Trying to decide what to do with that nice fat tax refund that you got this year? How about joining a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program? New Paltz is blessed to have four of them in the immediate area, and now is the time to sign up for the 2016 growing season. Your investment of a few hundred dollars in the spring will pay off with a weekly bounty of fresh, sustainably and locally grown produce all summer long and well into autumn.
This Saturday, April 30 is the official deadline to purchase your share of the year’s harvest at Phillies Bridge Farm, which grows more than 150 varieties of vegetables, herbs, berries and melons. You sign up for a weekly pickup — either Tuesday afternoons or Saturday mornings — beginning May 31 and ending November 12. The cost is $700 for a large share, which feeds a family of three to four, or $450 for a small share, feeding one to two people. Members also get to pick green beans, cherry tomatoes, cut flowers and other produce from a “pick-your-own” field.
The oldest CSA in this region, Phillies Bridge Farm was founded in 1995 on a 65-acre parcel at 45 Phillies Bridge Road, between New Paltz and Gardiner, that had once been part of the LeFevre patent. Then-owners Mary and James Ottaway Jr. made the land available for a demonstration farm organized by Mohonk Consultations under the leadership of Dan Guenther. A new organization called the Phillies Bridge Farm Project was created to lease the land, and it obtained not-for-profit status in 1999. In 2002 the Ottaways donated the land to the Project.
At the outset, the CSA was organized on a cooperative model, with shareholders obligated to put in a certain number of hours of volunteer labor each season in addition to their up-front cash investment. That is no longer the case (though volunteers are still welcome). Phillies Bridge Farm has a small paid staff, plus several student interns; and members of the Board of Directors, several of whom have been involved from the very beginning, still play an active role in the running of the farm.
The CSA went through a rough patch in 2013, when two staff farmers committed 60 shares to members from Brooklyn and ended up spending an excessive amount of time delivering the produce to them. That situation, plus a poor growing season, pest problems and depleted soils, led to the resignation of the executive director and the firing of the two farmers. The harvest was terminated early that year, and shareholders given a partial rebate of their investments.
Things are back on much more of an even keel now, says Jasmine Wood, who has been the education manager at Phillies Bridge since 2014. A strategic planning grant from the Dyson Foundation helped the board get the operation back on track; and keeping one-third of the cultivated land fallow each year in rotation, plus more regular application of compost, restored the soil’s fertility. Ulster Publishing’s garden columnist, Lee Reich, has overseen an ongoing project of installing drip irrigation, and will also be helping the farm expand its acreage of no-till plantings.
“The last education director stayed seven years. I plan to stay at least five more,” says Wood. “There’s a long learning curve in farming, and it’s very location-specific.” But frequent staff turnover is still fairly typical of CSA operations, and “Phillies Bridge serves as a stepping-stone for many budding farmers.” The farm manager for 2015, Anna Elbon, moved on after one season to spearhead a new vegetable-growing operation at a beef farm in Montana. Elbon found herself “literally allergic to the Hudson Valley” and becoming excessively dependent on the use of her inhaler, according to Wood.
So Phillies Bridge hired a new farm manager in January: Heather Wodehouse, a native of Canada who had followed the same career path as Elbon, from studying Environmental Science at McGill University in Montreal to interning at the nearby McDonald Student-Run Ecological Gardens to working at Piccadilly Farm, a CSA in Winchester, New Hampshire. Wodehouse moved here in March and is busy making the Phillies Bridge greenhouses overflow with seedlings for this year’s crops. Some early, cold-hardy greens such as peas, lettuces, sorrel, kale and chard are already in the ground.
While Wodehouse personifies the popular image of the farmer as a quiet, reserved, focused, hardworking soil scientist, the chatty and ebullient Wood is well-suited to serve as the CSA’s more public face. Having just spent the winter writing grant proposals, she’s now busy touting the three-season education programs at Phillies Bridge. Besides signing up for farm shares, it’s also the time of year for registering kids for summer camp. Open to children aged 4 to 12, the day camp program offers a one-week introductory Farm Camp from June 27 to July 1 and three two-week sessions: Farm Fresh Cooking Camp from July 11 to 22 and again from August 8 to 19, plus Forests and Fields Nature Camp from July 25 to August 4.
The CSA’s calendar is loaded with education programs for adults and other special events as well — for example, a Drip Irrigation Workshop with Lee Reich on Saturday, May 14. “Our programs are strong,” says Wood. “We look to have a little bit of growth each year.” For updates, visit www.facebook.com/philliesbridge/timeline. And to register for a CSA share or sign your child up for summer camp, visit http://philliesbridge.org.