Tri-County Cooperative Produce Market

The produce auction barn

The produce auction barn

Driving through Hightstown, NJ to visit my friend Geoff last month, I saw a sign for a Produce Auction.  The sign proclaimed that the produce auction occurred every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 7pm, but otherwise was inscrutable.  I had to know what this produce auction was. Luckily, it was a little before 6pn on a Friday.  I all but dragged Geoff and Mike with me back to the auction.

One of the trucks at the Tri-County Cooperative Produce Auction

One of the trucks at the Tri-County Cooperative Produce Auction

As it turns out, it was exactly what it sounds like.  A live auction, for produce.  There were a bunch of pickup trucks waiting in line of either side of the auction building, with samples in the back.  Buyers walked around, checking out the produce, getting ready to bid.  The two women in charge, Peggy and Debbie, were very kind to us, even lending me their bidding number.

Alfred Finocchiaro, auctioneer

Alfred Finocchiaro, auctioneer

The auctioneer, a man named Alfred Finocchiaro, knew what every type of squash, every apple was on sight.  He’d rattle off the variety and quantity available, and the bidding started.  Twenty 20lb boxes of medium red tomatoes.  Eight enormous snake squash.  Fifty pound sacks of fresh corn on the cob.  His patter was thunderstorm on a tin roof fast, nearly unintelligible.   A lot of the bidders were old-timers; Alfred knew their bidding number by heart.

The prices were unbelievable:  where else could you get 8 canteloupes for $8?  Or a 20 pound box of perfect, deep red tomatoes for just $12?  Or fifty enormous watermelons for two bucks apice?  Although I was moving to California in just under a week, I was very tempted to round up a bunch of canning jars and start putting up vegetables; peaches in 20 pound flats, tomatoes in 25 pound boxes, 25 pounds of hungarian wax peppers going for $8.  There were new-dug potatoes, squash, apples, melons, and more tomatoes than you could shake a stick at.  Here is the way to be a locavore:  fresh veggies direct from the farmer, cheaper than the organic produce at the farmers’ markets in New York city.  Its certainly much less effort, space, risk and time than growing everything yourself – local food outsourcing in action!

Most of the buyers were farmers themselves, with the occasional restaurateur thrown in.  They were buying for their farm stands:  Silver Queen corn when their corn crop was over for the season, golden Jersey peaches to lure in the drivers, even though they didn’t have an orchard themselves.

Pumpkins for fall

Pumpkins for fall

I was too afraid to bid and wave my card around – I didn’t want to accidentally end up with 10 twenty-pound boxes of tomatoes when I only wanted one.  Nor did I want to bid to win the auction and make sure I got a box of whatever, only to leave the other 19 boxes to languish at too high a price.  So no bidding for me.

Fifty enormous watermelons, $2 each

Fifty enormous watermelons per box, at $2 each

I did manage to get an ginormous watermelon for $2, though, thanks to the intervention of a kindly farmer named George.  George interceded for me with the guy who had bought fifty of the big watermelons, and he agreed to sell me one at cost.  I became the proud owner of a watermelon that must have easily weighed 25 pounds, and was as big as a toddler. And as delicious.

Delicious watermelon!

Delicious watermelon!

The only problem with the market is, I don’t know how much the farmers were able to make, with prices that low.  A couple of times it looked like some lots weren’t going to get any bids before someone stepped in.   A few other times the farmers were getting bids that were too low:  $2.75 for a box, when they needed to get $4.50 just to break even.  Their prices eventually were met, but nothing over the break-even point.  And you’ve got to sell- what can you do with 400 pounds of unsold ripe medium-sized tomatoes?  That’s too few to try and sell to a wholesaler, and if no-one if the produce auction wants them, you’re stuck, and they’ll start going bad pretty quick.

