End of Season Letter, October 2020
Every October I compose a letter to CSA members, reflecting back on the season that is ending as a way of preparing for the season ahead. When it comes to 2020, however, where to even begin? The world looks nothing like it did a mere nine months ago! Not only that, everything is still in flux. It’s anyone’s guess what the end of 2020 will look like, so it feels premature to start looking for takeaways. Nevertheless, the fields have their calendar to follow, and we must attend. Empty beds must be cover cropped, fall roots must be harvested, and in another month, we will plant garlic. Barring floods, wildfires, or any climate catastrophe (nothing to take for granted!), we will complete all fieldwork by Thanksgiving and start again next spring. So it’s time to wrap up the 2020 season and consider the reflections that come with it.
Much has been said of the rollercoaster this year has been. For us, the rollercoaster actually began in May of 2019, when Steven Cecchini, our long-time assistant grower, was diagnosed with cancer. One day everything was fine, and we were happily moving forward with the season ahead; the next day, the floor fell out from under us. First came the fear that we would lose a friend (we wouldn’t); then the reality that for the remainder of the season, we would be without an essential employee; finally the miracle of our community pulling together to help us through. While Steve stayed home for chemo treatments, Dan and I, along with family, friends, remaining staff, and CSA members, kept the farm going. We had to make hard choices about what was essential (growing food, depositing checks, paying bills), and what wasn’t (vacations, social media, bonus winter crops), but by keeping our eyes forward, and taking it one day at a time, we managed to make it through. We never would have guessed that this would become a playbook for 2020.
Submit renewal by Nov. 13 to qualify
for the bonus Thanksgiving pickup.
cash & check payments receive 3% discount
End of Season Dates
Friday, Nov. 6
Thanksgiving turkey orders due
Friday, Nov. 13
Renewal deadline for
Saturday, Nov. 21
Thanksgiving pickup, 9am-2pm
Tuesday, Nov. 24
Thanksgiving pickup, 2–6pm
Back in March, when life came to a grinding halt, Dan and I were in shock just like everyone else. Would we lose any of our loved ones? Would we get sick ourselves? Would we be required to shut our business down? In retrospect, it seems laughable that we thought we may need to close down, but in those early days, before “essential worker” had entered the lexicon, nothing was certain. But then sales of our CSA shares swelled from a trickle to a flood, and we understood the role we had to play. At a minimum, we would simply continue doing what we’ve always done—growing quality food for our small but committed community. At best, we would expand as much as our resources would allow, in the safest manner possible, in order to serve more people. It was a delicate balancing act, because while demand for our food was at an all-time high, so was to need to minimize large crowds. Plus, there was the risk that in throwing our doors open to an anxious public, we might alienate the CSA members who had been with us all along. But, as we learned in 2019, there’s nothing like the floor falling out from under you to teach you what you—and your community—are capable of. Knowing that our farm could provide a place of both food
and refuge, and feeling incredible gratitude for all the support we received in 2019, we resolved to do it. We trusted that our loyal CSA members and farm stand customers would see the value in welcoming newcomers as well.
So we made a flurry of changes. We kept our Saturday farm stand open throughout the late-winter and early spring, even when onions and oysters were all we had to sell. To serve the multitude of first-time gardeners, we seeded extra plants and sold them throughout May, rather than at one big Mother’s Day sale. We extended our Tuesday and Thursday pickup hours, offered a curbside option, and added extra cash registers at the farm stand. We encouraged everyone to walk the fields. We never missed an opportunity to invite CSA members to glean. We planted 15-25% more storage crops, in anticipation of the heightened demand continuing into the winter. We hired more staff, both in the fields and at the Tin House, to keep up with everything.
COVID aside, this was a typical growing season, with the usual ups and downs. There were some early-spring losses (kale, carrots), followed by the wave of summer fruit crops. Peppers struggled for the first time ever, but our eggplant were the most beautiful and abundant I’ve ever seen. Tomatoes were decent enough, though a far cry from last year’s record-breaking numbers. As always, we covered our butts by overplanting; up at the Tin House, there was no indication of the kale that didn’t make it, or the zucchini plants lost to cucumber beetles. Fall harvests continue to challenge us, but in a good way; no sooner have we figured the best arrangement for packing away our winter storage crops than our facilities get an upgrade, inducing us to plant more, and then it’s back to the drawing board.
