Interview: Local Roots with Wen-Jay Ying

Interview: Local Roots with Wen-Jay Ying

September 07, 2016

I think food, as much as it’s a beautiful thing it’s a trendy thing right now. Everyone will always like pictures on Instagram of food. Everyone wants to talk about farm to table. But it’s also a heartbreaking and really serious topic. Right? Why is it that there has to be a movement around local food? And why isn’t that just a way of life? Why is it so hard to get good food? How come no one cooks anymore?

We sat down with Wen-Jay Ying, founder of New York City's Local Roots CSA (community-supported agriculture), to talk local farming, community and the current state of food.

We absolutely love Local Roots CSA. Our founder Anne, first met Wen-Jay at the Good Work Institute (Etsy.org) and fell in love with her mission, and since, the delicious deliveries of food she's received. Craftspring has become real advocates of CSA living and lifestyle. So much so, we've collaborated with her to make our own "On the Farm" collection. 

Anne & Wen-Jay at the 61 Local CSA drop-off location 

Craftspring: How do you address, regardless of cultural food choices, the huge discrepancy in the cost of food? Even if a particular sub-culture doesn’t eat kale, kale might not be available to them even if they want to try it. Is Local Roots interested in educating the public about food choices? And how?

Wen-Jay: We have to make well-grown food more accessible through all different facets in a New Yorker’s life: financially is the most obvious. For Local Roots NYC, I believe it will be a blend between having an option for people in our CSA to actually give back to their community and donate a certain amount of food or a certain amount of money to subsidize someone else’s share. I also hope that larger businesses can give back and offer to subsidize people’s shares. Gentrification is an issue in many communities throughout New York City and I believe food can be a way to bring us all together and a way for new businesses coming into a neighborhood to become interwoven in a community rather than taking over a community.

Making something affordable doesn’t necessarily make it accessible, though. We have to educate people on how to cook an ingredient that might not be common in one’s culture, we have to show how to make quick meals for the busy schedules of New Yorkers, and we have to show why good food is worth changing your eating and buying habits. Lastly, we need to celebrate food to make healthier food choices more fun.

So donation or scholarship based. Because you have a share of the farm in a sense? A share of the crop?

Yeah. I want to do a “give-back” share, where you are sharing your own CSA bounty with someone else. Also I think there are other ways we can do this by having fundraisers every so often. I’ve thought about having monthly dance parties that help raise money to subsidize CSA shares. People care and want to give back, it’s just about finding the easiest way for it to happen. Even our farmers have expressed great interest in being part of this kind of initiative.

But there does have to be education around this.

That’s a huge problem…When processed food is more affordable than real food then what is the impetus for poor people to buy real food?

People want real food; it just feels like a challenge finding it and then knowing how to use it. So it’s easier to go out to eat or buy prepared meals than to cook. Our culture in America right now doesn’t encourage people to cook at home. Most people who are in their 30s or younger are teaching themselves how to cook as if it’s a lost art. But our grandparents all cooked the way we are trying to re-train ourselves now—they cooked with only fresh ingredients, preserved food for the colder months, made us eat around a dinner table. I know wonderful home chefs and our CSA members always amaze me with their talents, but I think there is a huge percentage of our population, especially in NYC where there are so many restaurant options, that use their kitchen as storage rather than a work station for meals.

Yeah, it took some of my friends forever to learn how to cook anything. I feel, especially in NYC, you don’t ever have to cook a meal in your life if you don’t want to.

That’s why I think the celebration around sharing in the cooking experience and eating together is vital. You can just get take-out and sit in front of the TV and that’s your meal, that’s one thing. But if you can make it part of your personal culture where you and your friends get together, drink some wine, cook together, and share a meal, that’s a whole experience that is beyond just eating food out of necessity.

Taking it back to food as culture, food as life versus food as basic sustenance.

Exactly.

I think that’s the most important part. I think food, as much as it’s a beautiful thing it’s a trendy thing right now. Everyone will always like pictures on Instagram of food. Everyone wants to talk about farm to table. But it’s also a heartbreaking and really serious topic. Right? Why is it that there has to be a movement around local food? And why isn’t that just a way of life? Why is it so hard to get good food? How come no one cooks anymore? Why is it easier to sell someone a Coach bag than it is to sell them a week’s worth of groceries? That sucks, right?

You can do serious education around it, which I’ve done before. Everything we do has some educational component, but you have to make it really fun because no one wants to feel depressed that the world is horrible and that no one cares about where their food comes from anymore. They want to feel and be reminded about what’s good. You know, that’s what the CSA is. You come here to the Local Roots CSA pick up and everyone is always so happy to talk to the person next to them about the produce and what they’re going to cook. They might do small talk about some subway line that’s not working or share a nostalgic food story from childhood. I don’t think its specific to CSAs, I think its just anything that has an element of community being social and something tangible, like touching food, and bright colors. I think you just need that celebration and enjoyment together as a group to be reminded of what’s good in life.