Apparently the market used to be a lot bigger, with six warehouses, and hundreds of boxes of produce, and dairy and meat, too.  A lot of farms have been turned into housing developments, and there’s not as many buyers as there used to be.  Peggy said that this was the only co-operative farmers’ market left in the state, when they used to be all over New Jersey.  Now it’s this one, a small market in South Jersey, and the huge industrial markets in Philly and at Hunts Point in the Bronx.

For all that I like to snark at the New York Times, they beat me to this one.  They wrote about the produce auction and its history, on August 22nd of this year.

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An Apology and a Relocation

Alas, I have fallen victim to the scourge of so many bloggers and so need to apologize for my extended absence.  I have relocated from Brooklyn, NY to Santa Cruz, CA, and have been busy settling into my new environs.

Santa Cruz is postively bursting with local food.  It’s part of the Eat Local!:  Cental Coast division, has a waiting list for several of the five or so local CSA’s, has an abundance of local (within 2 counties) produce in the regular supermarkets, and three awesome farmers’ markets.  It’s a very hippy dippy crunchy earthy local kind of place, which is a total change from the hustle and bustle and citiness of New York.  But I’m adjusting.

Santa Cruz has a crazy growing season:  it’s mild mediterranean climate, and many things grow nearly year-round.  Walking around town, you can easily spot figs, lemons, oranges, limes, and grapefruit hanging off trees, as well as mysterious cherry-like fruits and something that looks kind of like a pomelo.  In the summer, there’s peaches and plums in super-abundance.  Frankly, this place is almost begging for the kind of local fruit-harvesting program not far from the tree is pioneering.

In other news, I’ll be posting more regularly and more scheduled-ly, hopefully every Thursday.  Food issues are still big, even in light of the recent economic panic/meltdown/crisis.  A Minnesota farmer got a MacArthur genius grant!  Exciting things are ahead, folks.

The New York Times Finally Gets it Right

Now, I know I’ve snarked a bit on here about the Times.  It’s an easy target:  the “paper of record” that takes itself so seriously and is always late to the trend-party.  The Times has sometimes failed to grasp the structure of a CSA, claiming that the shareholders were joint owners of the farm.  Perhaps they confused the farm shareholders (also known as subscribers) with company shareholders?  Regardless, the Times’ coverage of the shift in farms and farming hasn’t always been stellar.  It hasn’t been bad, just a bit clueless.

But on one shining day in August, the Time’s New York and Region section was just bursting with well-written articles about farms and local foods that did a great job of talking about what local food means to people and how it works.  Seriously, each area the Times covers (Westchester, New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut) had at least one article about local farms.  Some had two!  It was amazing.

David Hunsinger for the New York Times

Tomatoes being added to CSA boxes; David Hunsinger for the New York Times

The big piece was “After the Harvest, Claiming the Bounty,” a light article about the Honey Brook Organic CSA in Hopewell Township, NJ.  It’s really a nice little introduction to what a CSA is, what the different membership models are, and how the farm and the whole process works, told from the point of view of this semi-skeptical writer.  By the end he’s been won over by the farm, particularly by the sense of connection to his community and the food he’s eating, as well as how much cheaper the farm veggies are to comprable produce from Whole Foods.  The slideshow is rather charming, and a good bare-bones introduction to how CSA’s work.

Most excitingly, there’s lists of local CSA’s for NYC, with farm locations, prices and membership information.  There’s also links to Local Harvest‘s website, the most comprehensive resource for finding local food in the US.  Here are the lists for:

Westchester

Connecticut

New Jersey

Long Island

There were also several other articles in the “In the Region” section, each portraying farms and farming positively.  In Connecticut, “New Milford Makes a Statement:  Farming is Staying,” the town council pased an ordinance preemptively protecting the few reamining farmers from nusciance complaints about the practicalities of farming, including early morning machinery and barnyard smells.  Calling it a “right to farm” measure, the ordinance

cautioned home-owning arrivistes that this is farm country, son, though it put it a little more formally. “Agriculture is a significant part of the town of New Milford’s heritage and a vital part of the town’s future,” the preamble read.

