Twenty-eight-year-old Oakland resident Adam Edell adheres to the strict Jewish dietary laws known as kashrut, refrains from work on the Sabbath, and attends synagogue regularly.
But there's something else Edell cares passionately about: He's fed up with what he calls "the Hollywood tomato" gilded with its "waxy sheen" that "tells us nothing of blossom end rot, of catfacing, of cracking, of sunscald, of leaf-curl, of any other myriad challenges" it faces on its journey from seed to flower to fruit. Rather than shiny, sterilized veggies, he wants "food with personality" even if that locally, organically obtained personality means frost-bitten, bug-ridden produce once in a while. Most importantly, Edell believes his Judaism and his disgust with corporate food production go together like matzo and Passover.
And that's where Nigel Walker, pitchfork in hand, strolls into the picture. Walker is farmer-in-chief at Eatwell Farm, a Community Supported Agriculture project in Dixon, sixty-two miles northeast of Oakland. Established in 1993, Eatwell represents one effort in a national movement of CSAs farms that invite locals to buy shares of a crop ahead of time, giving the farmer community support and a stable market. That way, customers share in the risks and benefits of these almost exclusively organic and environmentally conscious operations, which let the farms produce larger quantities of the kind of food Edell craves.
Walker's 65-acre farm (he calls it "a big garden") delivers boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables this week's, he says, will be stocked with strawberries, heirloom tomatoes, plums, red onions, summer squash, and more to thirty-plus drop sites around the Bay Area from San Francisco's Castro to Vallejo. "Farming's a good way to lose a lot of money, but this farm is a labor of love and I'm happy every spring," Walker says. "A lot of families depend on us to deliver good produce."
One of those drop sites, organized by Edell, is Chochmat Halev, a South Berkeley synagogue that, according to fellow temple member and CSA collaborator Lisa Schacter-Brooks, draws more than two hundred people to Friday night services. "I'd say it's 98 percent left-of-center," she says, "a community of very open-minded people." That, she says, translates to an environmental consciousness, which is why she and Edell consider their efforts more than just a glorified drop site. "We believe in mindfulness towards food, and we believe that's in line with Judaism. Just look at the minutiae in the laws surrounding how we as Jews eat the kosher laws. What you put into your body matters."
"For me, what is considered kosher can be expanded to how we treat our animals," Edell adds. "I don't believe, for example, that feedlots are kosher."
These principles led Schacter-Brooks to contact Tuv Ha'Aretz, an international coalition of Jewish CSAs there are eight to date, as far-flung as Long Island, St. Paul, and Israel. Tuv Ha'Aretz, Edell explains, is Hebrew for "good for the land," and the phrase embodies the pair's interest in Judaism-inspired sustainable agriculture. Together, they and several others have grown the Chochmat Halev drop-off into a full-fledged operation with 33 subscribers to date, representing 55 people. They distribute a newsletter, hold a meet-the-farm sleepover in Dixon once per season, and throw weekly food parties on delivery days. "My hope is that the CSA and the programs it engenders bring to its members a renewed sense of gratitude and awe for the natural world," Edell says.
The operation at Chochmat Halev is still young, however, and all the kinks haven't yet been ironed out. Schacter-Brooks wonders, for example, whether the relatively low enrollment their goal is to sign up half the temple is due to some folks already getting fresh produce from farmers' markets and being reluctant to change gears. Edell hopes to make next season's sign-up easier, and also would like to see their drop site provide meats that are both kosher and environment-friendly, a notoriously difficult combination to find, even around here. He has plenty of additional ideas: "I'm going to put on a composting workshop soon," he says, grinning grubbily.
For these and like-minded folks, the effort is an expression of their religious identity. And although farmer Walker isn't Jewish, he, too, believes his work reflects his values, which include his emphasis on living green. "We're just trying to walk the talk," he says.