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Harvesting New York

Thomas and Cordelia of East Hill Farm.

If you want to learn why locally grown produce is better, take a trip to the farm

Anyone who has ever taken the time to tend a garden in their own backyard knows that, while it takes a bit of devotion, the work can be quite therapeutic and the final product is rewarding on countless levels. The same is true for farmers who sell their products to individuals and businesses in their community, including the numerous farmers working throughout New York State.

Farmers, in particular those who practice sustainable farming, exemplify the true meaning of community, and one can learn a great deal from them. Sustainable farming methods are, by nature, dependent upon the community working together to ensure a healthy future both for the environment and for those living in it. Thus, the value of community is not something that farmers take lightly.

Take Martin and Christa Stosiek, for example. The Stosieks have been growing in New York’s Hudson Valley since 1988, and in more ways than one: Not only has their Hillsdale farm gone from spanning a couple of acres to more than 20, but their family has grown considerably as well. Having raised three children on their certified organic Markristo Farm, family values have made their way into the Stosieks’ busy farming lifestyle, and vice versa. Given that the Stosieks make a living by way of farming alone, they are able to spend a considerable amount of time with their children. The Stosieks make a point of teaching their children the value of nature by eliminating things like television, radio and movies and introducing them to outdoor activities such as horseback riding instead.

Another lesson taught on Markristo Farm is the importance of community involvement. “It builds relationships,” said Martin.

The Stosieks sell their products to a number of different places throughout their community, including farm stands and markets, restaurants, an organic wholesaler ,and even resorts and conference centers—the furthest buyer is a distributor in New York City. Furthermore, they have long been members of Berkshire Grown, a nonprofit organization supporting farmers while educating the public on buying local.

They are founding members of the CRAFT internship program, welcoming between one and three interns onto their farm and into their home each year to learn firsthand what it takes to responsibly run a farm. The Stosieks, and farmers like them who offer similar internship opportunities, are educating a whole new generation of farmers on the importance of sustainable farming.

“It’s creating a little bit of spice in our life,” Martin said of the internship program.

In the past, the Stosieks have participated in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSA is a program that requires an annual up-front membership fee from members of the community to cover growing expenses, in exchange for shares of seasonal farm-fresh food from week to week. It is this type of mutual relationship with the community, and a commitment to both good food and a healthy environment, that has contributed to the success of the Stosieks’ farm.

“We grow organically, deliver locally, and reduce plastic use,” Martin said.

The Stosieks have tapped into many agricultural “fields,” if you will, over the years. They currently sell several varieties of organic vegetables, herbs, bedding plants, and cut flowers. Christa also puts together breathtaking bouquets for restaurants and markets, and occasionally takes custom orders for weddings and other special events. There’s something about the fresh colors and sweet smells called up by the thought of springtime that makes a visit to a fresh-cut flower filled market so appealing this time of year, especially after the deep-freeze that has left icy Buffalonians in an ongoing “thaw” mode.

Martin and Christa Stosiek will be the first to tell you that farming has its fair share of rewards. For them, farming is a way of life. Sure, it’s a job and a business, but it’s a defining part of their personal and family lives as well. In getting their hands dirty, the Stosieks and their children are learning values that those of us who have been soiled beyond recognition by the by-products of the Information Age will never truly grasp.

With that said, one need not grow up on a farm to be able to appreciate the fine-tuned balance of the natural world. Regular trips to the local farmers’ market create a worthwhile family tradition of spending quality time together away from brain-sucking televisions and mindless video games, while at the same time fostering healthy eating habits and supporting the local economy. Many farms also offer seasonal family activities, and some even host fun themed festivals. Crunching through the colorful leaves to gather pumpkins in the fall and trekking through the freshly fallen snow to find that perfect tree at Christmastime are just a couple of the family-friendly activities that help to make the seasons bright year after year.

It may be that the phrase “buy local” is a bit overused. But the fact is that the benefits of buying local far outweigh the disadvantages.

