We think of farms as massive multi-acre enterprises, such is the pervasive image that corporate farming gives us. Ben Stein and Alicia Brown are entering their third season of providing fresh produce to a growing customer base, and their business has been growing unexpectedly well. And they’re doing it on one acre of land.
Edible Uprising Farm was born in 2019 as a passionate partnership between Ben Stein and Alicia Brown. Both of them have long pursued sustainable attitudes and practices where food and agriculture are concerned and wanted to turn that into a project that could income-sustain them as well. Although they envisioned a rural environment for their farming, they took an offer of an acre of land in the more urban Troy, NY.
“It has worked out very well here,” says Stein. “We were unsure about it – I’m from rural Vermont and always farmed in places where there’s not a big population around. We didn’t know if it would work on the edge of a large urban center. But it has been amazing. And we’ve been able to give people access to food they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get.”
He received his degree in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems from Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. “I got interested in agriculture because I was interested in food. I was working as a baker at the time, so I was waffling between culinary school and going into agriculture. I ended up with agriculture, and the school was fantastic in the way it exposed me to both conventional and more sustainable farming practices – and I really latched on to the sustainable practices. Then I was lucky enough to work for three farms that prioritized doing things the right way.”
Part of the challenge of selling sustainable, well-grown food in any area is educating a public accustomed to the luscious, less-expensive, flavor-free goods on supermarket shelves. “It can be a tricky sell,” Stein admits. “There are a lot of people in this area who are used to food looking a certain way. But we grow a lot of heirlooms and different types of vegetables. For the most part, people are willing to try things, but there is a part of our customer base that says, ‘I want the red tomato, I want the cucumber that looks like that.’ There’s definitely been an educational component, especially when it comes to teaching about the seasonality of growing food and eating. When it’s early in the spring, we don’t have tomatoes in this climate.”
Community Supported Agriculture is a food investment system wherein people buy shares in a farm before the growing season begins, thus defraying the expenses of planting and growing. As the produce comes in, the farm offers a generous box of goods, typically on a weekly basis. Edible Uprising offered its first CSA shares in 2019. How do they manage on a single acre? “It’s small,” says Stein, “but we do a lot of succession planting. A lot of beds will produce things two, three, maybe even four times a year.”
During their debut year, they sold out of shares in mid-June. Last year, however, was dramatically different. “We had what we’re calling the ‘Covid bump.’ Our business the second year doubled. In March and April last year, nobody wanted to go into the grocery stores, but everybody was looking for a reliable food source, so the CSA was a model that people could get behind.”
Brown came to the subject in a different but parallel manner. While studying Fine Art and Design at the Rhode Island School of Design, her cultural studies led her to what turned out to be the fascinating subjects of environmental sociology and global food systems. Seeking to learn more about sustainable food systems, she began spending time at some of the more enlightened farms in Vermont. It now seems inevitable that she and Stein should cross paths. As they married and pooled their dreams, she became instrumental in creating new ways to market their produce.
“She created our virtual farm stand,” Stein explains. “It’s what allowed last year to be as successful as it was.” This was a website-based storefront that allowed online shopping and payment. “Twice a week, she’d be inside and I’d be out in the field and we’d take an inventory of what we had there. We knew what’s going to go into the CSA boxes, so that wasn’t part of the farmstand inventory. Once we listed what was available on the website, it was just like buying on Amazon. Customers clicked what they wanted, we picked the stuff for them, and we put it out for them at two pickup times, Wednesday and Saturday. We made a contactless pickup station at our farmstand and they came during the designated period and picked it up. There was zero cash involved.”
Although the Edible Uprising farming practices are extremely responsible, using such techniques as limited tilling, crop rotation and cover cropping, drip irrigation, mulching and composting, and, especially a complete avoidance of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, one designation they haven’t sought is “organic.” To enlightened farmers, it’s a dubious honor, compromised as it has been by a US Department of Agriculture ever more in thrall to big agriculture. “If our markets were different,” says Stein, “where we weren’t able to have a direct relationship with our customers, then we might need that sort of label. I don’t place a lot of strength on it. It means something, but it doesn’t mean as much as I would like it to. It’s more important to us to have those direct relationships. They can see what we do and how transparent we are.”
And it helps the community in general when there is responsibly produced food produced, purchased, and consumed in its midst. “Oh, there’s a food system out there that does nothing for the community. There are a lot of layers, and it’s complex. But I think it absolutely needs community-scaled farms and food producers to figure out a healthy alternative, and that’s been really important to us.”
As for Edible Uprising’s future, CSA shares for 2021 have already been offered to previous members, and there was a waiting list large enough to snapped up all of the remaining shares. But you can check the website to see what is available from the farm, particularly when the Virtual Farmstand re-opens.
And there is expansion in the works. “We’ve reached the limit of what we can grow here,” says Stein, “so we’re looking to expand into another property. It’s been a two-person operation these last two years, but we’ve maxed out. We’ll be looking to hire people as we move ahead.”
The last word should go back to the farm, and this inspiring website statement:
We call our farm Edible Uprising because we believe there is an awakening to the importance of ethical, sustainable, chemical-free, climate-centric farming practices. The health of our bodies, our community, our environment, our economy and our climate all flourish when we produce food responsibly and in accordance with natural systems. We strive every day to help drive this movement forward and hope farms like ours becomes the norm in agriculture, not the anomaly.
(B.A. Nilsson, 2/8/21)