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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Are there other vocations that fit together so well? I can't
Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.