Farm to basket to table

The CSA movement is finally gaining ground in Israel. But will ‘shmita’ throw it off track?

At Kaima, the CSA model means there are dozens of varieties of vegetables to study at any given time. (photo credit: COURTESY KAIMA)
At Kaima, the CSA model means there are dozens of varieties of vegetables to study at any given time.
(photo credit: COURTESY KAIMA)
Last week, Mara Schecter received delivery of farmfresh produce: potatoes, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, pumpkin, lettuce, leek, peppers, mint and chives. It wasn’t quite what she ordered – and she didn’t know what was coming – but that’s the whole idea behind a CSA, community-supported agriculture, where members pledge to support a local farm in return for a share of the produce – whatever it may be. Rather than place a specific order, members agree to abide by the capricious nature of harvest, allowing the farms to operate without fear of filling orders or quotas. Most CSAs offer differing sizes of boxes depending on family sizes, and some allow for minor customizations in orders.
The CSA model took root in the US in the 1980s, and spread in popularity in the following decades; In 2007 the US Department of Agriculture’s census noted more than 12,500 CSAs operating throughout the country. The number here in Israel is, not surprisingly, significantly smaller per capita, with fewer than 20 known to be in operation.
As shmita takes hold across the country, work on these small independent farms will mostly go on as usual. Three different CSAs – who all operate on very different models – talk to The Jerusalem Post about their unique approaches to farming, produce, marketing, and how they will all be using the “heter mechira” (sale leniency) for the coming year.
Once every seven years, the Torah mandates that land inside Israel must lie fallow, and agricultural activity is forbidden. The Chief Rabbinate has allowed the heter mechira to be used by Israeli farmers, in which their land is temporarily sold into non-Jewish hands, and continues to be farmed by Jews. Many Orthodox factions, however, reject this premise, and only eat produce imported from outside Israel, or grown in parts of the country not considered biblical Israel.
Schecter is a member of Chubeza, often referred to as the mother of CSAs in Israel, which was founded in 2003.
“For the first three or four years we were the only ones” operating, said Bat-Ami Sorek, founder of Chubeza. “Today I know about more than a dozen farms, and I believe there’s a few more I don’t know about.”
Farmers working under the CSA model can focus on growing what they want to, with the financial stability of dedicated members, and no need to purchase from other growers to fill an order. And for the consumers? “I always say: yeah it’s organic, yeah it’s good for you, but really, it just tastes better than anything we’ve ever had,” said Schecter. “Cost-wise, it comes out to what I used to spend on produce in the store, and this way I’m getting much better stuff and a wider variety.”
While Schecter occasionally gets items she doesn’t recognize – “certain types of pumpkins, some greens, some herbs” – it’s all part of the appeal.
“It challenges me and leads me to try new things or diversify my abilities to prepare things in different ways,” she said.
For Sorek, the ability to be a farmer – without the concerns of the market and advertising – was what drew her to the idea.
“When I started it was pretty obvious to me that I wanted to do a CSA box,” she said. “I wanted the connection with the community around, and I wanted to be a farmer... I also didn’t want to buy stuff.
I wanted to grow as much as I can and sell what I grow.”
Sorek said, “if you do a personalized order, you must buy a lot [of produce] and you become half farmer half businessman... I wanted to sell what I grow.”
Chubeza, which operates on about 12.5 acres in Moshav Kfar Bin-Nun, near Latrun, offers either a small box of vegetables weekly for NIS 85 – with 10-11 different types of vegetables, or a large box, for NIS 110, with 14-15 types.
Sorek says they have about 900-950 families who get regular boxes from them – up from 70 or 80 their first year in business. The variety and diversity of the products they offer has grown as well. Throughout the year, members of Chubeza could receive anything from arugula to kohlrabi, celeriac, edamame, okra or Jerusalem artichoke.
“Almost every year we try new crops,” said Sorek. “Sometimes we’re happy with trials and sometimes it doesn’t work. We once tried parsnip – it grew really nicely but it was just a nightmare to dig it out of the ground.
The soil here is very heavy, in England they grow it in more sandy soil. It’s such a long and deep root so just digging it out would take us half a day.”
While they try to be receptive to people’s requests, sometimes it doesn’t work out quite as planned.
“We grew endive for one season by mistake,” she said. “The nursery sent us endive instead of lettuce by mistake, but it was nice to try.”
But in the end, Sorek said, “it was just too weird for people.”
Chubeza is the only CSA in the country that is now facing its second shmita year. This year, Sorek said, the answer is clear: to work under the heter mechira.
“The first [shmita], we had a long conversation and we tried to solve it in many ways,” she said. While there are a variety of rabbinical answers, “there aren’t actually many ways to deal with it for us.”
“In our situation, when you have regular workers – some people who have been with us for years, we can’t tell them to look for another job for a year.”
Sorek said many of their employees are foreign or Palestinian workers, whose visas are tied to their employment.
