As CSAs have gained popularity as a way for Brooklynites to source fresh, local produce directly from regional farmers, the traditional CSA way has encountered some growing pains. The fact that many CSAs fill their member quotas by late winter, freezing out many potentially interested participants, or source product from a single farm, limiting the variety of goods available in weekly shares, has caused some to see the old model as being less than user-friendly.
Wen-Jay Ying, founder of the Local Roots CSA, is on a mission to change the way CSAs work. Her CSA offers a degree of flexibility, convenience and choice not normally associated with the old-school approach. Members of Local Roots have the option to sign on for customized combinations everything from organic vegetables and fruit to free-range duck, beef, eggs, and bread, all produced by regional farmers.
We sat down with Wen-Jay to look back at Local Roots’ first season.
So Wen-Jay, when we last met, back in the spring, the first season of your Local Roots CSA was just getting underway. You were still signing up members, and none of your weekly shares of local produce had been distributed yet. How’s it been going since?
Well, we’re still doing signups! We’ll always be doing signups. That won’t change. I want to have the flexibility to allow people to sign up whenever they want to sign up throughout the year.
A lot of more traditional CSAs fill up in early spring – before most people are even thinking about fresh produce. I’m trying to gear Local Roots to be as accessible as possible. We want to be really flexible in terms of what types of food people can choose to get each week, and in terms of when they want to sign up.
So we’re well into fall. Most CSAs are seasonal – are you doing this year-round or are things winding down?
We’re in the middle of our fall season of shares now. I’m planning on doing a winter season, but I’m still working out the details on that.
We are doing ‘pop-up’ CSAs for the holidays. We’re doing a Thanksgiving pop-up in which people can sign up for a one-time Thanksgiving CSA share. It’ll feature most of the things you need for a Thanksgiving dinner – free-range turkey from Quattro Game Farm upstate; organic vegetables from Rogowski Farm, who supplies all our vegetable shares throughout the year; fruit from Red Jacket Orchards; bread from Orwasher’s bakery, and organic flour from Cayuga Pure Organics for those bakers out there.
People can order all of those, or just the specific things they want. We’re offering delivery too, because some people might not want to haul twenty pounds of Thanksgiving ingredients home by themselves.
That sounds like fun. What’s the deadline for orders?
Orders need to be in by Friday, October 28.
So let’s get back to the story of how things have developed with the CSA during your first year. Any surprises so far?
The social part of the CSA has been a lot of fun. I’ve met a lot of great people. I’ve found that some members are friends of friends of mine that I’d never met before. The members are great. People tend to hang out a little bit when they come in to pick up their shares. I get to know them. I know if they have kids, what they do for a living…
We have members who were pregnant when they signed up, who now bring their babies to the weekly pickup. You get a glimpse into peoples’ lives when you see them every week – even if it’s just for a few minutes.
We have members volunteer to help at the various share pickup locations each week, and I know of a few friendships that have developed between members that way. I like getting people talking to each other.
What about the logistics of actually getting produce from all these different farms to each location each week? How does that all work?
I’m in touch with the farmers all the time, letting them know what I’m going to need each week. It can be complicated, because every farmer has a different day during the week by which they need to know what I need for the CSA. So I’ve got this giant calendar in my mind that I’m constantly trying to keep up with.
Getting the produce for the shares to the weekly pickup locations can be complicated too. Cheryl Rogowski, our vegetable farmer, harvests what we need in the morning, then drops the vegetables off at the pickup locations later that day.
With our duck farmer and our egg guys, I pick up the weekly share at the Union Square or Carroll Gardens Greenmarkets. It varies from farmer to farmer.
So how do you determine what you’re going to need from each farmer every week? Does it vary in terms of quantity, or varieties of produce?
I look at what each of our farmers has available each week, and I’ll compare that to the budget we have for the shares and then I’ll tell them what we need. It’s harder at the beginning of the season because there’s not a whole lot of variety. It’s been tougher after Hurricane Irene too – Cheryl Rogowski’s farm was basically wiped out so that’s limited the variety of produce we’ve had access to this fall a bit.
