From their farm to our tables

From their farm to our tables

Kaplen JCC in Tenafly blends fresh produce with sustainability and friendship

What’s a CSA again?

It sounds like another bland set of initials masking something deeper and darker, but it’s not like the FBI, or the CIA, or the NSC, or any other three-letter intelligence agency.

And yes, it can stand for the Confederate States of America, but that’s not the CSA we’re talking about. Not the CSA that draws people to the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly empty-handed, but sends them home with boxes of freshly-picked-that-morning vegetables, organic-for-real free-range eggs, and other staples and exotic vegetarian additions to their diets.

We’re talking about Community Supported Agriculture, which allows consumers to pay in advance for a predetermined percentage of a local farm’s products, which are delivered on a set schedule and contain a mix of foods that vary according to the farm’s yield that week.

Community Supported Agriculture may sound pretty bland and bureaucratic too, but a CSA is anything but.

Instead — at least as it’s done at the JCC — it is a chance for people to develop relationships with real farmers, with their neighbors, and with the food they prepare and eat. It’s a chance to experiment with vegetables, to try new recipes, to understand for real the difference between organically produced food and other kinds of produce.

It’s also a chance to put Jewish values about stewardship of the land and sustainability into practice.

And it tastes good!

On April 26, the farmers will be at the JCC to talk about it. (There’s more information about the talk in the box.)

CSA boxes contain mainly vegetables, along with some fruits, organic free-range eggs, and occasionally a certified kosher European-style meadow butter, if consumers decide they want those options. The vegetables and eggs come from Free Bird Farm, a “medium size farm in New York State, in the Mohawk Valley, near Cooperstown,” Maryellen Driscoll, one of the owners, said. “We have 134 acres, and grow on 40 of them.” Although in California that would be a mini-farm, in the Mohawk Valley it’s medium-size.

The Mohawk Valley is beautiful, Ms. Driscoll said, with hills and some small mountains in the distance, and fields and meadows below. Free Bird is surrounded mainly by dairy farms run by Amish families who have moved to the area from Pennsylvania over the last few decades, and who help keep the area rural.

Ms. Driscoll and her husband, Ken Fruehstorfer, do not come from farming families. Free Bird Farm is their dream, not their inheritance. “Ken’s dad was an engineer, and his mom was a trader,” Ms. Driscoll said. “But he is from western Pennsylvania, so he was exposed to farms when he was growing up, and he had friends who lived on farms.”

Ms. Driscoll is from Topsfield, Mass., a small town north of Boston, near Salem and Ipswich. “My mom stayed at home, and my dad was a newspaper editor at the Boston Globe,” she continued. Her father, Don Driscoll, who now is 81 years old and has retired, had been the Globe’s executive editor, and for years he sat on the Pulitzer Prize’s board of trustees. When he left the Globe, amid the turmoil of the paper’s sale to the New York Times, he went to work at MIT’s media lab. “That was when newspapers were starting to realize that there was a future in technology,” Ms. Driscoll said. “He’s a great guy.”

He is also “the opposite of a farmer,” she added. Despite his interest in high technology and media, “a neighbor would always have to come to fix the lawnmower when it broke. Dad tried to be handy  — but he wasn’t.”

Ken had been working on farms once he graduated from college, but Maryellen was an editor at Cook’s Illustrated, editing recipes and writing about food. The two met while Ken was at a farm on the Massachusetts’ North Shore. “Our interests merged, so we decided that we would like to start our own enterprises, own our own land, and raise a family,” she said. (And, oh yes, the falling in love and getting married part was in there too. And the family part worked out — the couple has a daughter, Alix, 12, and a son, Xavier, 9.)

Ken Fruehstorfer introduces his children, Alix and Xavier, to the chores needed to make their organic farm a success.
Ken Fruehstorfer introduces his children, Alix and Xavier, to the chores needed to make their organic farm a success.

“We bought this land in 1999,” Maryellen said; it once had been a farm but failed and was left alone to grow wild for about 30 years. Because the Mohawk Valley has not developed as quickly as a second-home haven as other parts of New York State have, land there still was relatively affordable.

“I don’t know why our friends and family didn’t question us a little harder about what we were doing,” she said ruefully. “Why didn’t they ask us what our business plan was? Because no, we didn’t have a business plan.

“There is a statistic from the Cornell Cooperative that says that about one in nine new farmers make it after five years,” she added. “There was a culture of people who wanted to get back to the land. We both went to college, but we both thought that we wanted to do it too.”

The difference between them and many other people, though, was that “Ken started working on agriculture right out of college,” Maryellen said. He worked in a number of different places across the United States, ranging from a ranch in New Mexico to a landscaper in the Hudson Valley. “He knew what he wanted, he knew he wanted to do something physical, and he was interested in sustainability before most people even knew what that word meant.

“Ken’s true talent is growing — he has a green thumb, and he is a really good grower,” she said. “And he always has been committed to organic methods.”