Out in the fields, at the height of the season, it was very easy to forget about COVID. With the old crew back together—Steve recovered from cancer, and Peter Notarnicola returned from his 2019 season upstate—we got a lot accomplished. Peter mulched his brains out and started getting comfortable on the tractors. Steve spent hours making up for lost time on the finger weeders and paperpot transplanter, two 2019 investments that had gathered dust since last year. Working with a team of experience, skilled, and strong-
willed farmers is very different from leading a crew of novices, and there were definitely times when I was frustrated by and impatient with the power-sharing. But, if you can manage the differences in opinion, and respect the value that each person brings to the table, the results can be amazing. One motto that has served our crew well is Fine, do it your way, but don’t f___ it up!
Of course, novices bring a lot to the table, too. This season we were lucky to have a roster of talented women, each cut adrift from her previous employment by the pandemic. My sister, Lizzie Fanning, started the season working with us part-time in the fields, but when schools closed and she couldn’t operate her Amityville dance studio, she switched over to watching our kids three days a week, allowing Dan and myself to stay on in the fields (working parents, we feel you!). When Peter's girlfriend, Jen
Hochuli, was furloughed from her job at the Intrepid Museum in Manhattan, we hired her to join us full-time. In June, when the peas started rolling in, we hired Arielle Ruggeiro, who had been managing a yoga studio in Long Beach. Finally, when the heightened flow of people through the Tin House made it difficult for Dan and myself to set up and break down CSA pickups in a timely manner, we passed the baton to Maria Christodoulou, a Brooklyn herbalist who left the city to wait out the pandemic with her family on Long Island. We had a terrible moment in July, when an accident (not farm-related) left Jen hospitalized with a brain injury. After our worst fears were assuaged—Jen would be okay—we had to contend with moving ahead without her, just as we'd done with Steve last year. Jen’s recovery has been maddeningly slow for an active person who wants to jump right back into the fray, and we miss her dearly. But we’re happy to get regular updates from Peter, and we look forward to seeing her back at the farm a lot more soon.
With only a few CSA pickups remaining, Dan and I are looking forward to relaxing by the woodstove with our kids. At the same time, we’re attuned to the fear many people feel as winter approaches. And as eager as we are to rest from yet another rollercoaster of a season, we know that the COVID saga will continue into 2021. CSA shares will probably sell quickly over the winter, so we’ll be strategizing how to maximize our growing space without overburdening the soil. Just as we did in the spring, we’ll keep the farm open to everyone throughout the winter, with pop-up farm stands as often as the weather and our food stores allow (onions and oysters, anyone?). While we hope life will have regained some sense of balance by summer, we’re still preparing for another season of busy farm stands.
Are we happy to be in such high demand? Absolutely. Do we wish we could attribute it to happier circumstances? Of course. At this point, we’ve all grown accustomed to COVID’s bizarre juxtaposition of new discovery and opportunity alongside so much fear and loss. In the reordering of priorities that is the hallmark of the pandemic, a safe, stable food supply clearly comes out on top. Call me biased, but I believe that’s as it should be. Having run this farm for thirteen years, we’ve seen some wild swings in the market—from the easy CSA sales of the late 2000s, to stiff competition from Amazon and home delivery in the 2010s, to last spring, when we had to turn dozens of people away, because we couldn’t serve everyone. We know that the high we’re experiencing right now will inevitably be followed by a low, and so we’re taking advantage of the moment to educate all who visit about all the good that farms can do. Farms can feed people. Farms can unite communities. Farms can sequester carbon. Farms can teach life skills. Farms do all this and more, in times of both comfort and crisis. Our hope that after this crisis has passed, and priorities are reordered once again, farms maintain their rightful place.