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Local Roots CSA Founder Wen-Jay Ying

Suddenly, winter is gone.  Instead of finding ourselves hunched against swirls of snow, we’re dazzled by flurries of cherry blossoms wafting through the streets.  For those of you who might be distracted by the glories of spring, we wanted to remind you that the clock is rapidly ticking on your chance to join a local CSA.

Our local farmers have sown their fields, and the last of the over-wintered crops are about to give way to this season’s opening act. The first fiddleheads, ramps, micro-greens and asparagus, are already here or are on their way, with a whole kaleidoscope of drool-inducers to follow.

Local CSAs tend to fill up fast (count us among the many Brooklynites who’ve found themselves ‘boxed-out’ in the past by waiting a little too long to get in on the action), so we were happy to hear about a newcomer to the borough’s CSA party – Local Roots.

Local Roots is a brand-new CSA that will be bringing fresh, local veggies, fruit, grains, beans, beef, duck, eggs and bread to Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Williamsburg and Tribeca this season.  And they’ve got a nice twist – members will be able to choose as many or as few of those varieties of produce they’d like to include in their weekly shares.

We met up with Local Roots founder Wen-Jay Ying to chat on a bench in Cobble Hill Park (which is like the springtime equivalent of a freaking jewel box full of glittering gems right now) to find out more about the CSA and what led her to launch it.

So Wen-Jay, Local Roots sounds like a cool project. Tell us where you’re from and how you ended up launching a CSA.

It’s funny – I was never really interested in food until a few years ago. I grew up on Long Island and was one of those kids who hated vegetables. My mom cooked every day and made great food, but I’d always kind of pretend to eat my veggies. I’d push them around and try to make it look like I was actually eating them.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was working at an organization called NYCAH – the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. He sent me an article about the decrease in supermarkets citywide, and the resulting increase in dependency on bodegas for food in many neighborhoods.

Bodegas don’t generally offer a lot of fresh, healthy food options, and that obviously caused a lot of challenges and health issues in the growing number of neighborhoods without good food options. That’s what first really got me interested in food, and the food system in general – how it’s produced, where it’s produced, and how people can access it.

A little while after that, I got a job with the organization Just Food through Americorps. My interest in good food just kind of snowballed from there.

So what were you working on at Just Food?

I worked with their CSA program, helping to educate the public about CSAs and helping people in the city who were interested in starting one to get going.  The people and their passion for good food really got me excited about the opportunities out there – they’re just amazing.  There’s a really strong sense of community among people working with good local food in any kind of way. It’s amazing to see the level of innovation that all kinds of people have brought to the table to try to get healthy, fresh food into neighborhoods all over the city.

I’ve always liked the idea of people just doing things themselves because they know there’s a need that needs to be answered. I think that happens more often in the food world here than in most other contexts.

And of course, the best thing about fresh local food is that it’s addicting. It tastes so much better than the alternatives, and when you discover that, you often also realize how much healthier it is.

Ever since I was a kid, I’d always wanted to find work that would allow me to help people in some way. I think that promoting local agriculture is a great way to help both local farmers and urban consumers to live better. I love it!

What did you do after Just Food?

I worked with Red Jacket Orchards from upstate New York. I first signed on with them to work at their stands at the local Greenmarkets, but eventually I started their CSA program. It was the first fruit-only CSA in the city.  We launched it late last summer and it was great – we set up three distribution points and our members loved it.

One thing I loved about it was that a lot of our members weren’t really familiar with the whole CSA concept. A lot of them hadn’t participated in a CSA before and it was their first step into the whole local food thing, and they loved it. A lot of them were really drawn in further than they’d expected.

So what led you to start Local Roots?

When I was leaving Just Food, a bunch of people asked me things like, “What would be your dream job?” And by then, I actually knew the answer – setting up CSAs. That’s not really a job that you can exactly make a living at yet, but I wanted to give it a try. So I figured why not just do it? And that’s how Local Roots came to be.

At its core, Local Roots is a CSA, but I want it to be a lot more. I want to provide as many ways as I can for our members to learn about the food and about the farmers producing it – I want to get people excited about why this great local produce is so good and why it matters.

