INTERVIEW: Scott Chaskey

Farming by the sea

Poet, organic farmer and NOFA-New York governing council president Scott Chaskey talks with New Farm about farming, writing, soil, CSAs, the Organic Rule and his new book, This Common Ground, a lyrical reflection on 16 years managing a CSA on Long Island's South Fork.

By Laura Sayre
Posted June 2, 2005


Photo by Dawn Haight, Peconic Land Trust

Details:

This Common Ground: Seasons on an Organic Farm

By Scott Chaskey
Viking, 2005
224 pp
ISBN: 0-670-03429-0 $23.95

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To learn more about Quail Hill Farm and the Peconic Land Trust, visit:

www.peconiclandtrust.org

NF: So first things first: Do the Quail Hill Farm CSA members really do all their own harvesting?

SC: Yes, they do! And other CSA managers often can't believe that. But it's just always been that way—the farm started with a group of 10 families who really wanted to get their hands dirty. Over the years we've had lots of mutinies, some people saying, well, couldn't you just give it to us? But of course the benefit is that it does mean they're a lot more involved, their connection to the farm is much stronger.

Now we're up to 200 families, which is around 500 people, so we've had to do things like grow some of the crops, like some of the potatoes, in another field, and those we dig and bring in. But all the greens, all the lettuce, the sugar snap peas, the raspberries, they harvest all of those themselves. That was the founding principle of the farm, and people say that they love it--digging potatoes with the kids, you just can't match that.

NF: That must save on some of the labor costs. How's the farm doing economically?

SC: The farm's been going now for 16 seasons. About halfway through that [time] we leveled off at 150 [members], then we decided we needed to get more, so we pushed it, and now we've leveled off again at around 200. But most of the CSAs I'm familiar with that have had some economic success--just as CSAs--have more like 400 members. They've had to get to that level to make it work.

We've stayed smaller, so we've had to do other things. We sell wholesale to some restaurants, and to one school, an alternative school called the Ross School, which I talk about in the book. The Ross School commissions us to grow all their paste tomatoes for making sauce, for instance, and that's been a great thing, because essentially we don't have to do any marketing for that crop.

We also mow fields for people, and we've created two gardens for restaurants—each year we grow the plants and plant them, and then they do the harvesting. We get some grants for hosting educational programs—this past week, for example, I had five 5th-grade classes at the farm. For one period I was teaching a course, and the fee for that went into the general budget.

Our policy has been to look at what we've got—from tractors to expertise—and then see how we can use that to generate income. Our mission and my job is to make the farm as self-sufficient as possible. But everything is part of the Land Trust budget. There's no endowment.

NF: That's right--as manager of Quail Hill Farm you're actually an employee of the Peconic Land Trust. The relationship between the farm and the land trust seems unique—how did it come about?

SC: Initially I thought this was such a wonderful idea, and I went to CSA conferences and talked about land trusts and went to land trust conferences and talked about CSAs--but that marriage has not taken place as much as I would have expected.

The Land Trust was started in 1983 by a guy named John Halsey, a local lad who came back to the area and saw all the fields turning into houses and said, “We've got to do something about this.” He's a really remarkable guy, and he's been very effective in what he's doing.

The CSA started in 1988 on a different piece of land. In the second year I think it went up to 25 families, and the landowner said, “Hey wait a minute, I'm not sure I want all these people traipsing around my property,” and so we started looking for another place for the farm.

And then someone got the bright idea of getting together with the Land Trust, and around the same time Deborah Ann Light donated this land that was perfect for the farm, and that created this marriage. And it started as an experiment, and it still is an experiment. Over the years we've struggled with all the typical questions like, “Who owns the machinery?” and, “Do we have separate budgets?” and that sort of thing.

But John is a very innovative guy and open to all sorts of different things. So what we hit upon was the idea of using the people at the farm as stewards. Now we're involved in all different kinds of stewardship--restoring a barn, for instance, or getting out invasive species. When I started working for the Land Trust there were only four of us; now we have 25 people on staff altogether, and we've protected over 8,000 acres of land, which is a lot for a place like Long Island. So we have lots of projects—Quail Hill Farm is just one of them.