I always try to rotate a nice variety of things through the weekly shares. During the height of the season there’s so much to choose from. I like to include something unusual each week. Things like gooseberries or quelites – a Mexican wild spinach. Purslane is another one. Did you know purslane is the only plant with omega three fatty acids?
I did not.
They have really tiny leaves that you can eat in salads. They’re almost juicy, with a nice earthy flavor. Really good!
What’s been the biggest challenge in terms of getting it all going and keeping it all going?
The hardest thing has definitely been getting the logistics nailed down with my farmers. It’s been a lot of work getting a system in place with each of them. I’ve had to get to understand how their farms work, figure out the best way to communicate with each of them, who to talk to at each farm.
It’s all complicated by the fact that everything is so time-sensitive. We have distributions four days a week. I’m working with all these different farmers. And everything has to be fresh. Everything has to be ordered on different days, but it all has to end up in the same place on the same day. I have to make sure the orders get in, that the farmers get the orders, that it’s confirmed that it’s coming down on the truck and that the truck is going to arrive on time…
The farmers are unbelievably busy during the season. I’m not always their top priority, so I’ve had to figure out how to make it work. I’ve learned not to take it personally if I don’t get a quick call back!
At the end of the day, Local Roots is my responsibility. I have a whole bunch of CSA members who’ve purchased shares and are showing up expecting produce each week, so it’s up to me make it work. There’s a lot of orchestrating, but I’ve got a system in place now. It’s really come together, and the nice thing about it is that as a result I feel a lot more connected to the farmers.
Was it a surprise? How much logistical work is required?
It was somewhat of a surprise. I had thought all of these things through – I knew I’d have to place orders each week with the farmers, and organize a way to get everything to the weekly pickup locations for members. But there are always little things that complicate everything.
One time, there was an accident on the Thruway, and it took the truck from Rogowski Farm twice as long to get into Brooklyn as it normally does because of the traffic. I had members showing up to pick up their shares and there were no vegetables! Luckily, those things are rare and people are pretty understanding. But every day, there’s a little panic attack! It’s always something! No matter how much work I put into it there are things I can’t control.
I can’t control the weather. The weather upstate affects crop growth. That’s not something we normally think about in the city. If there’s too much rain or too little rain, it’s going to affect the variety and quantity of what’s available in a given week or month.
Another thing I can’t control is the price of the food. Prices are higher this year than they have been because the fuel needed to drive the produce from the farms to the city is a lot more expensive. So fuel prices affect the price of the products included in the shares. I can’t change the price of the shares once they’ve been sold, so that’s something that just comes off the bottom line. It’s just something I have to work around.
But those are the sorts of things that are great about CSAs in a way – you can get a much clearer understanding of how the food system works.
The scariest thing I’ve ever had to deal with was actually going to my first distribution – the first week of hosting pickups and delivering shares. That whole week was kind of terrifying! It wasn’t the details – it was more a kind of fear of it becoming real, and having to deliver and make it work.
Starting something – starting a business, is a huge commitment. You’re taking a huge leap of faith that everything that’s in your mind, all the work you’ve done to set this up, is something that other people will like. It’s really putting yourself out there. You’re exposing yourself to all these people – you’re exposing what you think is this great idea. And if you can’t deal with every single aspect of what you’re doing, if you can’t deliver a quality experience and product, people are going to notice.
Everything has worked smoothly, but it’s not easy. A lot of work goes into ensuring that it’ll all work smoothly.
So you’ve mentioned Hurricane Irene a few times, and that Cheryl Rogowski’s farm, which supplies your produce, was basically wiped out. What were you doing during the hurricane? How did the damage to the farm affect the CSA?
When the storm was approaching, I was glued to the TV. I think I watched the news every moment – while I was washing dishes, cooking. It was kind of scary and kind of exciting at the same time.