It’s funny, I’m a little jealous now because we have the delivery version of your CSA and don’t come to the pick-up locations!  Getting the food seasonally, it has been so exciting to see all the different vegetables, and to think, “oh, this is what we should be eating now, this is in-season locally,” and then “oh, no! How do we cook this!” I have never cooked so many beets in so many interesting ways—roasted, pureed—so much fun and also a kind of challenge, “ok, who is going to cook this tonight,” Its nice.

If you get our CSA delivered, you can still have that social experience! Come to one  of our parties or a farm trip, or just invite friends over to share your CSA bounty with them and cook together. Trust me, if you have food, people will come and always be happy.

You’re right about learning first hand about seasonality through the CSA. That’s why I love what I do, it’s so multi-faceted. Joining a CSA isn’t just the food, it’s beyond the social interactions and more than eating healthier. You learn so much about seasonality, our local food system, what certain vegetables are, how to cook, living sustainably, a little bit about how food is grown, etc just by being part of the CSA.

That’s a great idea

So there is one thing, you talked about the manufactured stuff. Did you see the seamless ads? “cooking is so New Jersey” or “avoid cooking like you avoid Time Square.” We have this sub-culture, the people who want it really easy right now...the instant gratification, so no one is cooking and Seamless is so easy. But there are also those people who are participating in the CSA, who are carrying on the movement…Right? Do you see that? Or is this something you really struggle with?

I kind of go back and forth about how I feel about that. When the CSA season is happening, obviously I’m around my people, it makes sense to me, but in our off season (spring time) we are ramping up to get members for the new season, that’s when I feel a little skeptical about my own business and very doubtful that people care about this stuff. But I don’t think we are going to win everyone over. Sometimes it’s a scheduling thing, sometimes people just don’t care or don’t want it, which is fine, that’s their life.

I think the more poignant question is how do we reach the people who want to participate in a CSA, (eat locally and sustainably), but don’t know how and help them feel that its easier than they think it is. I think people put up obstacles in their mind, it’s almost like a conditioned response, they are so use to something being hard. We always over-complicate things, so how do you show them to get to point A from point B, you just have to walk. Everything is so complicated in life now but it doesn’t have to be like that.

Cooking is such an empowering thing to learn. How to prepare good food for you, for other people…What are the things you do in order to make it easier to use the produce and other groceries that people are receiving?

We have recipes every week. Very often we have samples that our staff make using that week’s Local Roots CSA produce along with a recipe on how to prepare it at home. So you can taste something, and actually make it yourself. I also want to do more videos. That’s something that if I had a million dollars, I’d probably invest it in to making cooking videos.

For me the delivery has been amazing. Because you deliver I can do it.

I wish that there were ways in those scenarios where we don’t have one on one interactions with our customers to have more culinary education, beyond the recipes we offer. But it’s kind of hard to do. So we are starting a cooking club. Which is really just cooking as a group, like a book club, but you just cook together. So that should be fun. And then on our Instagram, I post pictures of something we make and will give basic directions on how to make it.

When does the next season start?

The Fall CSA begins Sept 13 through the first week of December. We take 1 week off for Thanksgiving but in that week, we offer a Pop Up Thanksgiving CSA with everything you need for the holidays: turkeys, vegetables, pie, etc.

How does the CSA work, do you pay all at once?

You pay all at once, for three months of food. Veggies are $225, fruits are $85 just to give two examples. Then you go to your CSA location, usually a neighborhood bar or cafe, and pick up the food each week that you ordered in the beginning of the season.

But you’re getting the best of the best

It is honestly the best produce you can get in New York because it’s harvested the night before and brought right to you here in the city. We don’t store produce for more than 1 day but 80% of the food we distribute comes straight from the farm and then directly to our members all in under 12 hours—most other services that sell local food keep their products for a few days in cold storage and foods that are imported sit a lot longer, but we want to maintain the integrity of our farmer’s work and bring our members food with the most flavor and nutrients.

I also discovered the most amazing meats through the CSA.  When I first looked at your website, I was in awe of the variety of monthly subscriptions that were available, its not just vegetables and fruit. It’s literally everything you could want. How did you choose to expand?

We are essentially a CSA reimagined. We are unique in that we are a full diet CSA in New York. Which means not just vegetables, but all of your weekly groceries from local, sustainable producers at the Local Roots CSA. It didn’t start out with that many options. I think we had around 5 options the first year, and it keeps growing based on either 1) farmers that I meet that wanted to sell to us and so we will create a share for them (which has happened a lot). Or 2) we ask people all the time, what else do you want. Its funny most people are like  “no, its fine,” they don’t realize what else they want or what else they could get. Sometimes I find new products to offer based on people I meet, if I really like the farmer or producer and their products are really awesome, I’ll create an entire CSA share just for their products to offer our customers.

