Windflower Farm – Local Organic Farmer for Brooklyn Food Pantries and CSA’s

As I reported in my recent post on Improving Food Options for the Hungry in Central Brooklyn, Bread and Life, a full service food pantry and soup kitchen in Bed-Stuy, participates in a CSA program for food pantries called Local Produce Link, a partnership between Just Food and the United Way of NYC, funded by the New York State Department of Health’s Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program (HPNAP).

CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) involves a farmer (usually relatively local, and most of the time, organic) partnering with a community group, whose members buy shares in the farmer’s produce for a growing season.

The benefit of a CSA is that it connects a community to local, healthy food and removes middle-men, which is usually better for both the consumer and farmer.

To encourage participation amongst low-income residents, most CSA’s offer low-income shares, either funded by the other members, or through grants, and payment by instalment and/or EBT (Electronic Benefits Tranfer – “Food Stamps” or SNAP/WIC).

The Local Produce Link CSA model connects 7 local organic vegetable farmers with 42 different New York City based emergency food pantries.

In the case of Bread and Life, they were the Hub for 4 other Food Pantries in the area. Their assigned farmer, Windflower Farms delivers about 1,000 lbs of produce once a week to Bread and Life, where it is distributed – in 200 lbs allotments – to the other local food pantries.

I was familiar with CSA program for individuals – I belonged to one in Manhattan, and when I moved to Bed-Stuy, I joined the local CSA – Bed-Stuy Farm Share. However, the hub and spoke model of CSA’s for food pantries was new to me.

I decided to visit Windflower Farm in Washington County, upstate New York, to find out more about the farm – to see where the vegetables came from, how the farm operated, and how the CSA model benefited the farmer.

Windflower Farm is located on 60 acres of owned and leased land, 36 of which are used for production. It’s about 4 hours north of New York City, and an hour north of Albany, the state capital.

The farm is nestled in the lush Taconic Hills, surrounded by land associated with the county’s primary agricultural activity – dairy farming. To put a small organic vegetable farm in this community in perspective, about 89,000 acres in the county are used for dairy production (grasses and hay for foraging, and corn produced for dairy feed), compared to only 1,049 acres of vegetable farming. Only about 17 farms or 1,490 acres of any crops in the county were reported as being organically farmed (all data, 2007 – the last Agricultural Census).

Ted and Jan Blomgren started the farm in 1999, initially growing flowers, but later diversified to vegetables. At first, they sold their produce at local farmer’s markets, and then later almost exclusively to CSA’s in New York City.

They have almost 1,200 members in 9 different CSA’s, across Manhattan (Stanton St, West Harlem, Washington Heights) and Brooklyn (Central Brooklyn, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, Prospect Park), including a corporate CSA – Google at their Chelsea office.

Their food pantry customers are Bread and Life, a hub for other central Brooklyn Pantries, including Crossover Baptist Church, Brooklyn Rescue Mission, Trinity Human Services and Brooklyn AIDS Task Force. And in the Bronx, the Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development, is a pickup point for True Gospel Tabernacle, River Watch and The Hope Line.

I arrived just after dawn on a Wednesday in early October, near the end of the growing season. Frosts would start in a few weeks, and the flowers had ended their season weeks ago, but there was still plenty of vegetables to harvest from the fields, and hoop houses. All activity on the farm that day was related to harvesting and preparing the produce for delivery the next day.

I met Ted Blomgren, and he walked me to one of the farm’s back fields, overlooking a neighbouring farmhouse, where I was introduced to his Mexican field crew: Salvador and Candelaria, a married couple, Candelaria’s brother – Martin, and Jose Gabriel (Salvador and Candelaria’s son-in-law).

The Mexican farmers had arrived four years earlier, when Salvador, and his father-in-law, Esequiel (both U.S. residents) were introduced to Ted by Esequiel’s son Hiliberto, who lives and works nearby. He stopped in at the farm one day and said: “you look like you could use some help!”. After the success of the initial two workers, two years later, the Blomgrens had applied for seasonal work visas for the rest of their family, and they had been an integral part of the farm since.

They were picking greens and periodically transporting them down to the washing/packing shed, where another team – Victoria, Naomi, Daren and Sara, cleaned and packed the produce for the next day (they were also joined for some of the day by Ted and Jan’s two sons, Nate and Jacob). For this team, all Americans, Victoria was the veteran, with 7 years at the farm, however no-one in this team had less than 5 years working there.

Ted talked to me about the division of labour on the farm. He said that they had experimented with mixing up the responsibilities of the American and Mexican workers, but had found the current arrangement suited everyone – the field team were very skilled at harvesting, and typically asked to work longer hours (for the extra pay), while the washing/packing team preferred less hours to balance work and family/social lives.

In addition, I observed the low turnover rate amongst his employees, which he suggested might have been a result of the good working conditions on the farm, and the relatively high wages he paid to them, compared to other employment options in the area. Interestingly, all workers are paid the same hourly wage, regardless of responsibility.

One of the Blomgren’s goals for upcoming seasons was to help his farmers develop supplemental income for the quiet winter-time. Some of their ideas included products that could also be offered along with the fresh produce, for example jams, or home-made brews.

I asked about loans and farm credits, something I assumed was an important issue for most working farmers. Ted informed me that apart from a loan for the original purchase of land, for the most part, they funded their business via the upfront payments at the start of the season that are characteristic of CSA’s.

Light, and then constant rain intruded on the day, which didn’t halt activity on the farm. The harvest for the day was diverse – lettuce, spinach, turnips, leeks, garlic, squash, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, tatsoy, choy, vitamin greens, chard, kale, tokyo greens and parsley.

All of the crews worked efficiently, only breaking once for lunch. Before night fell, the harvest was packed in the cool room, ready for the delivery the next day.

An early start on Thursday had the farmers up at 5.30, loading the produce and preparing for the 400 mile round trip to New York City. Along the way, the driver, and one of the local farmers picked up squash and fruit from a nearby farm, to supplement the vegetable delivery to their CSA’s.

I drove ahead of the truck to meet them for their delivery at Google, and again at Bread and Life.

As I reached Bread and Life, I realised I had come back full circle – along the way I had traced the source of the fresh food that was helping people in need in Central Brooklyn, and the Bronx at local food pantries, as well as other CSA’s scattered throughout the city. I had also learnt more about small organic farms and the benefits the CSA model brings to them.