When the couple first moved to the farm, “it was very rundown,” Maryellen said. It came with a farmhouse, “a huge house, built in 1854,” and possibly not modernized much since. “Ken has amazing skills; he can do electricity, he can do plumbing, he can build, and he is not afraid of hard physical work.” Still, at first Maryellen kept working in publishing, staying on until they were fairly sure that they could use her skills more at the farm and could afford to give up the outside income.

At first, “it was just the two of us, and I was out there with him stacking hay, when there was hay to make,” she said. “That is very hard work. But as we grew, I become more of the person who needed to secure labor, find help, line up farmers’ markets, work at the farmers’ market…”

At first, she said, Free Bird sold most of its produce at farmers’ markets, “but I read about the CSA model, and I reached out to an organization called Just Food, which is very similar to Hazon in terms of its mission to support stewardship of the earth. Just Food helped place us in a community looking for a CSA farm.”

That’s how Free Bird’s close connection to the Jewish community started. Hazon “is at the forefront of an evolving conversation about how American Jewish life can be strengthened by engagement with food, the outdoors, and the environment,” according to its website; among its many projects and programs is Camp Isabella Freedman, the retreat center just north of New York City that it owns, operates, and farms. It also sponsors bike rides both in the United States and in Israel.

Free Bird’s first community was Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the large, socially active Conservative shul on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“Now, about 70 percent of what we grow goes to CSA groups in New York and the JCC in Tenafly,” Maryellen said. “Some of them are Jewish groups. We are not Jewish, but I love the Jewish faith.” It’s been a learning experience, particularly as Ken and Maryellen figure out the Jewish calendar and find out how to work around the Jewish holidays and how to cater to them.

She and her husband also have learned how to meet some specific Jewish needs. The farm has chickens that lay eggs; Ken and Maryellen sell them. “Our chickens are raised out in the pasture, so they produce a different type of egg,” Maryellen said. “It’s just much better. I think it’s a combination of the chickens being in the sun, eating grass, and being able to move freely.”

The farm was named when Maryellen and Ken’s dream of living off the land was new, and they were innocent. It’s not from the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, she insists, Instead, “There was a book that had everyone convinced that you could make a living from pasture-raised poultry,” she said. Birds that were free. Hence, Free Bird. “Can you? No. No, it is not  viable model.” But it is possible to grow organic vegetables and also sell the eggs of organically raised chickens.

There is no mashgiach on the farm, so the eggs are not certified kosher, but “we intentionally don’t have a rooster in with our hens,” she said. Eggs are kosher if they come from a kosher animal — like, say, a chicken — and if they have not been fertilized. (That’s why eggs with blood spots in them are not kosher. The spot could mean that it had been fertilized.) If there is no rooster anywhere around, then fertilization is not possible.

“A rabbi friend who is very strict about his diet loves our eggs,” she said. “He just makes sure that we don’t have roosters.”

Maryellen loves working with the Jewish community. “It’s been a really rewarding partnership for us,” she said.

She also is moved by the concept of the CSA. “It’s a partnership, where communities are willing to commit to supporting our farm and reaping the benefits of what we produce,” she said. “It’s more than just stopping at a farm stand and picking up a pumpkin. It’s investing for a full season, being willing to roll with what the season brings.

“Weather can be a big factor for us, although we do have ways to mitigate some of it.

“In return, we grow very intentionally for our CSA members, which can add some pressure for us. We want to make sure that they are happy, and that they eat well, and that they want to remain part of the relationship with our farm.”

Right now, very early in the growing season, before the CSAs have formed for the year, “We have nothing in the ground but garlic. Everything else is in our greenhouses.” The leafy greens will grow first; the “denser plants, which I treasure, things like tomato and sweet corn, take more time.”

Many vegetables are started in a greenhouse and then moved outside.
Many vegetables are started in a greenhouse and then moved outside.

The produce has to be pollinated, she added; “We are very lucky in that we have honey farmers who bring a lot of bees to our farm. They bring the hives in late May or early June, and they stay all summer.

“A lot of people don’t realize that not only fruits but a lot of vegetables depends on bees pollinating them.” Those are vegetables with blossoms – green beans, eggplants, tomatoes, and zucchini, among others, she said.

Beekeepers like to work with organic farmers, she said, because “there is evidence that certain insecticides, neonicantonoids, are contributing to hive collapse issues. We don’t use neonicantonoids.”

The shipments go to the JCC every Tuesday for 22 weeks. “We always try to make sure that every week there are some staples — cucumbers, broccoli, things like that, depending on the time of the year — and then we also send some unusual things. We grow fresh endamame, for example, and purple carrots, and kohlrabi. These are things that you might see once a season, or that might stretch people’s comfort zones. What can you do with kohlrabi? I do tell my husband that there is only so much kohlrabi that you can give people.

