Friday, July 10, 2009

Pickup Day at Caretaker Farm

Sam and Elizabeth Smith, founders of legendary Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts, are two of the most beautiful people I've ever known, inside and out. Of an age somewhere over 50, both are kind, direct, and robust, with the fresh outdoors in their faces. They are leaders of quiet conviction in our community, and their vision, their example, their personalities have inspired literally thousands of farmers, students, eaters, and farm-food activists around the world.

Caretaker Farm as seen from the lower fields in early summer. Photo by Mars Vilaubi.

The opposite view, on a much grayer day -- looking down at the lower fields from just outside the barn.

In person the Smiths manage to be earthy and exalted, reverent and irreverent at the same time. Sam is tall and rangy, a thinker and a writer and a talker, with twinkling eyes. Elizabeth is strong, sturdy, and lovely, a doer and an artist and a creative force, with warm blue eyes and a thick braid of salt-and-pepper hair.

Today is pickup day at Caretaker, which for nearly 20 years has been a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, one of the pioneers of the concept. And it may be chilly and rainy, but I'm following a most satisfying summer ritual: gathering canvas bags and empty egg cartons; stopping at the local swimming hole for a frigid dip in what is basically ice melt; and arriving at the farm ravenous for just-picked produce, warm bread (fresh from the bakery oven), and free-range eggs.

It's always a bustling scene, even early in the day. Dear friends are here making their pickup; farm apprentices are pulling weeds; a bunch of kids are deep in an art project with Elizabeth Smith by the herb garden; a little girl and her father are on their way up from the lower fields with baskets of the last strawberries and the first peas; swallows are swooping in and out of the barn, where all the vegetables are arranged temptingly in bins, as in a grocery store.

Today the emphasis is on greens of all sorts. Different bins offer lush heads of lettuce in several colorful varieties; baby mesclun and a multitude of oriental greens; chard in all colors; and large, perfect collard leaves. Nearby are heaps of radishes, beets, little white turnips, and adorable summer squashes. You sign in and fill your bags according to the quantities marked on the blackboard. Meanwhile the young baker is filling an old-fashioned wooden cabinet with hot fragrant breads, focaccia, cherry-almond scones, and pies; on a wooden counter are stacks of eggs and a tray of free eggplant seedlings.
Bring your own scissors and cut your own herbs or, later in the season, flowers from the upper gardens.

More herb and flower gardens, surrounding this haunting structure of twisted tree trunks. This scene is just to the left of the gardens in the preceding photo.

Caretaker Farm is a legendary name to anyone familiar with the history of organic farming in the United States over the last 25 years. In 1969 Sam and Elizabeth were pulled or "called" to begin farming, even though they (like many others in the early days of the back-to-the-land movement) had no experience or background in agriculture. Two years later they participated in forming the enormously influential Natural Organic Farmers Association (later the Northeast Organic Farmers Association, or NOFA).

NOFA launched its first conference in 1973, "a joyful gathering of like-minded spirits," as Elizabeth recently described it to author Ann Larkin Hansen, author of our upcoming book The Organic Farming Manual. Wendell Berry, Eliot Coleman, and Scott and Helen Nearing were all there, in a meeting of the minds that was a seminal moment in the modern organic movement.

The Smiths plunged into organic farming, creating in the entire local community a craving for fresh, succulent, chemical-free produce. Their farmstand overflowed with vegetables, berries, honey, eggs, breads, pies, jams, and more, while grass-fed lamb and chicken filled the freezers. In 1990 they became the second CSA in the nation (the first was at Indian Line Farm, also in Berkshire County), because they passionately desired the farm to be part of the community and the community to be part of the farm.

Edible rubies underfoot! Photo by Mars Vilaubi

In 2006, after 37 years, the couple wanted to transition out of full responsibility for the farm. Our community worked with them to develop a Community Land Trust, and the Smiths selected Don Zasada and Bridget Spann to succeed them as farmers. The young couple have added extraordinary joy and energy to the enterprise.

Elizabeth and I have been chatting, but Sam (just back from a sojourn teaching farmers in Africa) has called her in for breakfast, and now I am truly famished. Laden with bulging bags, a carton of many-tinted eggs, a loaf of seven-grain whole-wheat bread, a few strawberries, and an eggplant seedling, I head to the car. Before I've driven a mile, the strawberries have vanished and the bread has been violently assaulted. I'm picturing the omelet I'll make with greens and garlic scapes.

Nothing ever tastes as good as Saturday breakfast from Caretaker Farm: pure, delicious food with a deeply satisfying story behind it.

Deb Burns, Acquiring Editor for Animal, Farming and Equestrian Topics

1 comment:

Deb Burns said...

Elizabeth Smith just read this and said, "Wow. So that's what blogging is all about! Thanks for the nice story. Only correction is that Sam's eyes are blue and my eyes are brown!" I stand corrected!