I’ve been a CSA member and I’ve worked with lots of CSAs, so I had a good sense of what I’d like to do differently to add more to the experience.

So what are you doing differently with Local Roots?

I think people really want to have one place they can go to pick up all the different types of local produce they’d like.  A lot of CSAs are primarily just fruit or vegetables or meat – a lot of them source their produce from one farm producing primarily one type of food.

That’s starting to change a bit, but the standard CSA model right now tends to require members to have a vegetable share in order to add on other shares for things like fruit or dairy. I wanted to take an approach that would include a good variety of types of produce from different local farms, but that wouldn’t require people to participate in certain aspects of the CSA in order to have access to others.

I also want to try to improve the connection between our members and our farmers. Farmers tend to be so busy farming during the growing season, and members are so busy living their city lives, that it’s easy to neglect the connection and communication opportunity that you have with CSAs. I think that communication between the people growing the food and the people enjoying it is important to both the farmers and the consumers, so we’ll be trying to promote that as much as we can.

Another twist is that we’re going to do a supper club. We’ll be hosting sit-down dinners made using only ingredients from the CSA.

Tell us about some of the different types of foods you’re offering through the CSA

We have vegetables, fruit, grains and beans, meat, duck, eggs and bread. I’d like to add seafood from a local fisherman, but for right now it’s a little hard logistically. We’re just getting started, but stay tuned on that one!

The Rogowski Farm in Warwick, New York will be providing the vegetables.  Cheryl Rogowski is the farmer. She’s amazing. She won a ‘Genius’ grant from the MacArthur Foundation a few years ago for her totally natural approach to growing.

Grazin’ Angus Acres in upstate New York will be providing the meat. They produce really great pasture-raised, antibiotic-free and hormone-free beef. Really great meat.

Our grains and beans are from Cayuga Pure Organics, near Ithaca. Obviously, totally organic.

Orwasher’s Bakery is providing our breads – they actually use Cayuga Pure Organics’ grains in some of their breads.

The duck is from Hudson Valley Duck Farms. They’re known for having some of the most amazing duck around. Their duck is all cage-free, antibiotic-free and hormone-free. They’re in Ferndale New York.

And our eggs come from the Feather Ridge Farm about 100 miles north of here in Elizaville. They’re also pretty well known for their all-natural eggs from cage-free hens. They actually mill their own whole-grain feed right on the farm.

We’re still finalizing our fruit farm. It’s down to a couple of options and we’ll have it worked out in time for the start of strawberry and rhubarb season in June.

How did you pick those farms?

I actually specifically chose to work with farms that are already at local Greenmarkets because I know they’ve already passed NYC Greenmarkets’ rigorous certification requirements.

And I’m familiar with their produce from the Greenmarkets so I know it’s all great stuff!

So how does it work for members?

Members can choose as few as one or as many as all of those different types of shares. If they just want duck, they can do that. If they want everything but duck, they can do that too.

With CSAs, you pay for your share upfront for the season. We’re dividing our season into two halves to make it more accessible and to provide some flexibility for those who want to try it out without committing to a full season. The summer season will run from June through August, and the fall season will be September through November.

We’re going to have pickup locations in Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Williamsburg and Tribeca. In Carroll Gardens, the location will be The Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain. In Boerum Hill/Cobble Hill it’s at 61 Local, in Williamsburg it’s at DBA and it’s at 92Y in Tribeca.

I want to make the pickups fun. I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the food community over the last few years, so I want to invite local artisanal producers to come to the pickups to share their stories and let people taste their products too. I’d like to offer things to get people to hang out a little bit if they want – not just grab a share and go…although that’s ok too!

I like that – turn the pickups into a party! When is the signup deadline?

It’s May 23rd. People can sign up at our website at http://localrootsnyc.org/

So what are you looking forward to most in this year’s CSA bounty?

Everything’s going to be great. I’m excited about it all. For me personally, I’m definitely looking forward to duck. It’s not a seasonal thing so much, but I love duck. Other than that, you just can’t beat those late summer tomatoes and corn. What’s better than that?

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