“I give people recipes that I develop or have published, or are from colleagues who I know can write a good recipe,” Maryellen continued. “And I will make sure that they are kosher.”

The JCC takes Maryellen’s recipes and puts them into a weekly newsletter. Sometimes she also adds news about what’s going on at the farm; that, too, can go out under the JCC’s aegis.

“We also partner with other farms, so people can get fruit in their CSA deliveries,” Maryellen said. “There’s nothing like a fresh nectarine or white peach. And I really like partnering with other farms and helping to support them.”

CSAs develop in different ways in different communities, as a reflection of those communities’ values and also its demographics. The CSA at the JCC is unusual in that it involves many departments and has some therapeutic goals to accompany its other Jewish values.

Rabbi Steve Golden is now the associate rabbi at the Sephardic Temple in Cedarhurst, one of the Long Island’s Five Towns, but until a few years ago he lived in Bergen County and directed the JCC’s Judaic department. In that capacity, he was a co-founder of the JCC’s CSA.

Free Bird is the second farm to supply the JCC’s CSA; the first one was a much-loved but small operation that proved not to be up to the task of supplying so many families with such good produce so regularly and reliably. “Shelly and I went up to Free Bird Farm in the winter, and we fell in love,” Rabbi Golden said. Not only is the produce organic, it is also produced ethically. “They bring their laborers in from south of the border, and they pay the special homeland tax for them,” he said. “It is aboveboard and all entirely legal. They built them apartments. The workers work at the farm during the season, and they make enough money to go back home and support all their families.

“Ken and Maryellen are wonderful, ethically and spiritually,” he said.

Laborers are given proper paperwork, treated fairly, and come back year after year.
Laborers are given proper paperwork, treated fairly, and come back year after year.

The CSA began at the JCC in 2009 as a partnership between the Judaic and special services department, which works with people with developmental disabilities, among other challenges. Shelly Levy, who directs special services, was the other co-founder. “She made sure that she had her special services clients participate in the program,” Rabbi Golden said. “They would help stuff the bags. They help weigh and package.”

There is always something extra that the farm sends down that goes to the Center for Food Action in Englewood. It is considered a peah, the portion from the corner of the field that is to be left for the poor. Any shipment that cannot be picked up that week also goes to the center.

One of the striking aspects of the JCC’s CSA is the way it is a locus for friendships. People don’t necessarily run in, pick up their boxes, leafy greens bouncing, and run out. Often they stay to talk.

When Rabbi Golden and his wife, Shira, moved to Cedarhurst, they looked for another CSA. The closest one they found was in Forest Hills, in Queens. They tried it for a year, but “the pickup was demonstrably different from what we were used to,” he said. “People just grabbed their bags and left. And I said, ‘Forget it.’”

They decided that the CSA in Tenafly was the one they wanted, no matter how far away from their new home it was. It still was home to them.

Rabbi Golden always has been a cyclist; he convinced his wife to try to ride too, luring her with a tandem bike. It worked. Now, they meet at the George Washington Bridge after work on Tuesdays, whenever they can (they are not crazy, and if the weather or their schedules make it impossible, they use more conventional transportation), and ride across the river to Tenafly. “We are really blessed to be able to get on the bike at the end of a Tuesday and ride to pick up our produce,” he said, quoting his wife.

For the second year, Marilyn Yeshua will administer the CSA at the JCC. “It is an amazing, wonderful program,” Ms. Yeshua said. “The community who is doing this wants to be connected to their food, to be good stewards of the earth. They want to know who the farmer is.

“I have never seen vegetables as fresh as these; the farmers harvest them and put them in boxes and bring them directly to us. They taste better than anything you can buy because they are so ridiculously fresh and good.

“And another great thing is how many different groups at the JCC it involves.” Not only people from special services, but “another group of young people, who come from groups that need help, so they do work in the community. And the little children from camp, who come to look at the vegetables, and the oldest kids, who come and photograph the food for a camp elective. And we set it up in the same room where the senior programs are. People with Alzheimers have lunch there, and they love it.”

Part of joining the CSA is volunteering there; the organizers ask for two shifts over the course of the 22 weeks. Most of the volunteer opportunities are on Tuesdays, but “some people just can’t do that,” Ms. Yeshua said. “There is a new garden being planted at the JCC, and I am giving people the option of coming in on a Sunday to care for the garden.”

So why not try it this summer? You might fall in love with new vegetables; you might learn what to do with that funny-looking kohlrabi. You might make new friends. You might change your ideas of what the earth can bring to us, and what care we owe to the earth. You might think about it Jewishly, or universally, or — and best of all —  in both ways. And without any question you’ll eat well.

Who: The farmers from Free Bird Farm
What: Will talk about community supported agriculture
When: On Wednesday, April 26, at 7 p.m.
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly
For more information: Call (201) 408-1456.
And also: If you can’t go to the meeting, don’t worry. You still can register for the CSA. And you do not have to be a member of the JCC to be part of the CSA.

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