At the Charlestown Cooperative Farm, alumna Aimee Kocis is helping preserve valuable farmland from development while keeping 105 area families well supplied with a variety of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables.
By Nancy Moffitt
Under a mid-summer sun, Aimee Kocis C’99 drags a large cart heaped with muddy lumps up to the bank barn, parking it on a concrete pad near the pump. The diminutive Kocis, girlish in her pigtails, begins to unload and hose off the mass, as bunches of scarlet beets; snowy, purple-topped turnips; and egg-shaped radishes emerge from under the loam. She carries the vegetables inside the cool barn, filling rows of wooden boxes that will be emptied and refilled dozens of times throughout the day.
Kocis, 27, is a farmer. With her fiancé, John Good, Kocis founded Charlestown Cooperative Farm three years ago in a suburban Philadelphia township known for its pastoral horse farms, fieldstone farmhouses, and increasingly, land-development struggles. Kocis and Good, and the 105 local families they keep in vegetables from June to November, are part of a growing national movement called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). A concept that began in Japan 30 years ago, CSA farms, through their “shareholders,” are guaranteed the financial support and market to succeed. Members, in turn, receive an abundance of fresh, local, largely organic produce while also helping to maintain a local farm—and keep the land it sits on from development.
“Farming is very creative and independent,” Kocis says. “At times it’s hard because everything rests upon you, but at the same time it inspires you to be thinking all the time and creating new ways to do things. It’s very satisfying work—it’s addictive. How many jobs can you come home to your own house every day to have lunch?”
Kocis’s decision to become a farmer is as much about cause as it is about lifestyle. The CSA movement is all about the politics of food, about boosting local economies via increased local food production, saving the nation’s best farmland from residential and commercial development, and helping small- to moderate-scale organic family farms stay in business. Kocis bristles when she hears people refer to organic farming as “alternative,” pointing out that pesticide use in agriculture began only in the 1940s, when chemical companies began searching for new markets after the war ended. “What’s now called traditional agriculture—chemical agriculture—isn’t traditional at all,” Kocis says. “What’s traditional is what’s been going on for generations before this—small family farms that support the local economy, not massive agri-businesses.”
But the traditional family farm is rapidly becoming an endangered species. Soaring land and production costs, low food prices, and rising property taxes make farming an increasingly tough sell to those young enough to carry it on. On average, experts say, about 65 cents of every dollar spent on food goes to packaging, delivery, and marketing, while 30 cents goes to the chemical companies that make fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified foods. That leaves just five cents for the farmer.
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.”
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.