Has the bread worked well?

Yeah, the bread is awesome, the bread is soooo good.  

You get it from a variety of places?

We go through two different bakeries.  One, Orwashers, in the Upper East Side, do more what they call "immigrant", but its mostly Jewish breads. And then there is Hot Bread Kitchen, which is based in Harlem. They are a social impact business, and do a lot more ethnic breads like naans and things like that.

So my CSA farm is in Pennsylvania, not New York. When I read that I was sad and thinking, “oh my farm is in PA! I wish I was on Tuesday schedule so I was a New York farm. Isn’t that funny? But I know PA is close too, and is probably closer than the NY farm.

Well, actually this NY farm is really close (Blooming Hill Farm). But there are upstate NY farms that can be 5-6 hours away and a farm in Pennsylvania that’s just 2-3 hours away.

Wen-Jay at Blooming Hills Farm

Wen-Jay at Blooming Hills Farm

In a sense, you can work with any farms in a 100 mile radius?

The loose definition for local that’s been used a lot is somewhere you can drive there and back within a day—comfortably. So 250 miles usually.

So it could be Boston?

Yeah, it could be Boston but interestingly enough, many farmers from that region do not come down to NYC which is why we don’t work with farmers from MA. A lot of farm to table is about logistics.  

The farmers from Massachusetts don’t come down to NY?

I haven’t found any farmers. I’ve been trying to find farmers that don’t have markets in NY already to give more farmers the chance to sell in NYC because it’s the biggest market you can get. But its been really hard, because if you don’t already come here, its either because the logistics are really challenging, or its because you are scared to come to NY, like physically scared to drive in NYC which happens a lot.

Because the farmers use their own trucks?

A lot of farmers just don’t feel comfortable driving in NYC. So for example, our mushroom farmer, his first year selling to NYC, they actually hired one of our staff to drive in the city for them.

Like a truck pass off?

Yeah, because people from his town in PA would only want to drive to the border and wouldn’t go into the city. So even those logistics are interesting, convincing farmers that they should come to the city.

On average, what are the sizes of the farms that you are working with?

They are all pretty small. Because they are the farmers that are growing naturally and sustainably, which means they have to pay really close attention to their land and they can't do that if the farm is too big. Also they are all family farms.

And have they been around for multiple generations?

I’d say this farm, Blooming Hill Farm, has been around for two generations, Travis and his father. The other ones are pretty new farms. They have been farming for the last five years or so, but a lot of our other farms for dairy or other products like that are either around for 10 or 15 years, but they are all family farms.

Oh, so they are all new farmers?

Yeah, a lot of them are pretty new. But new farmers in the sense that they have been farming on other people’s lands for years, but only in the past couple of years have they bought their own land and are farming on it.

So they were farming other peoples land? Wow, that’s incredible.

Yeah, its also really important to find farmers that have a lot of experience because you don’t want to promise all this food to people and with a farmer with inexperience, a lot of things can go wrong especially with growing sustainably.

Yeah, this year they lost the apricot crop...right?

A lot of farmers have been losing their stone fruits, like peaches and nectarines, because of the long winter we had. The flowers of the trees fell off before they could become fruits. We were lucky that ours didn’t, they got helicopters. Orchards will sometimes hire helicopters or huge fans to stimulate the air on the ground so it doesn’t freeze.

We tried to make jams this summer. But the apricot orchard was barren. There was no fruit. Isn’t that incredible? They had no crop. A full apricot crop in upstate New York was gone.

That’s because it was a really long winter. This is part of that “full lifestyle experience” I was talking about earlier by joining a CSA. You learn through the CSA about seasonality: that something that happened months ago, can completely affect the crop and its chances of getting down to the consumer,  and someone’s livelihood too—those farmers depended on that crop for income.

Do the farmers get paid ahead of time? Like what if the stone fruit didn’t come? Would they have gotten paid for that?

If they didn’t have stone fruit, we probably would have just found something else they have. And actually they prefer that, because it kind of allows them not to have to budget everything. Sometimes if they get paid all at one time, they might use it all for seed money and its harder to budget. That’s why farmers have to have multiple markets. Some markets that give them all the money up front, so they can get seeds and all the equipment ahead of time. And then there are markets like our Local Roots CSA, where they are guaranteed money each week.

So they have guaranteed money each week?

Yeah, I mean, its not done in contract. But we do Gentle(wo)men’s agreements saying that we are committed to their farm for the entire season. We maintain very loyal relationships with our farmers—many of them have been in our network of Local Roots CSA farms since we started 5 years ago.

With Taproot Farm, because this is the second year with them and we have a really close relationship we have given them a deposit ahead of the season, so hard money for seeds, new equipment, etc.

That’s cool.

