Sue Gardner Smith, manager of the Brighton and South Wedge farmers markets, stands with a old abandoned barn along Westfall Road in Brighton. The barn is part of a site proposed as the Brighton Farm and Farmers Market expansion and renovation project. / SHAWN DOWD//staff photographer
Perhaps it is no coincidence that a woman with a surname derived from an old French word meaning “gardener” would become a grass-roots champion of the sustainable and organic food movement in Brighton.
With humble determination, Sue Gardner Smith turned her activism into a career in managing farmers markets — first in the South Wedge neighborhood of the city and now in Brighton.
Gardner Smith was the oldest of seven children growing up on a 70-acre farm in Wayne County that had been in her family for a century. She remembers walking through its cherry orchards with her father and tending to the family garden with her mother and siblings.
Being the oldest in a large family, Gardner Smith developed the nurturing traits of a “mother hen” by cooking meals and caring for her younger siblings. In her early culinary experimentation, some dishes were tastier than others. Even into adulthood, she still gets teased by her siblings at her first attempts in the kitchen.
“When I was nine, I came up with a dish called chipped beef on toast. It was wretched. … I have to say that my cooking and tastes have improved vastly since then,” said Gardner Smith, who now prefers making dishes like ricotta cheese and onions stuffed into Swiss chard leaves she grows at her 10-foot by 10-foot plot in the Brighton community garden, a project also under her charge.
In her experiences of living in cities abroad and in the United States, nothing unites people more than food. She has shopped for fresh produce in the open-air markets and dined in the cafes in the plazas of Brussels. In London, there was the tavern and pub culture, “neutral” places where local neighbors could gather for a meal and a drink at the end of the day.
During her 15 years living in the San Francisco Bay area, she visited restaurants like Chez Panisse and markets such as the Berkeley Bowl, where the air buzzed with a sense of what she called “food energy.”
“It’s not just about eating. It’s how people gather at markets to socialize and catch up with neighbors as they shop. It’s the sounds of local musicians playing among the produce stands. I have long felt that Brighton should have this kind of gathering place, and I’m glad to watch its success,” she said.
Since 2008, the market held each Sunday in the Brighton High School parking lot from May through October is a testament of Brighton’s desire for high-quality and locally grown food. One thing Gardner Smith admits is that from a short-term perspective, eating organic and local is a bit costlier. Also, a recent Stanford University study recently concluded that organic food is no more nutritional than conventionally grown food.
However, she believes these factors will not curb the organic, locavore trend. This is because people are starting to put values on reducing their carbon footprint and the use of harmful pesticides, and developing a direct and trusting relationship between the grower and the producer at local markets.
“The study missed the point and had too narrow a focus. When you buy local and organic, you develop a sense of trust with the farmer, and you are also helping to support the local economy,” she said.
In addition to buying locally produced food, Brighton residents also expressed a desire to get their own hands dirty in avegetable garden of their own. In 2009, the creation of a community garden in Brighton seemed like the next step.
“It seemed like an obvious sister project to the market,” said Gardner Smith, who with a committee helped build a fence and a gate system around 100 10-foot by 10-foot plots on Westfall Road by the historic Groos house. Outside of a few stubborn groundhogs that managed to breach the fence, Brighton residents have enjoyed the bounty of their harvests.
Now that the shorter days and cooler nights of autumn are here, it is time for Gardner Smith and the other Brighton gardeners to put their plots to rest for the winter. But that doesn’t mean that plans for coming years will be put into hibernation.
Her ambitions for future years include using funds from a $250,000 state grant awarded to the town to preserve a farmhouse, a barn and some of the farmland on Westfall Road. The proposed project aims to create a permanent location for the farmers market and an expansion to the community garden with educational opportunities for schoolchildren to learn more about agriculture.
“Not only is my job rewarding, it’s also a lot of fun. I’ve met so many wonderful people in Brighton who are committed to this meaningful work that really has made a difference.”
Indeed, Sue Gardner Smith’s name suits her well.
Last Sunday morning, though I could have slept in, I woke up early. I woke up my family too. I told them we were about to take a trip into the country. No, we weren’t going through a corn Maze.No, there would be no pumpkin catapult contests. But I promised them, they would enjoy it. They were going to have a good time. Because I SAID SO!
Life has been way too hectic lately. I feel like I have barely seen my three children since late June. It seems like no sooner did my older son and daughter return from sleep-away camp and I washed all their laundry, the summer ended and so began the school grind. Homework and tests. Track meets and band practice.
