American agriculture has become an industrial food system of sorts, dependent on long-distance shipping, chemicals, marketing, and big machinery, says Kocis. Nearly every state in the U.S., for instance, imports 85 to 90 percent of its food, with most produce traveling an average of 1,300 miles from the farm to the market shelf, according to the University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension. This ability to have just about any fruit or vegetable any time of the year has led to a dramatic shift in eating habits: Rather than eating what’s ripe locally, consumers have come to expect tomatoes, grapes, and cantaloupe every month of the year. “The result is a lot of tasteless, cardboard produce,” says Kocis. “But beyond that, it’s an economic issue. If more states could produce more of their own food, they would strengthen their economies.”

CSAs, Kocis and others say, are a solution. While 20,000 small farms go bankrupt in the United States each year, CSA farms have increased from fewer than 60 in 1990 to more than 1,500 today. Even in urban America, the movement is gaining momentum, with 6,000 members in the five boroughs that make up New York City. “CSAs are growing because, for one, they make it possible for farmers to make a living,” Kocis says. And what about members? For a $300 to $600 investment, depending on the farm and amount of food a family needs, subscribers get a load of fresh, chemical-free vegetables—and sometimes fruit—each week. “When I take the kids to school in the morning and we drive by the farm, we check out what’s going on and what crops are coming in,” says Nancy Stahl, a teacher’s aide and member since Charlestown Cooperative Farm opened. “I think it’s wonderful for the kids to grow up seeing a farm and seeing where their food is coming from. I don’t plan my meals ahead of time—we just eat what comes in. It’s much more interesting than going to the store and always picking up waxy red peppers and bananas.”

Charlestown Cooperative Farm is divided by a long, unpaved driveway that splits two fields with earth the color of coffee beans. Tidy rows are planted in flowering strawberry plants, Chinese cabbages, rainbow chard, peas trailing up twine trellises, and dozens of other usual and unusual vegetables, herbs, and flowers. On pick-up days—Tuesdays and Thursdays—a steady stream of members come and go. There are mothers with young children who play in the farm sandbox, swing on the swings that hang from the aged hickory trees, and hunt for ripe strawberries and cherry tomatoes. Elderly couples come, scanning the fields as if they’re seeing an old friend. Professionals arrive late in the day, wobbling up the gravel driveway in dress-clothes and shiny shoes and walking gingerly through the sometimes-muddy U-Pick gardens to gather flowers and herbs. The residents of this wealthy, largely Republican township have roundly embraced the farm, with membership doubling each season—and a waiting list of 75 hopefuls. “You can see that people feel good about being here, about supporting a local farm,” Kocis says. “The members enjoy the quiet and the beauty. They can sit at a picnic table and watch the grass blow. No one is rushing. People smile and are friendly.”

Kocis and Good have also built a lively place, hosting potluck suppers, cooking demonstrations, farm tours, a harvest dinner and square dance, and a food festival—“Think Globally, Act Locally”—that brought chefs from several Philadelphia restaurants to prepare vegetable dishes for members to taste, with recipes to take home. On Saturdays, the couple heads to a farmer’s market they helped create in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, a nearby former steel town, where they sell vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The pair works six days a week, assisted only by two apprentices and members who choose to volunteer. By Sunday, Kocis admits, she and Good are bone tired. And farming, even without the middleman, is no way to get rich, Kocis concedes. “We do this because we believe in it. But it is hard,” she says. “That’s the simple truth.”

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/27/04

FEATURE: Growing Movement
By Nancy Moffitt
Photography by Sabina Louise Pierce

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Kocis first thought of becoming a farmer while volunteering to work on an organic farm with her friend—and now fiancé—John Good.