By Tia Keenan, FHCSA MEMBER
One of the great benefits of the Forest Hills CSA is our association with the Lewis Waite Farm Network, which delivers to our CSA bi-weekly during the Spring/Summer/Fall season, and monthly during our Winter season. Access to a wide variety of local, organic, sustainable meats, dairy, grains, and specialty products, including coffee, honey, maple syrup, and lacto-fermented items, are few and far between here in central Queens, and purchasing them through the LWFN is a convenient way to get great products while supporting our local rural economy.
Lewis Waite Farm produces grass-fed and grass-finished beef and pasture raised, GMO free pork on land that is Certified Organic by NOFA-NY which can be purchased through the farm network, along with goods from over forty local farms. Purchasing and payment is all online, and goods are available for pickup during regular CSA pickup hours.
I invested in a chest freezer my first year participating in the Forest Hills CSA, and almost all of my meat is purchased through the LWFN, in addition to grains and dairy. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing the name and story (available on the LWFN website) of almost all of the staples eaten in our home. It’s also empowering to know I’m supporting our rural economy, and lessening my impact on the earth by eating local.
I recently interviewed Lewis Waite Farm owners Alan and Nancy Brown about their farm and the network. We discussed the history of the land, the logistics of running the farm and network, and the reality of modern rural work, and what urban people should know about rural communities.
What is the history of Lewis Waite Farm? How long has your land been farmed?
We purchased the home farm, Lewis Farm (143 acres), in 1966. The Lewis family purchased the land in 1795. Most of the land was wooded then, and was slowly cleared through the civil war period and it has been farmed ever since. We added the Waites Farm in 1996, which added 240 acres. With other parcels purchased in-between, we now have a total of 450 acres, and we rent 150 acres. All the land we farm is certified organic. Before we bought the land, the farm had been abandoned for 10 years. No chemical or inorganic pesticides have been used since we purchased the land, well before organic certification was available.
When did the Lewis Waite Farm Network start? Why did you start it? Were you inspired by other distribution systems or farm networks?
We have been farming here since 1968, raising beef and pork on a limited basis. The purchase of the Waite farm caused us to increase our production. Our sales were of live animals only at this time. Our good friends Thomas Christenfeld and Liz Gordon of The Alleged Farm encouraged us to bring products to their CSA’s in Park Slope and Clinton Hill Brooklyn in 2002. We brought our own beef and pork, and chicken and lamb from two other farms. With Nancy’s background in software design and Alan’s business experience, along with lots of help from Just Food and existing customers, we grew right along with the food movement. In 2004, we created a website to begin to handle and organize the orders for us. We also attend weekly Farmers Markets year round in Saratoga Springs, NY and Dorset, VT.
Take us through a typical week at LWFN. When do you take orders, pack orders, deliver orders?
We maintain our own vehicles, farm machinery, buildings, fences, etc. We also deliver all our products ourselves, so the typical day includes some or all of the above, in addition to caring for our animals and grounds. We also do all our own haying, marketing, website maintenance, and animal care.
Orders come in all the time, over the phone, email, and online. Inventory review, placing orders with our network farms, and writing of newsletters all happens the week before a delivery. Then, two days before we hit the road, we gather all the items we will need from our various storage locations.
We pack the meats and other frozen items neatly in about 20 coolers, chilled items are segregated in the walk in cooler, and pantry items are all promptly labeled and packaged by site. The coolers spend the night in on trolleys in the big walk in freezers, and come out into our main packing room the day before delivery.
We pack the meats site by site, customer by customer. There is a real art form to packing the boxes so they will stay cold until distribution. We like to think of it as our own form of Tetris. Nancy has earned the nickname ‘Melty Hands’ over the years, for her knack for making the impossible fit where others can’t.
All the chilled items, eggs, milk and cheese, are packed by site and labeled for each individual customer.
Nancy, Alan, and Ryan load up the van between 2 and 3 am, depending on how many stops there are, and off Alan and Ryan go on their way to you!
What are the benefits of eating local foods, environmentally, economically, and personally?
If you define local foods as food grown or prepared organically or as truly naturally as possible, and consumed within 200 miles (USDA says 400 miles), then the local economy benefits, VERY ESPECIALLY in rural areas where there is little industry. Organic producers, even if not certified, are typically good stewards of the land and improve the land they use. We eat the foods we grow, the food we sell, and very little else.
When it all comes down to it, eating local food, made by people you can talk to, is the only way to know what’s in your food. Certifications and labels like ‘cage free’ have been taken over by big agribusiness and food retailers, and we think knowing your farmer is the only way to really know what you are getting. As farmers, we really do know our food. We can give you as much (or as little) information as you want about what you are eating.
The CSA model of agriculture has been steadily gaining ground. Can you talk about the ways that it’s changed since you started? What are the challenges and benefits for you as a farm?