One of the more common arguments against buying local is the frequently greater cost of locally grown produce. While cost is a reasonable consideration when it comes to buying food from week to week, particularly in present economic conditions, it is worth considering where one’s hard-earned money is going. It seems like a no-brainer when the question arises whether to support one’s local economy, or an economy that favors few large, money-hungry corporations. When a supermarket chain is thrown into the mix, a farmer’s profit is reduced to approximately one-third of what it would be had there been no middleman.

The once typical gathering of the family around the table for a nutrient-rich home-cooked meal is quickly becoming a thing of the past, and pre-prepared, additive-laden foods have made their way into Americans’ refrigerators because of their convenience. But frozen and processed foods are not the only foods seriously lacking when it comes to their nutritional value. Given that produce travels an average of 1,500 miles before it reaches a person’s table in the US, fruits and vegetables in particular are drained of much of their inherent health benefits, for instance their vitamin content, before we are even able to purchase them.

A little closer to home, the not-for-profit Rochester Folk Art Guild’s East Hill Farm is a 350-acre sustainable farm in New York’s Finger Lakes Region that has been producing organic fruits and vegetables for over 40 years.

“Sustainability and environmental protection are important to us,” said Thomas, a farmer at East Hill. “We never use chemical pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, we never grow genetically modified organisms. We limit the distance that our food travels: From seed to plate, our food never travels more than 70 miles.”

Much like Markristo Farm, East Hill plays a large role in the community by way of local farmers’ markets, CSA, and a community garden. East Hill’s produce is directly marketed to its customers and can be picked up by members of the CSA program right from the farm. It is also sold at Brighton Farmers’ Market in Rochester and at the Jewish Community Center in Brighton via East Hill CSA, each about 50 miles from the farm.

“Our CSA of 75 members sold out in February this season,” Thomas said, “only four months after it opened.”

East Hill also offers one-month and five-month agricultural internship programs similar to that of Markristo Farm, which, according to Thomas, have become more and more popular as a result of increased talk about buying local.

“We have more people interested in working on our farm than ever before,” Thomas said. “We had about 100 people apply for short-term internships [about one month], main-season internships [June-August], and full-season internships [April-October] this season.”

According to Thomas, the internship program is vital to the farm’s success.

“We rely on young artists, travelers, gardeners and generally interesting people to help make our farm work,” Thomas said. “In exchange for their farm work, workers receive full room and board, including home-cooked organic meals, the ability to explore a craft, including pottery, woodworking or possibly sewing and weaving, and the experience of living and working together in an established intentional community.”

Being a project of the Rochester Folk Art Guild, there are a variety of handmade ceramic, wooden, and hand-woven crafts sold on East Hill Farm in addition to their homegrown goods. They will be hosting their annual Craft Weekend the last weekend in June, during which several educational workshops will be held, in addition to a number of other weekend-long courses throughout the year. The craft courses give people the means to create things like clothing, pottery and woodwork with their own two hands.

Crafts aren’t the only things produced by hand at East Hill.

“We use mostly hand tools to grow our food,” Thomas said. “A tractor is used for primary tillage, but beyond that, our four acres of vegetables, one acre of fruit and one acre of vineyard is grown by hand.”

Thomas admits that organic, local food is still not accessible or attractive to most people. For this reason, the farmers at East Hill make a point of getting involved in their community and demonstrating the benefits of buying local food.

“This season, we will contribute produce to Herb Haven, a holistic day program serving women and children who are striving to become self-sufficient,” Thomas said. “Herb Haven operates on a new paradigm that offers a fluid, responsive, whole-system approach to breaking the cycle of poverty and attaining self-sufficiency.”

The farmers at East Hill, like the Stosieks, are passionate about good food and conscious of the environment around them. They are sustainable, organic farmers. There are a number of farmers just like them throughout Western New York whose abundance of love for food and for the environment is contained in every bushel of sweet, juicy, sun-ripened goodness that leaves their farms. Go find them this summer.

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