Story and Photos By Susan Pollack
It is late afternoon and frigid. Silver light streaks the western sky, illuminating barns, pastures, and frozen fields. I head down the snowy road, basket in hand, to pick up our weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) vegetable share at Alprilla Farm in Essex, MA.
Smells of wood smoke and sounds of conversation emerge from the greenhouse. Entering, I’m flooded by warmth and abundance: vegetables of many kinds appear enticingly arrayed in wooden boxes, each precisely labeled. I reach for four hefty white (Elba) potatoes, a few parsnips, carrots, onions, golden and red beets, and a large macomber turnip, pondering a weekend meal of roasted vegetables. I add a handful of kale and admire the squashes. I’d been partial to buttercup, with its creamy flesh and handsome dark green skin until I discovered orange kabocha, the sweetest squash of all, baked without brown sugar or even honey. Move over, acorn squash.
Farmer Sophie Courser swings open the door juggling totes of spinach from the walk-in cooler next door; she stops to hug a friend whose infant daughter is strapped to her back. Sophie’s farming partner and husband, Noah Kellerman, sits by the wood stove, repairing a rake-like tool, part of the apparatus used to wash their profusion of vegetables. A father and his young sons look on. Across the room I spot the hostess from a summer restaurant, a local poet, two other young farmers, and Sophie’s aunt, Stephanie, who drives down from New Hampshire to help out.
The stove warms against the cold, creating a comfortable space in which to pause and chat as we select the week’s vegetables. A small group of shareholders lingers by the fire or a nearby tea urn, their half-filled baskets at their feet. The gathering nurtures a sense of community often missing during the long New England winter, when the instinct is to huddle at home, with family or close friends.
Noah and Sophie are doing something so old it’s new: keeping alive a family farm by sustainably growing tasty and nourishing vegetables. They also cultivate and mill some grains for flour while tending a small beef herd. Noah grew up on Alprilla Farm, where his grandfather had raised Black Angus cattle. Noah’s parents, a musician and a scientist, live on the farm and help out, including caring for the animals when Noah and Sophie are away.
As evening approaches, a local farmer from the summer open air market arrives, and conversation turns to the high cost of land here in Northeastern Massachusetts, where real estate values have escalated, making it difficult for young growers to get a foothold. Noah and Sophie must lease some cropland in order to survive as must many other young area farmers. They also face a relatively short growing season and the challenges of working with clay-like soil that compacts easily. To help aerate the fertile, but heavy soil, Noah and Sophie rest the fields every three years, by rotating clover in combination with grains. They work with a team of oxen that are nimble and lighter on the land than the tractor, which they also use. Sophie, the writer of Alprilla’s eloquent farm journal, is also a seasoned teamster, having worked with oxen since she was a child growing up on a family farm in New Hampshire. (Today her mother and sister sell some of their lamb and pork at the Alprilla share along with maple syrup made by her father.)
Standing here at the farm in mid-February, on the last day of the winter CSA share, I feel gratitude for the food that Sophie and Noah grow all year, which sustains me and my husband and all of us CSA shareholders through the coldest months.
I am grateful as well for the opportunity to support the farm, as a shareholder. By paying for a “share” of the harvest at the start of the season, we help farmers buy the seed and supplies they need. We also partake of the risk that adverse conditions may cause some crops to yield less than hoped or to fail altogether, while others exceed expectations. By bearing a small part of this risk, I feel a deeper connection to the land, the farmers, and the food I eat.
Then, too, I delight in Noah’s and Sophie’s excitement about the season ahead: the seed catalogues they’ve pored over all winter, the new crops they hope to grow. It’s hard not to share their enthusiasm, especially as the days grow longer, the greenhouse doors are flung open, and the frozen earth gives way to luscious mud.
My basket is full. The winter share is over. In mid-March Noah and Sophie will plant seedlings in the greenhouse, and so, a new season will begin, carrying with it all our hopes for a fruitful harvest.
Susan Pollack is an award-winning journalist and author of The Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Cookbook: Stories and Recipes. She lives in Gloucester with her husband, Eric Schoonover, a writer.
Copyright © Susan Pollack 2019