Photo by Dawn Haight, Peconic Land Trust

At one point I was called the stewardship coordinator, but that meant I spent a lot of time in a pickup truck driving from one place to another. After awhile I decided I wanted to focus my energy on the farm, and so that's what I do now.

NF: Has the Land Trust considered starting other community farm projects on other land under its protection, or would it?

SC: That depends. At one point Suffolk County inherited some land near Huntington, and they came to us and said, “Can you do this here?” But we said, “You need to get a local group of people involved.” Ultimately projects like this come down to the energy of individual people.

NF: In your book you describe the years you and your wife spent living in a small village in Cornwall, England, and your friendship with an older local man, who taught you about gardening and farming on the steep hills around the village. There are nice parallels between the two places as peninsular landscapes, but how does your community on Long Island compare to the community in Cornwall?

SC: The amazing thing is that we just went back [to Cornwall] for the first time in six years this March. It's such a different culture, to be quite honest; we share a common language but that's about it. And then of course Cornwall is not really settled England, it's Celtic country. The relationships between people there are very different.

Of course what the two peninsulas have in common is they are so physically beautiful. Both are places that artists have flocked to for their beauty. Cornwall is much poorer than Long Island—it's the poorest county in England. Since we've been away, though, many of the houses in the village have been bought up by people from London as second homes, and the people who grew up there are finding it's becoming too expensive to live there. So now it's moving in that direction as well.

NF: When did you decide—or maybe I should say when did you realize—you were going to become a farmer?

SC: I originally went to England because I was studying for a writing degree there, in Oxford, through a program with Antioch. And to pay my way I started working as a gardener, in some wonderful gardens there near Boar's Hill, looking down on the beautiful buildings of Oxford. So I was digging in vegetable gardens and working with some great English gardeners, and I think that's when I first got hooked. After I finished the degree I was offered a teaching position with Antioch, but I quickly got away from that—I don't think I wanted to end up as an academic.

And then when we moved to Cornwall I got fascinated by the idea of it as the earliest ground in England, and then I met this guy Edgar, and then that was it.

But I don't think there's any way I would have become a farmer if it hadn't been also the time of the birth of the CSA movement. I wasn't raised on a farm, and I'm not interested in the sort of market-rat-race aspect of farming.

I had no idea that I would end up on Long Island. My wife's mother is a painter, and she moved out to the South Fork because there's a larger painters' community out here, and when we came home to visit her my wife and I occasionally gave poetry readings at a bookstore in Sag Harbor—my wife is also a poet. On one of our visits the farm manager position offered itself, and so here we are.

NF: As published by Viking, your book seems to be targeted at a general audience, but you tackle some pretty complex issues within the organic farming community—such as details of the federal Organic Rule and the best ways to manage CSA farms. What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

SC: The book really came out of writing letters [to the Quail Hill Farm members], which I did for years. And then there was a farm member who was an editor for many years, and he came to me in the fields one day and said, “I think you should make a book out of these letters.” And it went from there.

When we went through the whole contract process with Viking, I took the contract and pinned it to the wall by my computer, and after "Subject:" it said, "Reflections on nature by an organic farmer and poet." So I just kept looking at that and turning that over in my mind.

Because really the letters weren't enough--they were incredibly rich, and they were more than just CSA newsletters--people saved these letters, and they would often tell me how much they meant to them--but they were for the members. So what I did was to make more of a story out of it. I wove Edgar in more, for example, because everyone really responded to him.


Photo by Dawn Haight, Peconic Land Trust

Another thing I wanted to do was to simply get across all the things that happen on a farm like this, because that's what I think people don't know. So I talk about Camp Erutan, for instance, and I talk about our battles with weeds.