“We also have a commitment to our customers, we can’t tell people for a year just don’t eat vegetables. We look for a solution because we have a commitment to people,” she said. “We talked to the Chief Rabbinate and to the Institute for Mitzvot Connected to the Land of Israel; they all said at the end of the day you don’t have other options.”
Maggie Rosenberg, the founder of Maggie’s Garden, started her organic farm six years ago, just missing the last shmita year in the cycle.
“I always had a vegetable garden and then I just enlarged it,” she said. “I started off with sprouts in the garden, started tilling and working and doing all of that... I used to grow vegetables for my family and now I grow vegetables for more families.”
While she started by only selling produce she grew herself in Nataf, a small communal settlement outside Jerusalem, Rosenberg realized that her customers wanted more than she could provide.
“I got to have enough produce that I was doing a weekly basket, but pretty quickly I understood that people who want to buy from us – it’s kind of difficult if you don’t have a wide variety of things that you grow.”
But by partnering with other small organic farmers, Rosenberg realized she could get them “the direct proceeds, without going through supermarkets and merchants... and my customers get the freshest best stuff they can get.”
A regular basket costs NIS 80 and includes 9-11 types of vegetables, while a large basket is NIS 110 and has 13-15 varieties, and more of them.
Maggie’s Garden also offers additions of fruits, sprouts, legumes, breads, eggs, oils and more. She is always experimenting with new products; the latest offerings include moringa, nopalitas and purple green beans.
Rosenberg estimates about 300 families buy weekly orders from them, though they certainly struggled over the summer war with Gaza.
“We had a lot of worried customers, or customers who had wounded or killed family members,” she said. “Everyone’s normal way of buying was not the same, it was very irregular and low.”
While Nataf was not particularly affected by rocket fire, “we do have quite a few growers from the South, and... they were very much harmed – also in the field but also we had problems with stuff coming and communication and getting here. Roads were closed and lines were out – we couldn’t be in touch.”
“Particularly at a time like that,” Rosenberg said, “it was very important to be strong with them and stay and give them the gas they needed and it wasn’t easy.”
And while shmita began just a couple weeks ago, she regularly leaves portions of her land fallow in line with the permaculture techniques the farm follows.
“The way that I work land-wise, I give every piece of land his rest, every year, all of the time,” she said.
“I do seed cycles, so I grow in a certain way that doesn’t take too much advantage of the land.”
When it comes to the religious aspect, however, Rosenberg says she “goes completely according to what I’m told by the Chief Rabbinate,” and is abiding by the heter mechira. “I have customers that it’s really important to them, so I can’t go in the gray areas.”
Elizabeth Corlin has been receiving deliveries from Maggie’s Garden for about five months, for both lofty reasons and laziness.
“One, the concept of the CSA I support,” she said, listing the reasons she joined. “Two, it’s organic, and three, I can order it all online and it’s delivered and I don’t have to worry about it.”
Corlin makes her own personalized order, but that doesn’t stop her from getting ingredients that she hasn’t heard of.
“I totally try to try new things,” she said. “I like the fact that when I do my shopping, it also involves quite a bit of googling. Sometimes it’s a Hebrew word I just don’t know or sometimes it’s that I’ve never heard of it or it’s a different name to what I know it by.”
At the Kaima farm on the Beit Zayit moshav outside Jerusalem, the fruits and vegetables they grow are almost a secondary goal.
Founded last year by a group of social workers, educators and aspiring farmers, the organic farm serves as a workplace for high school dropouts, who are referred to them by the Welfare Ministry. Some have been in trouble with the police, while others are addicted to drugs, and most come from poor backgrounds.
“We wanted to create a place where we can give children who are not going to school a sense of something that is real,” said Yoni Yefet Reich, one of the farm's founders. “Usually these kinds of kids are against any kind of treatment; they’ve been to social workers and to therapists... instead we use the organic farming as a tool and we use the whole idea of employment as a tool.”
At any given time the farm has 20-30 teens working there, and just as many adults, all of whom are educators.
“We want to gain some type of trust between them and adults, and we want them to gain the ability or the possibility to start being more curious about things,” he said.
Kaima will be operating under a heter mechira for the shmita year, which will enable them to continue their work both farming and educating.
Yefet Reich said the CSA model is a perfect fit for Kaima, which is the Aramaic word for sustainability.
“We grow 20 or 30 kinds of vegetables at the same time and each one needs a different treatment,” he said. “You have a lot of things that you can study with the kids together, each one of the vegetables.”
“It’s a model that makes you grow all the time, it’s very dynamic,” said Yefet Reich. Another benefit, he said, is that selling the vegetables to consumers – they have about 150 regular customers – helps make their NGO “a little bit more self-sustainable.”
Like traditional CSAs, Kaima offers a smaller basket for NIS 85 a week, or a bigger one for NIS 110 a week. Right now, Yefet Reich said, 38% of the farm’s income comes from the CSA basket sales, and the rest from donations and government subsidies.
Once the kids are more adjusted to working on the farm, the educators will often work with them on individualized study and projects.
“This really gives them the opportunity to see that there’s other ways to study,” he said. “They don’t have to hate it.”