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SAVOR THE SEASON: A connection to sun and soil amid a pandemic

Essex Farm CSA sees growth in North Country, Capital Region, New York City as customers focus on health

Essex Farm co-owner Mark Kimball stands in the farm’s store on Tuesday, Sept. 22. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

ESSEX — Essex Farm co-owner Mark Kimball sees himself as something akin to an evangelical.

Connecting people with sun and soil, the fundamental stuff of life, is a mission that gives him joy while working in an industry that’s no easy feat to survive in.

“If you called me next week and said, ‘OK, I want to farm,’ I’d be like — yes!” Kimball said. “That’s kind of how I measure my success. I’m a field evangelical in some ways. I don’t really have a practicing religion, but I have a pretty intense spiritual life, and if I had to say what my goal is, it’s really to connect you to sunlight and soil and the life systems that keep you alive.”

In a year when it seems like so many things are happening all at once — the coronavirus pandemic, widening political divides, economic uncertainty, a movement against racial injustice — farming, for Kimball, has provided something of a foundation to be rooted in. It requires groups of people to “pull in the same direction,” and find similarities in the people they work with as they work toward a common goal, rather than finding differences.

“I think for all of us to do the hardest things in our lives, makes it much easier to tolerate other people,” Kimball said. “I start my day with, what is the thing that I’m most afraid of? Oh, I really need to oil that or grease that, or I need to check in with someone who is really unhappy and I don’t have the energy for it. Take a deep breath, I’ll cook up an egg or something, I’ll say hi to my girls. Farming allows you enough self-care that you can then go to that hard place, and I think that’s what we’re all looking for. I think the reason a lot of this stuff is exploding at once, layer upon layer of gender, race, disease, economy, is that when people’s worlds change, we don’t do that well.”

Pandemic causes change

The pandemic has derailed many norms, uprooted the lives of many people, and for some, prompted a renewed focus on not just safeguarding their health from the virus but becoming healthier in general. Some consumers who would normally shop at a grocery store, seeing the potential for exposure to the virus and product shortages, have shifted to buying from their local farmstands or joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

At the same time, the pandemic — and mass closures of schools, hotels and some restaurants because of it — compounded the already significant economic pressure on small farms across the country.

Faced with fewer avenues to sell their food, farmers across the country were forced to destroy mass amounts of product. In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began spending $300 million per month on purchasing surplus produce and dairy, which the department then shipped to food banks, according to the New York Times. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state would give food banks $25 million to purchase surplus dairy and produce from farms across the state.

For the past 17 years, Essex Farm has offered a CSA membership. The CSA program accounts for roughly 98% of the farm’s total sales, according to Kimball. It’s a business model that allows people to directly invest in the farm, while literally receiving the fruits of its labor. It also provides members with a sense of stability: Even during the pandemic, the farm didn’t miss a delivery.

Though Essex Farm lost one of its restaurant accounts because of the pandemic — it’s slowly coming back now, according to Kimball — the real challenge for the farm this year came in the form of dry soil.

“We’ve been abnormally dry, drier than we’ve been in the 16 years that we’ve been here,” Kimball said.

That translated to a smaller yield of cover crop and forage in a year when the farm’s CSA program has grown.

CSA growth

This year, Essex Farm’s CSA program saw a notable amount of growth — increasing its sales by roughly 20% to 25%.

“That’s a lot more than most years; usually we grow about 5% per year,” Kimball said.

The growth in sales meant expanding the farm’s team.

“To make a jump like that required hiring more people, and more people were out of work, so we were able to hire more people,” Kimball said. “I feel really supported by the team of people I work with.”

The CSA provides members — whether in Essex, the greater Adirondack region or New York City — with enough food each week to feed their families three times a day, seven days a week. Members have their pick from a variety of meats, dairy products, herbs and grains, syrup and soap, plus 50 different types of vegetables.

The memberships vary in price depending on how many people are in a household and their ages, and a person’s location. There are also various discounts — vegetarians and vegans pay less, and those who pay a full annual payment upfront can also get a discount. For a person in Lake Placid, the cost would be $6,360 annually for an adult. Seasonal memberships are $145 per week.

The farm’s CSA operation has continued to grow, expanding to new markets — including New York City — and offering more and more customers with weekly deliveries of fresh, whole food from the farm.

These last two years are the first two years that he hasn’t questioned his desire to stay in business, despite still being a break-even operation, Kimball said.

“I think for a lot of people, there came an awareness that among many facets of a broken, corporatized society … that food security, and quality and family all play a part in health,” he said. “The idea of moving from a place of ‘I need another mask, I need to be in my house’ to, ‘How is my health?’ I think some people asked that question proactively, and they were like, ‘Wow, this is how much money we have, this is a more expensive food supply but maybe I do want to invest in a group of wacky farmers in the middle of upstate New York.’ And some of them even moved here.”

At Essex Farm, it’s about more than producing food for people to eat, according to Kimball.

“We’re trying to figure out a new way to farm, with less petrochemicals and more soil-based climate change awareness, not to mention how we look at race and gender in a more constructive way,” he said. “Even prior to this year, that’s kind of been — that’s what this is about. And this year has brought a lot of those concerns to a much more public place.”

More information about the Essex Farm CSA program is available at essexfarmcsa.com. The farm store, at 2503 state Route 22, is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.