COMMENTARY

Another world at Essex Farm
One family’s visit to a year-’round CSA changes their relationship to food for the better. 

By Sandra Stahl
Posted November 10, 2005

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“Mommy’s still talking to the Spanish people,” my 3-year-old son explained to his brother as they waited for me during our third visit to Essex Farm in less than a week.

For the record, only English was spoken, though to a young boy from New York City, Essex Farm was another world with a language unfamiliar. And seeing Mark Kimball—one of the proprietors; a tall, string-bean thin guy wearing a floppy hat adorned with a turkey feather—come in from the fields on a Belgian gelding-powered plow and talking about whether the arugula seedlings were taking, it might as well have been Mars.

It all started with an article I had read in Gourmet magazine by a guy who challenged himself to go through the winter months in Vermont eating only locally. Among his resources was Essex Farm, a CSA run by a young man and his writer-from-the-city wife. Picturing a kind of Green Acres meets Sex and the City, I mentioned to my husband that we should try to visit if ever we found ourselves in the area.

Essex Farm is 5-1/2 hours from our apartment, though a convenient 5-minute drive from the place we rented on the New York side of Lake Champlain for a family holiday in August. As a CSA, I knew Essex Farm wouldn’t offer off-the-road retail shopping, but I hoped it would be okay if we stopped by.

The first time we drove down the long dirt road leading to the Farm, there were chickens, pigs, turkeys and fields as far as the eye could see, but no people. After a few, “Helloooos,” Kristin Kimball walked toward us from the clothes line near the back of the house. After a friendly exchange, she said as they “weren’t saucing today,” we could take as many tomatoes as we’d like from the shed (especially the ones that look like peaches) and invited us to come back on Friday, distribution day, saying, “there are always leftovers.”

Her easy, natural generosity with those tomatoes signaled a life-altering change in the way I shop and feed my family. But first, the tomatoes. They were amazing and of the most stunning quality, variety, color, shape, size and taste I had ever experienced. While no stranger to the fabulous juiciness of Jersey tomatoes, I. nonetheless, could have stayed gazing at those beauties for an hour, but my husband dragged me away after we carefully placed one of each type in our bag.

I was hooked and counting the minutes till Friday when we could go back.

Distribution day did not disappoint. I had squirreled away a bar of English chocolate and a jar of fancy French jam we had packed from home to bring to the Kimballs so we had something to exchange. I’m not certain our offering had anything to do with Mark’s hearty welcome, but he gave us “the run of the place.” When he thought I was being shy, he filled countless bags with just-picked green beans, purple garlic, potatoes with the dirt still clinging to them, more of those glorious tomatoes, black beans, fresh herbs and his father’s melon. Then he opened the fridge, whereupon he encouraged us to take chicken, cuts of pork “so clean, it’s practically kosher,” milk from their cows and Kristin’s lovely, light cheese. All the while, he talked…about life on Essex Farm, how he and Kristin met (he slaughtered a pig on their first “date”), the marketing challenges of running a CSA, the delicate balance of staying financially solvent while pursuing a dream.

While our dinner that night was delicious, the satisfaction we felt went way beyond taste. Every bite reminded us of Essex Farm. And eating this way felt safe and right.

After our final visit to return the glass jars in which the last of the milk and the cheese had only that morning been rinsed clean, we headed back to the city. Though it is not possible for us to join the Essex Farm CSA, I didn’t want to lose the feeling. I vowed to eat as locally as we could until the following August, our next opportunity to visit.

And so till then, instead of shopping for my family online or at the big, discount supermarkets, I steal away from my office in the middle of the day and take the subway twice weekly to one of the city’s Green Markets. Sure, it’s less convenient and more expensive. But the contents of those bulging bags I bring home inspire me to thumb through my cookbooks and magazines to find recipes worthy of them. And as the market transitions from end-of-summer corn and melons to squashes, chard and beets, I wonder how life goes on the planet Essex Farm and how their arugula turned out.