On a bright Thursday morning, a group of six people have set up a temporary camp of sorts at the Hillside Market in Santa Fe, packing produce into boxes and reusable grocery bags. It’s member pickup day for Beneficial Farms CSA, Steve and Colleen Warshawer’s family business. The couple is joined by three volunteers (as well as some of the volunteers’ tiny, adorable children) and Colleen’s son Thomas Swendson, who moved to Albuquerque from Denver three years ago to work for MoGro, a nonprofit mobile grocery store that supports sustainable local food distribution. “I’ve been doing more of the technical side parttime for Beneficial Farms,” he says, “but in the past month, it’s been more handson.” Despite everyone working to a tight deadline, the collective vibe is laidback and friendly. But laidback does not mean slack, as any conversation with Steve quickly demonstrates.
Though not from a farming family himself, Steve knew he wanted to go into agriculture after spending time as a teenager working on a co-op farm located in Georgia. He came to New Mexico in the late 1970s as a junior at St. John’s College; when he finished up that academic year, his path took a different turn. “The land that we live on was purchased with my senior year tuition savings, and I didn’t return to school after,” he says. Thus began the long road to creating a working farm, which didn’t come into full existence until 1993. Initially the land, about 25 miles southeast of Santa Fe, was vacant unmanaged ranch land, and all infrastructure had to be put in place. There was, says Steve, “no water, fences, roads, anything.”
He goes on to explain that “the original concept of the CSA [started] back in the late ’80s,” noting that a community would come together to support the farm via funding and distribution, and in turn the farm would support the community with food. This was the model Steve followed when he first got Beneficial Farms up and running. His first member group consisted of the parents at the Santa Fe Waldorf School, and he supplied biodynamic produce for the families. “It was originally a single-farm CSA called Beneficial Farms.”
The single-farm model didn’t pan out, though. Nor did the strictly local and seasonal models of procuring produce. For one, Steve found that many people tend to see food more in terms of an economic transaction than as a community-building endeavor. Then there was the relative transiency of Santa Fe’s population, which made it difficult to maintain a subscriber base. But Steve was not deterred. “I’m a pragmatist,” he says. “If it doesn’t work, figure out what does. Cultural change, social change, takes generations. We are who we are.”
Later, Beneficial Farms CSA began to include partner farms. In turn, Steve and Colleen’s own family farm took on the name Mesa Top. There they raise dairy and meat cattle, grow a handful of crops and produce eggs. Mesa Top practices organic and biodynamic principles, but it is not certified organic. That’s because going through the organic certification process can often be cost-prohibitive. “For a lot of small farms it’s just an expensive label they can’t afford,” says Thomas, who notes that if the CSA is dealing with a partner farm that is close by, it’s relatively easy to visit in person and make sure that the growing process—the water, soil, handling, harvesting and processing of the produce—are all up to Beneficial’s standards.
Today, Beneficial Farms CSA has 75 members. This week, those members are getting boxes full of sweet corn, peaches, cantaloupe, beefsteak tomatoes, arugula, parsnips and mitsuba. (Never heard of that last one? You’re not alone. According to Beneficial it’s an Asian green vegetable; Colleen says one easy way to prepare it is chopped and stir fried in a wok.)
The traditional growing months in New Mexico are May though September, but Beneficial Farms CSA runs yearround, incorporating items from partner farms in the region, from Texas to California and parts in between. Says Thomas, “We have about 19 farms listed this season [that] we’re doing business with.” Mesa Top, too, grows cold-weather produce: kale, collards, cabbage and winter squash, among others.
“People have a choice, and if you’re going to open a business, you might as well run it year round,” says Steve, who values flexibility as well as perseverance. Not surprisingly, Beneficial Farms CSA is constantly evolving. Steve and Thomas are currently working with local restaurants and kitchens to develop a wholesale market for Beneficial’s goods. There is already a wholesale market page on the CSA’s website, where members can order items in larger quantities, but this is somewhat different—more similar to the farm-to-restaurant concept, says Thomas. “Restaurants expect the industry standard” when it comes to the aesthetics of produce. They have a definite idea of “what that orange or cucumber should look like.” The wholesale initiative involves, among other things, forming relationships with chefs and urging them to, as Thomas puts it, “be more forgiving about the blemishes” on fruits and vegetables. He adds that it is important to remember that “produce is coming out of the dirt.”
Colleen weighs in on that subject. Gesturing to the salad mix in a member’s share box, she explains, “I rinse this off with a hose in the field. Then I pick it and put it in the bag.” CSA members, she says, “know they need to wash it; it may have a lady bug or dirt in it.” For many small farms, the benefits of thoroughly pre-washing produce can be outweighed by the hazards. All it takes is one contaminant to render an entire batch of, say, fruit inedible—or worse.
The issue of how to most effectively distribute local produce to people of all economic strata is what Thomas terms “the million-dollar question.” CSAs are one piece of the puzzle and, he says, “We’d all love a simple answer.” However, “CSAs and farmers markets are great ways to support local economies.”
Equally important is becoming familiar with what is grown locally and how to cook it. Thomas recounts that when he first came to New Mexico, he was not well versed in the culinary language of blue corn and chiles. Now, he says, he is aware of at least seven or eight different kinds of corn. Member education is also a big part of what CSAs do, and Beneficial Farms includes food preparation ideas in their pickup boxes, as well as online. Finally, when it comes to dining out, pay attention to how restaurants source their food and prioritize the dishes and establishments that feature local goods.
Beneficial Farms CSA, 505.470.1969, beneficialfarm.com.
Farmers’ Markets Make it Easy to Support Local Agriculture Year-Round
Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Director, Paolo Speirn, explains that since 2008, when the market opened its purpose-built Railyard facility, “We’re here 52 Saturdays a year,” adding, “The first thing you notice when you come into the winter market is how impressive the produce is. I think people tend to underestimate the variety of winter crops.” He cites heirloom turnips, three or four kinds of beets, and carrots grown in different soils. Then there’s the value-added items like jams, ciders and body products, all of which use local products in their creation. Paolo also mentions the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Institute, which loans growers money to secure grants for building greenhouses and other season-extension projects.
The Taos Farmers’ Market operates from late July through late October on the Taos Plaza, and, according to Board President Kelly West, “We now offer what we call our Holiday Market. It’s the Saturday before Thanksgiving.” Offerings include specialty jams and preserved foods, as well as meats and produce. “As the community responds enthusiastically, I see this as a step toward a pre-Christmas market,” Kelly says. This year’s Holiday Market takes place at the Guadalupe Parish gymnasium, near Taos Plaza.
The Albuquerque Downtown Grower’s Market has extended its season by one week this year, as well as introduced a spring market that runs from April 5 to May 10. Also, says Gina Meyers, market manager, “We started a Wednesday market on Civic Plaza this year over the lunch hour, from 11:30 to 1:30, for the working community of Albuquerque.” It began mid-July and is running through the end of October (and possibly later). In addition to familiarizing themselves with farmers’ markets in general, attendees can also pick up crepes, tacos or tamales for lunch.
In our search on the web and our calls to area Farmers’ Markets we were unable to find a comprehensive list of farmers involved in CSAs. But if you are interested in joining one we encourage you to ask around at your local Farmers’ Market to find one that suits your taste.
Story by Eve Tolpa