We are not a true CSA – the consumer bears no risk. We let people order whatever they want, and pay as they go. Generally, people pay upon the arrival of their food, which is the exact opposite of how a CSA works. We are more like an on-line Farmer’s Market, where you can pick and choose from the offerings than a CSA share. Some people do prefer the surprise of the CSA, so we also offer Extras shares, which offer a real mix of our network’s offerings.
In our opinion, and the opinion of many CSA farmers we know, the movement has peaked. Natural and organic food is so much more accessible now than it was in the early 2000s. There are more Farmer’s Markets, and big chain stores like Whole Foods, and delivery services like Fresh Direct have all come to capitalize on the food awareness created by the Slow Food movement. Convenience is King, and lots of people like the order it today, get it tomorrow lifestyle.
These big businesses are not really equipped to support the very small farmer, who only has 10 beef a year, or only makes 5 cases of Apple Butter, from apples harvested in wild orchards. We know there is still a place for our model in the CSA and natural food world, but we too have had to adapt to the changing marketplace. We used to have each farm deliver only what was sold for each delivery – meaning you had to get your order in about a week before delivery. In order to respond to the growing desire for more immediacy, we now store the majority of the product we sell here on the farm, meaning we take on more risk, more work in maintaining and tracking inventory, and more storage costs. The upside is that Nancy can fill an order that comes in at 10 pm the night before delivery (but she does it at 2 am, so please don’t wait that long!)
When did you start working with the Forest Hills CSA?
We met Marina at a Just Food Conference in 2006 or 2007, and the rest, as they say, is food history.
What can CSA members to support LWF and the network, other than purchasing products?
Spread the word! Tell people in your CSA about us, or about a product you personally recommend. It’s really hard to shop for food online, and we understand that. A personal recommendation means so much. We often find that a certain product is popular at CSA, so we know word of mouth is effective.
Both your cows and pigs are pasture-raised. Can you talk about why you feed your animals that way, and the role that rotational grazing plays?
There are several reasons to rotationally graze and grass feed your animals. First and foremost, it’s natural to the ways the animals evolved. The beef is 100% grass fed and rotationally grazed over 250 certified organic acres. The cattle fertilize the soil as they go, creating healthier soils. We don’t need any antibiotics because our animals are not living in crowded, confined conditions.
Our cows are contented, because our entire herd lives and moves as a unit, as they are moved daily to fresh pasture. We have 38 separate fenced fields. They live a low stress life, getting lots of grass, sea kelp for selenium, and fresh running water. We can reduce feeding costs for pigs, as they eat everything they can find in their 10 acre pastures, which lets us buy NO GMO feed, and reduce a little of the roundup that is ever present in the food chain.
We also find it has the added benefit of producing a much more flavorful, healthier meat. Cooking techniques need to be adjusted a little for pasture-raised meat, but the added flavor is worth it. We get lots of Europeans, South Americans, and Asians telling us our pork tastes like it did back home, and not like what they can get in US grocery stores.
2016 has been a very dry year in New York State, with some parts of the state considered to be in a state of “extreme drought”. How has the lack of rain affected LWFN farmers? What can urban people do to help?
Organic farmers are less affected by swings in weather, because our soils are very healthy, but it resulted in pasture grasses that are not growing as fast, and recovery is slower after the animals pass through a field. This means we have to dip into our stock of hay much sooner than in a typical year. We will most likely also have to purchase organic hay in March and April, since we have already begun to feed out what we harvested. The lower crop yields will trickle through the food tree, and we are likely to see costs rise for most of our network members, from granola makers to jam canners.
Urban folks can continue to expand their understanding and appreciation of all the various challenges of farming and small scale production.
If you could pick three ideas that you think are really important for urban people to know about rural communities, what would they be?
We work hard to support small local farms and businesses because we love our community. We want to keep our neighborhood rural, and agricultural. Many folks here have vegetable gardens and can or freeze much of their own food. Many have fruit and berries on their land. We all love our countryside and lovely rolling fields.
Washington County is primarily a dairy county. The local economy has been affected recently by low milk prices. This affects many local businesses and consumer spending. We’ve been through this before, but it still difficult for many people in our area. Farmers often struggle to find markets that pay what they are asking, and we can do that for them, and that helps to keep farms going.
We know that distances are relative. Eight blocks can move you through a whole neighborhood in NYC, but here, you might live eight miles from the nearest store, or only see the light from five houses at night. This makes us a community of self-reliant people– you keep jumper cables in your car just in case someone else needs a jump. If a tree falls across the road, and you can’t get to your driveway, chances are someone will show up with a chain saw and get you home. Fire departments around here are all voluntary – and the state requires many hours of training.
Tia Keenan is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and the author of The Art of the Cheese Plate: Pairings, Recipes, Style, Attitude (Rizzoli).
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