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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.