Can you give me some local roots numbers? How many people work for you?

I never know how to say that. We have 7 part time workers, but most of them work like 4 hours a week. Otherwise there are 2 other girls who help me.

That’s not a lot of people for so much work! How many farms do you work with?

So we support 10 local farms and about 20 small batch producers in NYC. And we have about 650-675 households that eat Local Roots CSA.

That’s awesome.

And then there are the places we use as our pick-up locations. About 15 small businesses in the city.

I think that’s such a great collaborations. It’s so cool for the businesses, especially at this time of the night, kind of like happy hour.

Is there a question you would like to answer? What’s your favorite vegetable? Do you even like vegetables? Wouldn’t that be great if you were like, “actually, I don’t eat vegetables. I love bread and butter!!”

I never ate vegetables when I was younger. You can’t make a kid love their veggies by feeding them bok choy and forcing them to eat it. I would eat my veggies, and then go to the bathroom and spit it out.

I had to eat French cauliflower boiled to death

Ya, that’s disgusting. I think up until 8 years ago, I never ate vegetables.

So what happened? Where did this dream come from?

I did Americorp for a year at a food justice non-profit and then worked for an upstate orchard setting up markets and relationships for them in NYC. They had a bad growing season, I got laid off, but then I was left in a position of knowing exactly what I wanted to do with my life but no one in the entire world had this job position for me. I started my own business so I could do the work I wanted to do. I was pretty young then, naive and hopeful, which was probably a huge reason why I didn’t have too many questions about starting a business and just started it.

I was just thinking this morning actually, how amazing and fun it is it to be a business owner. There are times when I am so stressed, but then there are moments when you look at everything around you moving in an ecosystem you created—like a choreographed dance. No one ever tells you, no one can ever explains to you when you decide to start a business how much of an impact you can have on other people and other places around you. And there is no way to talk about this in a non-egotistical way…

But we’ve had these two high school girls work with us, we did a class with them three years ago about food, and then they wanted to volunteer with us. Two years later, one of them is working with us for her summer job and she will continue to through her senior year. They learned so much through this process, not just gaining work experience, but about food. They both come from neighborhoods that are food deserts so when they are excited about liking new vegetables or I see them talking to members about how they would prepare the CSA produce, it’s a complete moment of bliss and clarity for myself. It’s amazing and humbling to know I have had an impact on their lives.

Even when you look at the the basics of business relationships with our farmers and producers—that fact that my ideas and passions have created a food system that plays an integral part in supporting the lives of our farmers/producers and their families is amazing to me. In terms of having a small business in NYC, I feel honored to have all these little pop up food markets that happen every week, connecting people with good food and a cultural experience. The Local Roots CSA is part of their diet and lifestyle, people raise their children on our produce. To live your life outside of just yourself—it feels very special to me.

You’re creating something real and palpable.

It’s so hard to understand the effect of that until you stop for a second and look around, and when you do it’s the most beautiful thing. You essentially create your own little world.

So you’d do it again?

I don’t know what else I would do. I would probably compromise and find some other work, but I wouldn’t be as happy probably. My work is my passion and an outlet for creativity as well as a way to share my value system: it’s forced me to grow into the person I am now.

So you envisioned the future of Local Roots, grounded in NYC?

Yeah, I really took to heart a workshop through our Etsy.Org business class with Judy Wicks about not scaling so quickly and often, but scaling deeper in your own roots and your own community. So I would much rather focus on the customers we have now, and strengthen that community a lot more, than just having exponential growth with as many customers as possible.

We love getting our CSA bag, and I feel like I want to tell all my neighbors to sign up! I feel you’re working on it, your members are your best advocates.  

We don’t spend any money on marketing or advertisement. So we actually rely on people to talk to other people about it!!

Tell all your neighbors!

Its pretty amazing what you are doing. The impact..I loved how throughout this interview, everyone was coming up to you saying hello and hugging you. The community is really tangible.

Every time I come here (61 Local), I’ve been managing this CSA site since we started 5 years ago, it’s such a nice feeling. The CSA pick up is only 2-3 hours out of a 12 hour work day but is like the final, epic movement to an orchestral piece. It’s amazing to see kids growing up each year in the CSA. A lot of them think all their vegetables come from me—one girl even asked her dad to dress up like me, “the vegetable woman” for halloween—wear a flannel shirt, an orange hat, and hold vegetables.  Funny enough, that same day this dad sent me a photo of this halloween costume, I was actually wearing that same exact outfit! I need to start wearing a more diverse uniform to the CSA.

web: http://localrootsnyc.org/

Join the CSA: http://localrootsnyc.org/join-our-csa/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/localrootsnyc/

 

Take a few minutes to watch this fantastic video and learn more about Local Roots and what it means to be a CSA. 

Growing A CSA: Local Roots NYC from Local Roots NYC on Vimeo.




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