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This Week in Jewish Farming: The community thing

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Ben Harris still talks with his hands, even though he's no longer a New Yorker. (Cara Paiuk)

Ben Harris still talks with his hands, even though he’s no longer a New Yorker. (Cara Paiuk)

Folks in the food scene love to talk about how farms build community. It’s a trope that always makes me roll my eyes a little, both because sardonicism is generally my default setting, but also because I’m skeptical that any kind of thick communal ties are likely to arise between people who happen to shop at the same farmers market or subscribe to the same Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. I also find it a bit depressing to think we now have to engineer something that for most of human history just happened.

Whatever it is, somewhere along the line, I started using this language myself. When my parents’ synagogue asked me to come give a talk about the farm, I went on a little riff about the sweet Jewish couple who ran the small family farm in Vermont and the epic Shabbat dinners they hosted for a motley crew of locals and random itinerants. I heedlessly issued invitations to come visit the farm with highfalutin talk about closing the “psychic gap” between field and fork. And I made much of the fact that running a CSA was a values decision, not merely a marketing preference.

I remain somewhat dubious that these kinds of bonds amount to something deserving of the title community, but it’s undeniable that there’s a gravitational pull to what we’re doing. When I decided to sell my members a weekly share of landlord Joe’s farm-fresh eggs, the shares sold out in hours. When I was looking for some worthy local nonprofit to whom I could donate my market surplus, a single phone call had a woman in an SUV at the farm the same day. Almost weekly, someone stops by the market stall to tell me they read my blog posts or met my parents somewhere or saw the article on me in the Hartford Courant. I’ve been invited to speak on panels and had my photo hung in a gallery of Connecticut Jewish farmers. Even as I’m writing this, an email popped up with a link to a blog post about a flower chat I had with a market customer last week.

There’s an energy around the farm right now that seems magnetic. I don’t know that all this equals the vaunted “community” we’re supposedly so hungry to build. My ties to these people, and they to the farm, are for the most part tenuous and thin. And maybe expanded connectivity is inevitable when you move to a new place and start a new business.

Either way, I’ve never had the experience of putting so many balls in the air, let alone seeing so many of them take flight. It has all felt so effortless — not farming, that part is really hard. But the connection part. That side has been a breeze. Perhaps it’s just easier to extend a hand when there’s something delicious to eat in it.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.

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From the annals of Jewish farming: A 1933 report from the Jewish Agricultural Society pegged the worldwide Jewish farmer population at 750,000.

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