Brownstone Queens: Transformational farm-food vanguard comes to Astoria

Unloading the haul. (Photo by Sue-Yee Leung.)
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It is possible for members of the Astoria C.S.A. to avoid grocery stores for weeks at a time.

The community-supported agriculture group, like the vast majority of C.S.A.s, offers vegetable shares, and it offers fruit shares, another common C.S.A. option. But it also offers a way to buy maple syrup, sliced sourdough bread, bacon, goat cheese, andouille sausage, whole chickens, leaf lard, bone marrow, freshly ground flour, and organically grown (and relatively fresh) beans. It offers extra herbs and a share of garlic. When tomatoes are most bountiful, members can take home twenty pounds, or more, and can them. Before Thanksgiving, they can order cranberries, fresh or dried. There’s an option to buy citrus fruit, an option to buy beer, and an option to buy wine.

“The only thing I go to a supermarket for now is if I want some seltzer,” says Stacey Ornstein, 30, one of the group’s founders. (Non-comestibles, like toilet paper, might also prompt a trip.)

C.S.A.s have existed in New York for more than a decade. At the outset of a growing season, C.S.A. members buy a share in a farmer’s crops, and each week receive their portion of whatever produce has been harvested. The initial idea was for a community to share in the risks of farming, and C.S.A.s have caught on across the country both as a means of supporting small farmers and of buying fresh, local food. Astoria C.S.A. is just one of the hundred-odd community-supported agriculture groups that have sprung up around the city, but its varied offerings put it among the most ambitious.

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More notable, maybe, is the fact that this one is in Astoria, a neighborhood periodically classed with the city glossies among the up-and-coming, but which never quite seems to arrive, from their point of view. The prevalence of C.S.A.s, once a sign of a burgeoning hippie or artistic undercurrent in a New York neighborhood, is now a sign that a neighborhood is stepping on the escalator of upward mobility.

In fact it’s only one of three in the neighborhood, all bursting at the seams. Hellgate C.S.A. has a waiting list that grows to 400 people every spring; Harvest Astoria C.S.A. was formed after both Astoria and Hellgate C.S.A.s filled up; and there are rumblings that yet another C.S.A. might form in the neighborhood.

Astoria might seem the most unlikely of neighborhoods for the sustainable-food revolution to sink its teeth into. Its reputation for diversity rests on its immigrant communities and the food they imported from faraway lands—its emblems as a foodie destination, for people from outside the neighborhood, are the stores on 30th Ave. that offer bins of Greek olives or the Czech beer hall that may be Astoria’s most popular attraction.

But as prices go up in Park Slope, as young, hip professionals get a few years older and outgrow places like Williamsburg, as more Manhattanites and Brooklynites begin to register that Northwest Queens is a quick enough subway ride to just about anywhere, Astoria’s middle-class immigrant families are increasingly living side-by-side with the sorts of people who tend to idealize fresh, local produce—highly educated, mostly white, creative-class professionals.

 

JUST FIVE YEARS AGO, ASTORIA HAD ONLY one C.S.A.. The Queens C.S.A. was founded in 1996, and, according to its now-defunct website, began with just 20 members. The current C.S.A. explosion began in 2005 when Cara Fraver, then a 24-year-old AmeriCorps member, was assigned the task of starting a new group that would serve the aging population connected with the Ravenswood Senior Center. The idea was to create a C.S.A. that would be more accessible to a low-income community. Fraver ran the C.S.A. out of the senior center, and it had a shorter season and smaller shares, which kept the price down. It also accepted food stamps.

Still, Fraver struggled to find customers. The retirees, the main membership targets, ate a couple of meals at the senior center every day. Some of the older ladies would sit with her for four hours, chatting and yukking it up, while she waited for her C.S.A. members to pick up their share. But as a rule the retirees didn’t see why they should spend hundreds of dollars for vegetables when they only prepared one meal a day for themselves.

So Fraver had to broaden her search for members. Her greatest success came when she discovered the astorians.com forum, a powerful tool for recruitment. The forum also lead her to the Freeze Peach Café. (Say the name out loud, if you don’t get the joke.) A popular spot for tea, coffee, and community events near the Ditmars stop, the café was more than 2 miles away from the senior center distribution site. But once she connected with this community, Fraver began attracting a lot of members, she says.

It was through the forum that Laura Mello, 41, heard about the new C.S.A.. “I got a group of us together, and we started making the trek down there every Tuesday to pick up our veggies,” she said. Mello, a lawyer, had moved to Astoria in 1999 and joined the Queens C.S.A. back in 2000 or 2001. She found the required volunteer hours too unwieldy, though, and the overall cost unaffordable, and did not stick with it.

By the end of the first year belonging to the new C.S.A., Mello was committed enough to join the core group that took over from Fraver. They renamed the group Hellgate C.S.A. and moved it up to the Ditmars area, which was more convenient for many of the members.

As a rule, C.S.A.s can only grow so big before it becomes too much for the volunteer coordinators to handle or too much of a strain on the farmer’s production, and in 2006, the C.S.A. was distributing out of the Freeze Peach café, which meant space was limited. It was around this time that Queens C.S.A., Astoria’s first, closed down, too, and Hellgate absorbed the remaining members. In 2006, Hellgate sold 100 shares—a full load—by mid-summer and had more requests from potential members than they could support. Some Astorians who wanted in, like Stacey Ornstein, were relegated to the waiting list.

She and seven others started working to form their own group: what would become Astoria C.S.A.. “Our first year, our goal was 30 shares, and we sort of flipped out because that was the minimum for the farm to be worth it,” she says. “We had our first Q & A, and that night we had 80 people signed up. We sold 100 shares within a month.”