The first organic produce to appear in supermarkets was treated like an "unwanted stepchild," left wilting on the shelf, said farmer Stewart Ritchie.
That's changing, as today's consumers buy more pesticide-free fruit and vegetables than ever. But the East Otto farmer still hears: "It looks so big, it looks so nice. Are you sure it's organic?"
From his base in Cattaraugus County, Ritchie is winning not only hearts and minds, but stomachs, one family at a time. More than 200 families have paid from $280 to $450 for a share in the farm's summer harvest, 18 to 22 weeks of organic vegetables available just hours and a few miles from their origin.
It's called "community supported agriculture," and it's caught on across the United States, as people look for alternatives to supermarket produce. Fans say it's the best way to get weekly helpings of impeccably fresh, chemical-free vegetables without doing the work of growing them yourself.
Most supermarket vegetables have been bred for durability, not taste, so they can be shipped thousands of miles and still look good, said East Aurora software salesman Don Mombrea. Hence the "tennis ball" tomato: bounces good, looks great, tastes like a Wilson.
"Corporate agriculture breeds vegetables for 'eye appeal,'" said Mombrea, whose family has had a share in Ritchie's farm for four years. "I'd rather have taste appeal, or nutrition appeal."
Mombrea's family, including his wife Jenny, a 16-year-old daughter and his mother-in-law, take a "small share" in the summer, $300 for 22 weeks. Once a week, they'll drive about 10 minutes to pick up a big shopping bag of vegetables from a drop-off spot at the South Wales Community Center.
Each week they'll get about seven to 11 items, including a choice of fresh herbs. There's usually a substitution item like onions or potatoes, so if they don't like, say, arugula, they can take potatoes instead. "We like to give people as much flexibility as possible," Ritchie said.
In June the bag will probably include lettuce, radishes, scallions and other early-producing crops from the 230 varieties at Ritchie's Native Offerings Farm. In July the Swiss chard should be in, with early carrots, cucumbers and spinach. The bag's contents follow the season, and even if the crows wipe out the sweet corn again, there'll still be plenty of summer squash, peppers and tomatoes in August to make up the difference.
The sheer diversity of the Native Offerings share makes it a pleasure to cook, Mombrea said. Last year brought fingerling potatoes, half a dozen kinds of greens he's never seen before, and other surprises. "It's things you see in nouvelle cuisine, fresh stuff that is really different -- and really good."
At Native Offerings, those crops are grown organically -- without herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers common in modern agriculture. After three years on his land, Ritchie is looking forward to having his farm certified organic in a year or two.
Mombrea said the chemical-free qualities of the vegetables are important to him. "But the main thing for us is the quality of the food, and the price, to tell you the truth. We've compared it, and we're getting an incredible bargain."
In Elba, just north of Batavia, Porter Farms -- certified organic since 1995 -- has offered farm shares for 10 years. Unlike Ritchie's operation, the 600-acre spread mainly grows for commercial accounts like Whole Foods and Bread and Circus, said Michael Porter.
The farm also offers beef raised without hormones, and raises lambs for a largely Muslim clientele, he said.
But the community supported agriculture is an important part of the farm's business, Porter said. Having grown from 100 to 280 families, it's about 15 percent of the farm's business, he said.
"It's really marketing directly to consumers, cutting out the middle man and educating people to where their food comes from," said Porter. "You not only get completely organic vegetables fresher and cheaper than you can get them at Wegmans, you directly support a local family farm, and get a relationship with the people working to feed you."
The Porter Farms system offers one size of share, at $270 for Buffalo-area customers and $300 for Rochester. That works out to about $12.27 a week over the 22-week season for Buffalo customers. The bags average 10 to 12 pounds, with six to eight types of vegetables per bag.
The Porter Farms system relies on customers to transport the weekly bags from the farm to Buffalo-area drop-off points. Each customer makes the trip once or twice a summer, said Paul Senese, a political science professor at the University at Buffalo, who takes a share with his wife Tracy Jarvis, a personal life coach.
Senese said that even with the trip or two the share requires, it's still worth it for quality food. "It tastes different," he said. "You can just tell that it was picked 20 hours ago, instead of a week ago."
The variety has led them to expand their diet, Senese said. "We eat way more tomatoes than we used to eat," he said. Kale and chard make regular appearances now, and vegetable soups as a catch-all dish for odds and ends.
Sometimes it's more vegetables than they can use, and neighbors make use of the rest, Senese said.
The group of people taking shares does change every year, as people decide it's not for them, Ritchie and Porter agreed. Some people can't make it to the weekly pickups during the distribution, or find themselves having to throw stuff out.
Not Therese Forton-Barnes, a Buffalo event planner with a small share at Native Offerings for four years.
If her bag comes with more than she can use, she'll give it away, or cook something and freeze it, she said.
"One of my favorite things is that I don't know what I'm getting each week," she said. So she digs through her bag each week, and consults her cookbooks to exploit the challenge.
Last summer, the bag's bounty prompted her to conquer the celeriac root, a knobby sphere that she would never have bought on her own.
"It's totally wonderful," she said. "I use it with potatoes, in a scalloped potato dish, alternating layers with cheese or potatoes. Or shave it really thin, saute it and put it under a piece of halibut."
She's always tried to eat healthy, so expanding her repertoire comes as a bonus, she said. "It makes you really experiment with other things as opposed to just making all the same dishes that you always make."
Forton-Barnes also signed up for the fruit share, which Ritchie coordinates using products like plums, apples and cherries from other local farmers. She also filled her freezer with half a Native Offerings pig.
"I'm buying things I know are not sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, nothing I don't want to put in my body or my family's body," she said. But it's not only her way of life she's thinking about.
"I just love supporting Stew and Debbie," she said. "It's just great to see the hands our food comes from."
SELECTING THE FRESHEST PRODUCE
Both Native Offerings and Porter Farm have Web sites with lots of information, including prices, schedules and crop lists.
Native Offerings Farm
Organic vegetables in summer and year-round; seasonal local fruit; hormone-free beef and pork
8501 Maples Road
Little Valley, NY 12755
Web site: nativeofferings.com
Distribution sites: Buffalo area, East Aurora, Amherst and East Otto farm
Organic vegetables in summer; hormone-free beef; lamb
P.O. Box 416
5020 Edgerton Road
Elba, NY 14058
Web site: porterfarms.org
Distribution sites: Buffalo area, Grand Island, Amherst, Kenmore, Tonawanda and Elba farm
Good Food Farm
Organic vegetables in summer; free-range eggs, grass-fed goat meat
3818 Rt. 77
North Java, NY 14113
Pick up at farm.