But last Sunday morning, we had this glorious sunny perfect day. And we had no school and no work. I just wanted one chore-free day of me not nagging anyone spent out in the country. One day of me not badgering anyone to stop texting friends while I am talking to them or stop playing games on the computer.
So off we went.
as we whizzed past withering cornfields.
To reach our destination: the East Hill Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Farm and Folk Art Guild in beautiful, Middlesex, NY. There, we got a chance to see where our vegetables were grown all summer.
East Hill Farm is a project of the Rochester Folk Art Guild, a nonprofit organization and community of craftspeople and farmers. Since 1967, they have grown food and produced handmade practical folk art on a 350 acre farm. East Hill Farm uses old fashioned, chemical-free, hands-on organic methods to grow fruit, vegetables, herbs, eggs, pigs, and chickens for the community and for sale through our CSA and markets.
For the past 20 weeks, our family took part in a great experiment of owning a CSA share. Each Friday since mid-May we were presented with a portion of vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers organically and lovingly grown by a group of young entrepreneurial farmers. Whether it was spring’s excessive rains or July’s excessive heat, we shared in the farmers’ risky dance with Mother Nature.
The farm had limited cell phone service so we got a chance to sample the simpler, slower style of life. We actually got a chance to catch up, share and talk as a family. How many times are family members distracted from each other by screens: laptops, DS games, cell phones, iPods?
Well, on this day in October my teen-aged daughter actually sat and talked to me. She sat and reminisced with me about the first time she used a pottters wheel this summer at camp as we watched a master potter throw and mold a clay jar before our eyes:
How many toys, clothing, dishes do we buy that are made of cheaply made mass-produced?
Then, in the weaver’s studio, my son got to try his hand at a loom, using wool that was dyed by an apprentice, the same young woman who brings us our week’s worth of vegetables. Thank you, East Hill Farm farmers. It’s been a great summer.
With the fall harvest approaching, my first year in subscribing to a local CSA, or community supported agriculture farm, is coming to a close. My family signed on to share a share with another family: good friends we have known through school, soccer games, and synagogue for over ten years. We decided to go in together in a CSA share as one brave experiment.
The very wet spring that gave way to a very dry hot summer created spotty conditions for the young farmers of the East Hill CSA. Buying into a CSA comes with its risks and rewards, as we were warned. But in the end, joining made me feel good that I am helping local, sustainable agriculture and like the farmers, I am taking a gamble on Mother Nature in hopes of bringing healthy food to my family’s table.
Highs of belonging to a CSA included (for us at least):
- The discovery of Kale and Kohlrabi that can be oven baked, salted and eaten like chips;
- Fresh herbs;
- A weekly sunflower or wildflower bouquet in midsummer;
- Patti pan squash;
- Bags of mixed greens for salad that include edible flowers like nasturtium
- Pints of home-grown grapes that really taste like grapes (my daughter proclaimed they tasted like grape candy). Delicious, if you can work your way around the seeds.
- Discovering that the weekly box of bounty is not all that bountiful for two families;
- Sharing one eggplant or two (very puny) sweet potatoes can be an exercise in tactical negotiations between two families (Weekly bartering included exchanges like: “You take the sweet potatoes, I insist!”; “Are you sure?”; ”Yes, you take the sweet potatoes, but can I have the one cucumber”; “My kids don’t like Swiss Chard, really, you take the Swiss Chard this week …I’ll take the tomatoes…” and so on.);
- Beets. Though the beet offerings as of late are getting more plump, the tiny beets at the beginning of the season in my opinion were not worth the stained hands and countertops for their size;
But readers, as the headline of this blog post promised, this post is about Tomatillos. It’s also about using the blogosphere to find recipes for my CSA goodies.
Since I’ve been blogging, I have come to appreciate search engines. I find it interesting to learn from my blog stats what search terms draw people to my blog. For example, hundreds of people searching for “arugula” or “arugula leaf” have found their way to my blog. So, after my friends decided to bestow me with this week’s share of almost two dozen tomatillos, I returned the favor to the blogosphere by searching for Tomatillos on WordPress.
If you find that you have in your possession a lot of these late-season green, globular fruits with a papery shell, you may want to give this recipe a try for roasted tomatillo salsa that can be used for enchiladas. I found it on Angelinna’s Cottage Blog. Thank you Angelinna, whoever you are.
Joining a CSA Farm is like a box of chocolates. You just never know what you’re going to get.
