Hector Tejada brought Conuco Farm to New Paltz four years ago, falling in love with the area and uprooting his business from the Nazareth, Pennsylvania land he previously leased. It was in Pennsylvania where Tejada first began his relationship with the Greenmarket, driving into the city a few times a week to sell vegetables in markets like the original location in Manhattan’s Union Square. And somewhere along the way, Tejada became intrigued by the idea of Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA.
In its simplest terms, a CSA is a business relationship between a community group and a farming operation where the consumers and growers share the risks and rewards of each year’s bounty. Each week, the farmer delivers to the members of the CSA a box of vegetables in return for their financial investment in the health and success of the farm. There are a number of CSA programs in Brooklyn, for example, with some requiring a greater commitment of time and length than others. A Greenpoint CSA runs for several months between spring and fall, posting a list of boxed items in advance and allowing anyone to simply pay in if they feel up for it that particular week. Others, like the Bed-Stuy Farm Share, involve a greater dedication, including trips to Conuco Farm to see how the produce goes from the ground to the plate.
Tejada became involved with the Bed-Stuy CSA five years ago, back when the group had a little over 30 households on board. It’s since grown to more than 110.
“CSA’s can be a bit of a hard sell,” said Melissa Danielle of the Bed-Stuy Farm Share. “People tend to believe that CSA’s are prohibitive for low income families, but we’ve also had experience with people with means who can afford it who don’t understand the concept. It’s just been consistent outreach. We purposely set up our distribution outside so that passersby can see what it is and what’s going on. It’s happened many times where people haven’t signed up and they realize, wow, I wish I would have done this.”
Part of the allure, Danielle said, is down to the volunteer nature of the program. Once people realize it really is all about community, they tend to soften their stance.
“The response for us has been fine because we’re all volunteer,” said Danielle. “And people appreciate having that direct relationship where they can see the farmer and go visit the farm.”
The success of a CSA in an urban community where people are often used to getting exactly what they want at that particular moment is based in part on changing perceptions about how people prepare their meals.
“People have to get used to the idea of eating seasonally,” Danielle said. “You’re eating a lot of one thing for weeks at a time sometimes. Members receive 7-10 items; sometimes more depending upon what time of the growing season they’re in. It may not be everything that you need, but it can be a substantial amount, and your grocery purchases can round out what you need. We talk about preserving whatever you get and we encourage people to share their produce. Whatever you don’t want, find a neighbor.”
Tejada said his business is also about community, both locally and in Brooklyn.
“It’s a very strong community of strong farmers in New Paltz,” he said. “They go to feed people directly through CSA’s or farmer’s markets. Where I was farming before, I didn’t have that. It was an isolated farm . I also like the people here. The community is very supportive, understanding about local food and organic farming. It makes you feel like you’re not alone.”
Tejada and the Bed-Stuy CSA’s founding member, Lauren Melodia, began working together when the former was still in Pennsylvania and the latter was a part of the Greenmarket, but the move of the farm to New Paltz has seen the partnership blossom.
“Over a couple of years we became friends,” said Tejada. “I was looking to open a CSA and she was looking to do something in the community and it happened to be a perfect match. Since we started it, it’s going very strong now. We’ve added other farmers, and before it was just me. I think the first year it was just 28 people, and then it went to 40, 60. Today we have over 100.”
For the relationship to work, both the farmer and the consumer understand that it’s all about working together to yield the greatest chance of success.
“Our Bed-Stuy residents have made an investment in the farm,” said Danielle. “Hector brings the stuff down, and a couple of times during the season our members will go help out with weeding. It isn’t always clear, the role of a CSA. People have come to feel like the farmers owe the shareholders something by bringing down produce. The farmer’s market is a place where you shop on your own terms, but the CSA is about supporting the farmer’s bottom line. We are taking a vested interest in a farmer or group of farmers in exchange or what they can offer us.”
Tejada also recognizes the value of the relationship.
“I’m just happy to be a part of it,” he said. “It’s helped me a lot in my business. The farmer gets the money up front, and you pay it off in produce. The markets are an important part of what I do, but the CSA is a secure sale. You don’t have to compete with anybody.”
Tejada said he also takes great pleasure in knowing he’s doing something good.
“I’m enjoying a lot of the whole experience of my work,” he said. “I feel like I’m part of a local food system, connecting the city consumer with the rural area around it. And there’s a lot involved, like educating kids and adults. It makes me feel useful. I’m doing something I can see directly benefits people. It’s not abstract.”
The strength of that relationship was shown when Conuco Farm sustained an October barn fire that resulted in the loss of garlic seeds, some storage crops, personal effects of Tejada’s and damage to a walk-in freezer.
“These were all things needed to get through the winter when you have less to sell,” said Danielle. “We took it upon ourselves to brainstorm how to raise some money. In that process, there were a couple of restaurants that were clients of Hector’s who wanted to help, we had a lot of people express interest in volunteering and quite a few of our creative folk blogged about it. People donated to the auction held at the Commons. People sent money, whatever they could.”
During the month of December, a series of benefits for Conuco Farm were held in Brooklyn, including benefit dinners at iCi and Palo Santo, as well as an auction at the Year at Rooftop Farm exhibition. The amount of money raised hasn’t been tabulated as of press time, but it may already have yielded something more important.
“It renewed the experience for me,” said Tejada. “Over the years, you get used to things. This added another meaning. It really shows an opportunity to show you care. Besides the economic help, the money was really a good feeling to know people care about what you do and want you to be successful. It was like angels taking care of so many problems.”
Beyond the immediate help the fundraising provided, it also reinforced how important the CSA is to Tejada.
“The last three or four years, I wouldn’t be able to be in business without the CSA,” he said. “The money is for me to buy seeds, to buy fertilizer and pay the help I need when things are ready. When the CSA season is over, I have rest of season with the Greenmarket. But I wouldn’t be able to do that without the CSA.”