I realized that I had all these vegetables – CSA leftovers – in my fridge, and that if the power went out it would all go to waste. I had a freezer full of duck. So I spent the whole day before the storm cooking everything in my fridge. I roasted six pounds of duck. I made three pies. I cooked for twelve hours.
Then I ate. I figured that if something was going to go down, I may as well live it up!
So in the end, nothing significant happened in the city, and everyone made fun of the media for all the hype. I knew that my farmers might have some problems, but I never thought about how severe it might be.
After the hurricane had passed, Cheryl called me to tell me how badly they were flooded. She told me 80% of the farm was flooded, and that they’d had 100% crop loss. But I still didn’t really process what she was telling me. It didn’t sink in until I went up to the farm a few days later.
Rogowski Farm is in the black dirt region upstate. The soil soaks up water like a sponge, which is great for growing, but that also means it floods easily. On top of that, the farm sits on what was once an ancient lake bed, which makes the risk of flooding even higher.
I run a CSA. CSA stands for ‘Community Supported Agriculture.’ I decided to drive up because I wanted them to know that we’re there to support them, and to help out if I could. I got more and more nervous the closer we got to the farm. When we got out of the car, we looked out over the huge expanse of what used to be fields of crops and it was all under water.
When I saw the farm, I just had no idea what was going to happen to the rest of the CSA season. Obviously we were going to support Cheryl and the farm, but at the same time, this is Local Root’s first year in business. I’ve got all these members who’ve paid in advance for their shares. I knew I was going to have to figure out a way to get produce for our shares if Cheryl couldn’t provide it. My mind was racing.
But Cheryl really put me at ease. She’s really tough. She’s been through hard times before – it’s the way of life for a farmer. Her approach was to just focus on what needed to be done next – not to think too much about the big picture.
We just agreed to do whatever we could to focus on each week’s shares, to make them as good as we could.
I told Cheryl, “Listen, we’re going to stay with you no matter what.” I wanted her to know that we weren’t going to let a natural disaster impact our relationship. And she had a similar reaction. She has her own CSA and markets that she has to supply, but she said she considers us a part of the family and that she was going to find a way to make the rest of the season work.
It turned out that there was one plot of land – about 20% of the farm, that wasn’t flooded, and that would provide some produce for a few more months. In order to extend her growing season, she’s built a high tunnel at the farm. A high tunnel is like a temporary greenhouse, or a hoop house. They’re pretty expensive to build, but it was the only way she could see them being able to grow further into winter, to harvest enough produce to bring to the farmers markets and to fill the CSA orders.
The hurricane was like a joke here in the city, but after seeing the farm I understood the severity of it. Even now I’m still seeing it. The farmers markets are emptier. I’ve heard of several CSAs that have ended their seasons a month early because of the crop damage from the storm. I feel really fortunate that even though Rogowski Farm experienced such severe flooding, our CSA is going strong. Our members are happy. We’re lucky that our farm is able to somehow keep providing fresh local produce for us.
So what do you do when you’re not working on Local Roots?
Music and food are the two biggest parts of my life. I’ve played in some bands, and almost all my friends are in bands.
What do you play?
I play violin in one band, and I play bass and sing in another.
One band is called the Escalators – we play shows on subways. Not for money – just for fun. There are seventeen people in the band, and we’ll get on the subway and play a whole actual show on a subway car.
Yeah, it’s a whole show. We get people crowd surfing in the subway car and stuff. It’s kind of crazy.
I like how you just casually throw this out there. How do you decide where or when you’re going to play?
We just decide. Not a lot goes into it. We don’t actively promote it. Part of the whole thing is not promoting it.
What kind of music?
OK. I do not know how to categorize music. I guess if I had to I’d say it’s some sort of pop/ska/punk. And it’s the kind of music that gets everybody smiling and dancing. Music you can crowd surf to. On the subway.
The Local Roots CSA hosts weekly pickups of produce, meat, dairy and bread from local farms at 61 Local in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain in Carroll Gardens, d.b.a in Williamsburg, and 92Y in Tribeca.