“I want to live like a farmer always, because I like to do things for myself, to be outside, to be my own boss, and I love to eat good food.”

 

Though Kocis says she never imagined she’d become a farmer after graduating from Penn, her choice seems less surprising when she talks of her childhood. Her father David, an electrician, tended a yard filled with fruit trees of every kind, from apples to peaches, apricots, and cherries. Her mother, Mary Ellen, grew a massive vegetable garden each summer. “I can remember going to my brother’s baseball game and sitting with big bowls of peas in front of us,” says Kocis, who grew up near Allentown, Pennsylvania. “We would just sit and shell all the peas.” In the fall, Kocis and her sister and two brothers gathered walnuts and chestnuts that fell from their trees, piling them in wooden trays and cracking them all winter long. They made cider, picking, sorting, and then trucking their apples to a cider press, where the kids filled and capped dozens of gallon jugs the family sold and drank themselves. “It was fun. It was a great family thing to do every fall,” Kocis says. Her father was, and still is, fiercely self-reliant, repairing everything from plumbing to cars by himself and spending every possible moment outside.

At Penn, Kocis was an environmental-studies major with a concentration in biology. She took a work-study post teaching environmental education to sixth-grade students in West Philadelphia and taught in her hometown nature center during summers. She liked the environmental education field, but found after graduating that jobs were scarce. It was during a trip to New England that she met up with high-school friend John Good, who was volunteering on an organic farm for his community-service requirement at the University of Massachusetts. The two began dating, and Kocis started tagging along with Good on his weekly workdays at the farm. “It was really great work, and I loved the people,” she says. “We got to take vegetables home every week, and we’d make this wonderful food from vegetables I’d never heard of or cooked with—like celeriac and parsnips.”

The couple spent the next two years as apprentices at two New England CSAs, then began searching for their own land to farm. “We thought, OK, we’ve got two years of experience under our belts—we would like to have a little bit more responsibility, kind of a stepping stone to running our own farm. We were looking for a managerial type of position, as a couple.” They quickly found their options were limited. Three possible jobs appeared—one in Maine and two in Pennsylvania. One of those was in Charlestown Township, “a beautiful piece of land, but they were looking for someone to start a farm from scratch,” says Kocis. “We said, ‘Well, we’ll call.’”

The land had long been owned by the Andersen family, who lived in an old farmhouse across the road and had watched with dismay as their once-rural community sprouted fields of “McMansions.” With established, thriving community-supported farms in many neighboring townships, the Andersens saw a non-profit CSA farm as a way to preserve their land and contribute to the community—if they could find a young couple willing to take it on. They agreed to provide free housing—a smaller farmhouse on the property—and pay Kocis’s and Good’s expenses their first year. The couple agreed to give it a go.

That first year was rife with difficulties. The “farm” was really just a 40-acre field, with no driveway, water, or barn. The logistics were a struggle, as Kocis and Good had to transport truckloads of produce to their home across the road where it could be washed and picked up by members. Volunteers had to be recruited to supervise the pick-up area, because the farmers had to be back at the farm working, not sitting with the produce.

A massive heat wave and drought came later in the season. With no irrigation, Kocis and Good loaded a 300-gallon tank on the back of a truck, attaching hoses to the tank and driving through the fields. “It was far from perfect, but it helped,” says Kocis. “Basically we didn’t even have time to think about any of it. We were just running around trying to get things done and keep things going. It was very stressful. It was really hard. During the drought, we were really worried about whether we’d have enough vegetables, but the members were so supportive. People would say, ‘How are you guys doing? Are you OK? It’s so hot and dry out there.’ No one complained. It was wonderful to experience.”

The second year, by comparison, was a breeze, with a barn built and irrigation system installed. Kocis and Good doubled the farm’s membership, taking on 85 families. This year, the farm will feed 105 families and largely support itself. “We were trying to build every year so that the farm can sustain itself economically,” says Kocis. “It’s kind of wonderful that we started from scratch and ran into so many obstacles, because now it seems to get easier and easier.”

Though she didn’t realize it at the time, her family was “a huge part” of what led Kocis to choose farming as a way of life. “I want to live like a farmer always, because I like to do things for myself, to be outside, to be my own boss, and I love to eat good food. All of these things are really important to all of the members of my family,” Kocis says. “My coming to the farm is kind of a step forward and a step backward. My progress in life, in a sense, is to return to my roots.”

Writer Nancy Moffitt is the former editor of the Wharton Alumni Magazine and a member of the Charlestown Cooperative Farm. For information on CSA farms in your community, see www.localharvest.org.

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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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