I figured if the storyline was there then it would communicate to people. We already have Liz Henderson's manual on starting CSAs, so I didn't feel that that was what was needed.

The first editor who responded to the manuscript was at Random House, and it turned out she was a CSA member through Just Food, which runs CSAs in the city. My agent had no idea, but there you go.

Other editors said they liked the writing but that it wouldn't be a bestseller. Eventually I wound up with a great editor at Viking. He's had some success as an editor, and that helped him sell the idea to the other editors. He was very helpful as an editor, responding to the manuscript.

NF: Over the years you have been a critic of the federal Organic Rule and its implementation, and you are currently serving as president of the NOFA-New York governing council. What are your hopes (or fears) for the organic movement in the United States?

SC: I'm not terribly hopeful--I wish I felt more hopeful. There are two different aspects to this. On the one hand I voted for NOFA-New York to continue to certify, and I did that because I think that we have to continue to work within the system, and because there were certain farmers, especially dairy farmers in New York, who needed it, and we weren't going to abandon them.

But on the other hand as a CSA we don't need [certification], and I tell stories in the book about ways in which the farm was hurt by following these regulations. I lost a potato crop! And that had never happened to me before. And then also I'm a sixties radical at heart, and so I basically hate the way the government has subsumed the word “organic” in a way that's made it more confusing.

I heard a panel at the NOFA-Vermont conference, and most of the people on the panel sounded much more certain and positive than I feel. At the moment I think [organic] is foundering seriously. The question is whether there's a strong enough coalition--that's what the National Campaign [for Sustainable Agriculture] is trying to do--to keep it from foundering. Right now there's the prospect of opening up the [federal Organic] Rule to changes--and about half the people I know think that's a good thing, and about half the people I know think that's a terrible thing. But I keep thinking, “How is this going to help the small farmer?” I just don't know.

The other thing is that members of my own farm would ask me questions that would make me realize how little they know about the Organic Rule--and they're CSA members!

So Quail Hill is not certified anymore. I made that as a personal decision. We involve members a lot in decision-making about the farm, and I scheduled a meeting to give a little presentation about the National Organic Program--and something like five people showed up. So I realized that they just don't care about that--they want organic food and they love the farm and they care how we grow it, but the rest of it--the politics and everything--they just don't know about that.

NF: In one place you write: "I like this about hens—it does not take long for children especially to locate the common ground" (p. 94). Explain what you mean by the common ground.

SC: I'm not good at titles--I've always had a hard time titling poems. Actually my agent was the one who came up with the title, but I liked it. And after he came up with it, I used it several times in different ways in places throughout the book. That's just a natural inclination for a poet--repetition.

I always describe what we're doing as building up the health of the soil. Fundamentally, I'm not so much running a community farm or growing vegetables as I am just building the health of the soil. That's what I mean by the common ground.

NF: You were first a poet, then a farmer, then a writer of prose. One way that trajectory reveals itself in the book is that you cite many more poets than prose writers. Who are your major influences in prose?

SC: There's a quotation at the beginning of the book from John Hay--"this sentient Earth." That's from his book called The Undiscovered Country, which came out in the early '80s. He's a wonderful, quiet writer. Also Peter Matthiessen, who lives out here and has been my teacher--I've studied Zen with him. He's an amazing writer. And of course there's Wendell Berry.

That's a hard question because there are so many. There are certain poets I can single out easily, because I have read them my whole life. But there are so many prose writers I love, including 19th-century writers as well as contemporary writers.

NF: At New Farm we work with a lot of farmers who are great writers and vice versa. How do you understand the relationship between farming and writing?

SC: There is a definitely a link there, isn't there? But what is it? That's the question. I don't know--I think it has something to do with being in touch with the basis of things, of life—being in touch with the soil. And then actually having some time for solitude and reflection--times when you're walking from the orchard to the valley, or when you're driving on the tractor somewhere to do something.

And the other thing of course is you're outside. I don't know.
Are there other vocations that fit together so well? I can't think
of any.

Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.