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CSAs in the Aftermath of Irene

We know that farmers “make hay while the sun shines,” but what do they do when it rains…and rains…and rains…? The devastation caused by Hurricane Irene, and Tropical Storm Lee that followed on its heels, highlight the precariousness of farming and the painful, tragic effects of extreme weather events. In the wake of these storms, farmers across the Northeast are assessing damages and picking up pieces. For many, waterlogged fields have caused total crop failures; incessantly wet weather is causing storage crops to rot rather than cure; and what should have been three more months of salable produce can now only be plowed under. No matter how skilled the farmers are, the tragedy is that it’s not their fault; they did nothing wrong — it’s just what happens.

Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) attempts to mitigate some of the risk of extreme weather to farmers. Customers buy a share of the entire season, and in the contract they sign before the first snap pea is even a tendril on the vine, they agree that “being a member of the CSA involves sharing the rewards and risks (eg. poor weather, early winter, etc.) with our farmer.” But in practice, this can be a tough truth to swallow when customers find out, as did the members of the Hazon CSA at the 14th St. Y last week, that their five months of produce deliveries were cut down to three. It’s not their fault either — it’s just what happens.

Just Food, New York City’s Community-Supported Agriculture support agency, is collecting stories of the devastation – and hope – in the form of communities coming together to support their embattled farmers. These stories will be posted in the coming weeks.

For now, we’re sharing this letter by farmers from Monkshood Nursery and Garden, who provide the produce to the 14th St. Y CSA, to put a face on the devastation:

Dear Members,

We have spent the last eight years of our lives and our income of those eight years setting up a business that was just beginning to get its teeth firmly into the ever growing demand for great certified organic vegetables.

Along came a little hurricane (Irene), and we thought that we had made it through with not too much damage, that we would be able to continue to deliver these great vegetables. The weeks that followed brought us an additional 12” of rain on top of already saturated soils. This led to puddle-ing and then to pooling and then to lake-ing (yes I am making up that word). The slow drain down of the waters starved the crops of their much-needed air space around their roots, causing mold and rot.

The hurricane and the last weeks deluge of rains have terminated our production of CSA vegetables for the 2011 season.

As can be seen from the images above, the water logging in our soils has destroyed the crops and forced our hand in the necessity of the premature closure of the CSA for the 2011 season. We have had to make this decision NOW for the rest of this season, and we are still assessing the viability of continuing Monkshood Nursery, Gardens and CSA in light of this natural disaster. This combined with the long wet spring has resulted in a loss of a third of our revenue, but of course the same, if not greater, set of expenses.

Of course our hearts are broken. We have worked many, many, many, long hours, put in years of sweat equity and are not likely to let this business of ours fail, unless forced that way.

Many of you will be upset – our humble apologies are really all we have to offer.

Many of you will agree that this is part and parcel of being a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Member – the farm has a bad year, the worst in the 8 it has been in business, and you as CSA members are here to help carry the farm through its troubles.

Many will ask – “What can we do to help?” And that is where we need much advice. How best to carry on forwards from here. Melinda and I are both growers. We are not wizards at business, finance, or promotions. Our Skills are in growing great food for people. And our passions for growing will continue. Perhaps there are some members who are as determined as we are, that this one disaster year should make us; the farm, farmers and the communities we feed, stronger, more diversified and less prone to future disaster.

In order for Monkshood Nursery, Gardens and CSA to continue to do business of any kind, we are forced to sell the tiny quantities of produce that that have survived or were in storage combined with dramatic expense reduction to pay the remainder of this year’s bills.

Melinda Rowley & David Rowley

You can help by:

  • Contributing to Greenmarket NYC or Just Food, both of which are organizing relief funds to support farmers and CSA members whose CSA shares represented the entirety of their food budgets
  • Contacting Governor Cuomo to request additional relief funds for farmers
  • Participating in fundraising events including Dine Out Irene

Our international food system lets us bypass the effects of local food shortages by simply buying produce from elsewhere. But for the farmers whose fields are flooded and crops destroyed, it’s not so simple. A truly re-imagined food system would have eaters take responsibility for where their food comes from; this is a sobering but crucial moment for us to take that step.

Anna Hanau is the Associate Director of Food Programs at Hazon, and co-authored “Food for Thought, Hazon’s Sourcebook on Jews, Food and Contemporary Life.” She and her husband, Naf Hanau, founded a kosher pastured meat business called Grow and Behold Foods in summer 2010, and she keeps a flock of chickens in her backyard in Brooklyn.


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