Text by Lindsay Funston
Anyone who's ever had a staring contest with a box of zucchini knows that community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs) can be intimidating. An organic farm on Long Island is helping change that, one delivery at a time.
Matt Kurek's first year as an organic farmer was pretty remarkable: He managed to harvest nothing -- not even a single tomato. The former New York City chef had never even held a pitchfork when he ditched the restaurant scene to buy an acre of land on Long Island's North Fork. "He was completely obsessed with vegetables and wanted to do more than just cook with them," says his wife, Maggie Wood.
Through lots of trial and error (and countless nights poring over seed catalogs and farm journals), Kurek gradually learned the fundamentals of organic farming. "It was sink or swim," Wood says. Fifteen years later, Kurek, Wood, and their business partner, James Russo, operate the Golden Earthworm Organic Farm in the quaint coastal town of Jamesport, where it's become one of the largest community-supported agriculture programs on the East Coast.
CSAs -- a sort of co-op in which members pay a farm for a share of its seasonal harvests -- have exploded nationwide in recent years: Today, more than 4,000 are logged in to the farm directory at localharvest.org. But food fanatics like Kurek and Wood offer more than just a vegetable delivery service. They also aim to inspire and educate home cooks, who, not surprisingly, feel overwhelmed to receive up to 18 pounds of raw produce -- much of it exotic varieties such as white salad turnips -- each week.
Every cardboard box is packed with vegetables and herbs that (go figure) pair well when cooked. "I'd be bummed if basil and garlic came weeks apart, because that means no fresh pesto," Wood says.
In many ways, Wood acts as a remote culinary coach, e-mailing members a weekly cheat sheet. In these chatty, encouraging newsletters, she dishes out advice on such themes as how to prepare garlic scapes (eat them hot off the grill and serve with tempeh burgers) and what to do with beet greens. (Don't toss those tops into the compost bin, people! Turns out they take on a deliciously earthy, chardlike flavor when sauteed with onion and garlic.) This summer, the farm will begin hosting cooking and nutrition classes on Saturdays so members can get even more out of their weekly stash of produce.
"Growing a bunch of asparagus or a head of radicchio so beautiful that it makes people aspire to cook is one part of what we do," Wood says. "But we also want to make them feel part of the farm family." That family has grown from just 15 members in 1996 to almost 2,000 today. Hundreds more are on a waiting list. The farm has expanded to 80 acres and harvests 46 diverse crops, including rhubarb, purple mustard greens, and kohlrabi (a sweet German cabbage). In the process, Wood and Kurek have become farming rock stars. They often receive fan mail within hours after delivery, with customers rhapsodizing about the carrots' candylike sweetness and their adventures in the kitchen with sherbet-fleshed cantaloupes the size of bowling balls. "We're not just providing crates of produce," Wood says. "We're stocking refrigerators and pantries with fresh vegetables and changing the way people eat."