Last spring, Rebekah Wilce of Cobble Hill borrowed a friend’s bike and hopped the Long Island Railroad to visit the 100-acre Green Thumb organic farm in Watermill, NY. The glorious day of petting Scottish Highland cows and seeing how asparagus grows “like some kind of alien spore emerging from the ground,” was marred by only one problem: “Some of the strawberries got squishizzled on the way back,” she recounted to friends in an email. The bag of fruit had been strapped to the back of her bike.”So I made a strawberry rhubarb vinaigrette out of the more egregiously injured ones, which I will eat today on a fresh arugula salad with the rest of the fresh strawberries and goat cheese.”
Wilce is one of about 180 individuals and families who pay roughly $400 per season for a weekly box of fresh produce from the Green Thumb as part of the Cobble Hill CSA (CSA stands for “community supported agruculture,” a system in which members buy a share in a farm’s harvest season). Each June, when those strange, seductive, red fruits with the seed-riddled flesh arrive at farmers markets throughout Brooklyn, members of the CSA are invited to take the two-hour trip to the Green Thumb to strengthen the solidarity between city folk and farm folk. “I had a great time, only got a little too much sun, and really appreciate being able to see exactly where my food is coming from,” Wilce said. And, of course, the strawberries—the year’s first local fruit to ripen, and the first taste of homegrown sweetness—were delicious.
The Green Thumb, about 70 miles east of Brooklyn on Long Island’s East End, is part of Brooklyn’s foodshed, the network of farms and waters that feed us, the nourishment equivalent of our watershed. But this farm’s relations with the borough run deeper than most. A decade ago, when the Green Thumb was seeking additional customers, Brooklyn seemed the perfect answer to its problems.
“My brother, Billy, was doing the farmers market in Union Square and it got to be a burnout,” said Johanna Halsey, who goes by Jo. “Driving from here to the city is a nightmare. He had to load everything up and leave at 3 a.m. It was great when it was great, but it was a very long day and if there was a poor turnout, everything would be compost.”
The family had heard about the burgeoning CSA movement and immediately saw the advantages: a built-in group of customers, one drop-off spot where the members come to pick up their farm shares, and payment up front (members write their checks the winter or spring before the season begins). In the years since, this CSA—partly due to the fact that the size of the farm’s truck limited the number of members—has helped inspire a half dozen other Brooklyn CSAs and multiple food-buying clubs. (For a listing of Brooklyn CSAs, visit www.justfood.org.) For the farm, it’s helped keep the three generations employed on the land, even as low potato prices and soaring real estate values have transformed most neighboring farms into McMansions.
In fact, strawberries neatly symbolize a farming mentality that the Halsey family bucked decades ago. (As a delicate fruit where blemishes count, strawberries consistently show up at the top of Department of Agriculture’s list of foods that carry pesticide residues, part of the reasons why organic strawberries might cost more.) The Halsey family farm, the oldest and one of the largest organic farms in New York State, has been on the same oceanside land since 1640. A few decades ago, they began raising tomatoes, corn, peppers, eggplants, and strawberries organically, even as potato-growing neighbors scoffed.
“It’s not enough to grow it, you’ve got to figure out how to sell it,” said Jo, who manages the family’s roadside farmstand on Highway 27, which has been known to cause mid-summer traffic jams. “We try to reinvent the wheel and now we’re biodynamic which is amazing since they’ve totally butchered the word organic,” Jo said, referring to the government’s much-criticized national organic standards.
The market isn’t all that’s changed. “Twenty years ago, we sold more berries than we do now,” said Bill Halsey who grows the strawberries and the farm’s hundreds of other fruits, vegetables, and herbs with his brother Larry. Peachie Halsey, Bill’s mother, confirmed the recent changes.
“When we first opened the stand, people would come from all over and pick flats and flats of strawberries to make jam and pies and to freeze,” she said, not to mention margaritas and other leisure concoctions. “As years went on, fewer and fewer people would come and pick.”
Come June, locally grown strawberries fill shortcakes at seasonally minded restaurants and blenders of smoothie-focused families.But few customers are making jam or pies the way they used to. American shoppers can buy berries—not just strawberries, but also blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries—year round.”Strawberries were a seasonal food,” Mr. Halsey said as he surveyed his three acres of strawberry plants. “It was much more unique. It’s happened with lots of foods. And the first casualty— even before the local farmer—was taste. Nothing tastes like it used to. Carrots, summer squash, corn. You think it tastes good and then you taste your homegrown.”
The fact that strawberries just don’t taste the way they used to might be as much about hard science as irrational nostalgia. Most varieties today are bred for shipability, shelflife, and cosmetic perfection, not flavor. Ninety percent of American strawberries are grown in California, and must withstand the transcontinental voyage. “They are white on the inside, not red, and they have no taste,” said Jo.
The Green Thumb’s berries, in contrast, aren’t bred for shelf life, and don’t have much of one. But they would trounce the transcontinental fruit in the flavor category, and wouldn’t tolerate the trip across the country. (For the curious and skeptical, the farm’s annual tasting event will be held the last Saturday in June. Brooklynites are welcome to pick shoulder-to-shoulder with hordes of crimson lipped children struggling with the age-old dilemma: can you pick faster than you can eat? For details, call 631.726.1900.)
The sweetest strawberry, Mr. Halsey said, should have a dark sheen on the outside and red on the inside. “Look for the ones that have their calices standing,” he said, referring to the green petals around the strawberry stem. “And the ones that birds peck.”
STRAWBERRY RHUBARB VINAIGRETTE
by Rebekah Wilce
1 c. chopped rhubarb
1 1/4 c. chopped strawberries
3 large shallots, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp. sugar
1/3 c. red wine vinegar
3/4 c. olive oil
1/4 tsp. Dijon mustard
Simmer first five ingredients in a small non-reactive saucepan until rhubarb is tender, about 10 minutes. Puree, strain into bowl, and cool. Whisk in oil and mustard. This is wonderful on arugula with goat cheese and more strawberries. Serves 4.
1 pt. fresh strawberries ice
3/4 c. tequila
Wash and trim the strawberries, removing any white spots or pieces of leaf or stem. Fill the blender half-full with ice. Juice the lime into the blender, add the tequila and top it off with as many strawberries as you can fit into the blender. Blend until slushy. Pour into glasses garnished with a slice of lime. Serve immediately.
WHAT: The Green Thumb
WHERE: Hwy. 27, Water Mill, 631.726.1900
WHEN: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Daily
MUST TRY: Strawberries, mesclun, asparagus
IN THE BOROUGH: Cobble Hill CSA, 718.802.1972
Bill Halsey said the sweetest strawberries should have a dark sheen on the outside and red on the inside.