The adventures of my first summer with a CSA continue. Here is what I’ve learned so far:
- Don’t expect to live on what you get in your CSA share. In spring and early summer, you’ll still have to supplement your local produce with things like peppers and other salad vegetables
- Locally grown produce from a Northeast CSA will not include summer plums and peaches and berries, so you will still have to buy that at the supermarket
- Expect to get a lot of Kale. Learn different ways to prepare it, you’ll be surprised how much you like it.
- Don’t expect vine-ripened tomatoes until at least late July
They can be prepared in stir-frys and salads, but my family likes them best raw. Easy enough.
But last week, after getting back from a great trip to see the family back in NYC, I went to pick up our family’s half of the share from our friends. They took the basil because they knew I have a ton of it in my own garden.
What they gave me was this:
This weird, bulbous thing is called Kohlrabi. It’s pronounced: Call Robbie. It looks like it could have grown on futuristic farm on Venus. Just the sight of it made my sons laugh. I have never had Kohlrabi, neither did our CSA partners, so they let me be the brave one and try it first.
So what to do if you encounter Kohlrabi in your CSA share this summer:
- First you peel the purple away. I thought this was a bit disappointing because it was the vegetable’s purpleness that made it so intriguing to my kids. Underneath, you will find a white flesh, like a turnip.
- Slice it thinly with a sharp knife. Kohlrabi is tough!
- Toss it with Olive oil Salt & Pepper and place it on a single baking sheet in the oven at 400 degrees. It has a sweet taste and the texture of roasted potatoes
- Make a Kohlrabi Green Apple Slaw, as featured in A Veggie Venture
- Make a Kohlrabi puree, as recommended by Farmgirl’s blog
I will wait patiently for the mounds of zucchini and tomatoes we’ll get in our CSA share. But in the meantime, I’ll have fun with this strange vegetable that looks like it was grown on another planet.
This week, a friend and I put down the down-payment on an epicurean adventure we will be taking this summer.
Why is it an adventure?
Because we have signed on and invested in a local farm, and all the risks that go with farming. We are taking a bet on Mother Nature that she will bestow upon our local farm the perfect conditions for growing a bountiful crop this summer.
Because this summer, we will have to get very creative with kale and beets.
The rising demand for locally-grown produce and sustainable farming methods has created opportunities for developing a connection between enterprising young farmers and suburbanites through a movement called Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA.
In December 2001, one source reported a net total of 761 CSA farms registered with USDA. By 2007, an agricultural census conducted by the USDA tallied 12,549 farms that marketed products by way of community supported agriculture (CSA).
Most of these CSA farms are located in California and Texas. Right now, in New York State, there are about 200 farms that use CSA as a method to market their crops.
Oe of them is the East Hill Farm CSA in Middlesex. It is the project of the Rochester Folk Art Guild a sustainable community of artisans and farmers who have worked and created on this farm since the 1960′s.
Though the ground is still covered with snow, the East Hill Farm managers are busy ordering vegetable seeds, recruiting volunteers and processing CSA membership applications. Over half of the farm’s 80 shares have already been sold. A membership for 20 weeks of produce costs $500, or $490 if purchased before March 1. Shares include a wide variety of vegetables, as well as fruit in the later part of the season.
Information on getting a CSA share can be found at www.easthillcsa.org or by calling the JCC at (585) 461-2000. At the website, one can even sign up for a “CSA buddy” to split a share if a boxful of veggies every week may be just too much to consume.
The East Hill Farmers represent a new generation of farmers who may not necessarily have a background growing up on a parent’s or grandparent’s farm. What they do have is a passion for growing food with organic and sustainable techniques.
Cordelia Hall grew vegetables as a child in a community garden and then became part of the “guerilla” urban gardening trend while she was a student at Boston University. Now in her third year as co-manager of the farm, she has observed and worked on farms in Tanzania, New Zealand and Mexico.
Thomas Arminio, another suburbanite-turned-farmer at East Hill, said his experience in farming has taught him that timing plantings just right is crucial for having successful crops. A native of New Jersey, he is looking forward to growing interesting varieties of melons and root vegetables along with heirloom tomatoes, beets, Swiss chard and lettuces.
So, this summer, I can actually say I have become acquainted with the people who will grow my food, because I interviewed them for my column and this blog post. You just can’t say that buying a plastic-wrapped package of hothouse tomatoes from a big box warehouse store or the supermarket.
As I get my box of veggies for the week, I’ll write about what I got, and what I made, so stay tuned.