseases or just basic how-tos? Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Garden Helpline Service is staying open, staffed by Master Gardener Volunteers Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9:30am-12:30pm. Call 845-343-0664, or if you need help during off-hours, leave a message or email mghelpline@cornell.edu.