Illustration by Stacey Rozich
In 2013, my family and I joined the summer CSA at Turner Farm, which quickly became not only a source of fresh, organic produce but also a second home, and an education. Turner’s summer CSA program—which stands for “community supported agriculture”—involves a fee of $500 and a commitment to complete 44 hours of work on the farm between the months of April and October. The return: a weekly share of freshly harvested, organic produce and time spent with fellow enthusiasts on one of the loveliest properties in the area.
Located in Indian Hill on 220 lush acres, approximately 12 of which are used for growing vegetables, Turner is both a window into the area’s farming history—it still looks like it might have in 1873, when it was founded by the Richard Turner Family—and a modern working laboratory for organic, sustainable techniques and public education. Herein, a sample of my log from the season (so far) on the farm.
Tax day is also potatoes and brassicas day at Turner. The farm operates year-round, meaning lettuces and a few other vegetables grow throughout the winter out of doors in open fields, protected by long ribbons of windbreak fabric, and seedlings are started in greenhouses. I arrive about 2:30 p.m. to find some of the new crop of farm interns setting out potatoes in the north field that fronts Given Road; the plow is pulled by Sam and Phred, two of the farm’s four resident draft horses. But there’s also work to be done in the newly prepared Five-Acre Field. I ride with Megan Gambrill, crop production manager of Turner, in one of the electric golf carts interns and permanent crew use to get around. We arrive to find a mechanical tractor dropping broccoli and kale plants that were started in the greenhouse into the ground. My job is to remove the plants from their plastic trays and pass them to the tractor. Melinda O’Briant, director of adult education and a farmer, supervises, and as the new plants go into the ground, there’s also the sense that the newly hired interns already have become friends. While there’s joking and small talk, there’s also a sense of urgency as rain looms. Rain will mean a delay in getting plants into the ground.
Riding in a golf cart with crew-member Gretchen Weiher to the Five-Acre Field to see if they need assistance, we find sheep and lambs being herded from one field to another. A couple of the lambs (most of whom will be slaughtered for Turner’s meat program) straggle, so I carry a tiny, tense black lamb—who did his or her best to elude me—across the road. If the lamb doesn’t have long to live at least s/he’ll frolic in green fields, in both sunshine and rain.
Later, at the salad garden, one of Turner’s few irrigated fields, Gretchen and I weed a row of mustard. Gretchen has recently returned from a wedding in South Africa. Talk is of love and anarchy as we yank out galinsoga, a native weed that gives new meaning to the term rampant. Galinsoga started becoming a problem on the farm about five years ago and has gotten progressively worse each year.
To my back are rows of “rainbow greens mix”—delicate tatsoi greens, a thready red mustard, a green mustard, fun gen (an Asian cabbage), and purple pak choi. This mix is my absolute favorite food from Turner and one of the farm’s most expensive to produce, at $85 per pound for organic seed. It’s all I can do to stop myself from picking fat handfuls and eating it in the field.
Saturday morning is one of my favorite times at the farm. Lots of CSA members show up for work, and new acquaintances are quickly forged; fortunately, we’re a fairly diverse group. Today, tomatoes were supposed to be planted but rain is forecast, and mud is not ideal for young plants. So they remain in their plastic containers, while peppers and eggplants (including Claras, the white eggplants that resemble chicken eggs—they have a creamy texture and are less acidic than their purple cousins) go into the ground at the Barn Field. Novelist and nonfiction writer Rob Lewis, a former Marine, has been hired as an intern as part of the farm’s veterans’ program. Talk turns to books and hydroponic basil….
With a surplus of CSA members on hand, some of us are sent to the vegetable field to tend tomatoes (Super Sweet 100s) that have already been planted. My assignment is to cut the bottom branches of each plant, in preparation for the spreading of leaf-mulch. Tomatoes are especially vulnerable to mold and disease—my goal being to keep their branches from dipping into the mulch. Many of the branches already have blooms, even fruit, on them. But they must go—except for a couple I have asked to keep as cuttings, which are now taking root at my home.
Today is the eagerly awaited first day of distribution. CSA members arrive at the barn to pick up their share of the farm’s vegetables. Each member weighs and bags an individual allotment. It’s lighter this time of year, mostly greens. Later there will be potatoes, beets, beans, squash, onions, carrots, hot peppers, mushrooms, and cabbage. Today’s share includes kale grown in the hoop house; baby lettuce; head lettuce; mizuna; rainbow greens; red and white radishes. The red radishes are the spiciest I have tasted. Bonus: nasturtiums! Their peppery leaves and brightly colored blooms enliven a spring salad. By the time we get home, my daughter has munched her way—like a little goat—through all of the sugar snap peas. Does a good mother say, “Don’t eat all the peas?”
When we arrive home, I immediately put the basil and nasturtiums in a glass of water. Then I cut the green tops off the radishes—the root ends keep longer if the greens are cut. The greens are good sautéed in olive oil, but they don’t keep long. I think about how to work them into a meal. Having become aware of the farm as a collection of individual plants, I have also become especially averse to wasting any part of them. Stems that I don’t want to cook go into a bowl for vegetable stock I’ll use for risotto or borscht. The rest I’ll find room for in the refrigerator. When the shares get larger it can take as long as 40 minutes to put them all away. First I’ll cook the things that don’t save as well, like chard. Then I’ll move on to roots and other roasters.
It’s my day to manage distribution, which includes setting out vegetables and keeping track of who’s picked up and what’s left over. Some of the CSA members are new. There is just-picked spinach, and a choice between chicory and mustard greens. The chicory is unfamiliar to many members. A chicory sauté recipe is provided, but most members select the mustard. When it’s time to pack my own share I steal a taste of one of the chicory leaves, but its bitter taste puts me off. I choose the black mustard instead. I’ll try the chicory next time, if it’s available.
Saturday. I could not get here until mid-afternoon and am working alone in the Barn Field, weeding eggplants. Last year, carrots grew in these rows. My first year here, I did much of my work at the farm alone, enjoying the tranquility of the surroundings, as well as a chance to let my mind roam. The eggplants have grown much larger in the past weeks, some of them already drooping with fruit. All around the peppers and eggplants grasses have grown thick, and there are thousands of galinsoga seedlings. I am chopping through the grasses’ roots, pleased with the violence of the hoe, when two men ride up on horseback, one on a bay mare, the other on a paint gelding. The mare’s eyes are a milky bluish color—she is blind, though she behaves like any trail horse, showing slight signs of impatience as she is asked to stand while her rider pauses to talk about Turner Farm and the still extant farm across Given Road. The man on the paint asks after Bonnie Mitsui, the legendary owner of Turner, who died in 2013, but not before she made sure the farm would continue as a certified organic farm. I point toward the pond, where Bonnie is buried under a large tree. The riders have more questions about the farm, and I’m curious about the horses. As they ride off, I return to tending my soon-to-be-delectable Claras.