“New Milford is making a statement that they support agriculture, that they support the farming industry, which is not a position a lot of communities take,” said Jeremy Schulz, who farms 200 acres of corn, tomatoes, pumpkins and other vegetables that he and his wife, Willow, sell from a stand on Route 7.

This is really great:  the Times is spotlighting small farmers and local food and taking it seriously, and small towns are being pro-active about preserving the ability of farmers to farm.  Whether you’re coming at this from the local food side, or want to preserve rural character and charm or enhance food security,  or feel at “farming is part of the American character”, or heck, even share the “frivolous lawsuits are ruining America,” viewpoint, this is great news.

It’s because of developments like this that more and more peole are thinking about working at a small farm, or even starting one themselves, like Josh Levine above, in this article, another from the same day about local farming .  It’s supportive actions by town councils that really makes local farming possibe, rather than prohibiting noise or chickens or what-have-you.

It lets people like the Villano family, in this article, who have a market garden on their property in Lebanon, Conneticut, consider getting a cow.  More importantly, it lets the people at Local Farm in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, maintain a working cow farm and teach cow newbies the ins and outs of dairying, preserving a vast amount of agricultural knowledge.

The White Hart's own herd of beef cattle

The White Hart's own herd of beef cattle

And having local working farms of course provides the produce and meats for restaurants that feature local foods, like the White Hart, in Salisbury, CT, profiled in this article.  While these restauranteurs actually bought their own beef farm, that’s a bit more in-depth than most people go.  In general, restaurants that feature local foods, with their steady, bulk ordering, can provide a crucial source of reliable revenue to the small-time local farmer.

All in all, a great day for both the local farming movement and the New York Times.  Well done!

Fruit Harvesting in the City

Free peaches in Santa Cruz, CA

Free peaches in Santa Cruz, CA

I’ve learned about several more urban fruit harvesting groups since my first post on the topic back in March, and my excited discovery of a prolific mulberry tree on my block in June.The charming and thoughtful Sage turned me on to another urban foraging group, this one in Portland, Oregon.

Carly of Urban Edibles leading a edible plant walk in Portland, OR

Urban Edibles is a collaborative, community based project to make good use of the abundant urban fruit trees and other food sources that would otherwise be underutilized. As their website states, “Urban Edibles is a cooperative network of wild food foragers. By creating awareness of what is in our neighborhoods, we hope to re-establish the connection between people, environment and food.”

They way they do this is really cool: their website functions as a community database, where anyone can add a source of wild food, or search by category, ranging from acorns to walnut trees, with everything from cherries to dill to hops to grapes to mangoes in between. There’s a guide to the ethics of harvesting from (potentially) private property, and a wiki. The Urban Edibles people lead regular community scouting missions and some guided identification walks. The best part, is that all of these food sources are also searchable by location on a well-done map

Another very awesome group I just learned about is Toronto’s not far from the tree, organized by Laura Reinsborough, which harvests fruit from trees in the Toronto.

Volunteers picked over 100 pounds of apricots on July 21

not far from the tree ensures that Toronto’s fruit doesn’t go to waste. When fruit tree owners can’t harvest their bounty, we dispatch teams of volunteers to harvest it for them. One third goes to the fruit tree owners, another third goes to the volunteers for their labour, and the final third is distributed (by bicycle or cart) to community organizations in the neighbourhood who can make good use of the fresh fruit.

2008 is our first full season of fruit harvesting, beginning in the neighbourhood of Ward 21/St. Clair West. After the fruit tree owners and volunteers split 2/3 of the harvest, we donate the remaining 1/3 to food programs in the neighbourhood. In Ward 21, fresh fruit is delivered to NaMeRes and Wychwood Open Door. As we expand, we hope to become a network of neighbourhood-based fruit tree initiatives around the city, with our combined efforts encompassing education, training, mapping, preserving, and celebrating.

So far this year they have picked an astonishing 1340 pounds of fruit that would otherwise have gone to waste, just from the one neighborhood of Ward 21 and St. Claire West. Unpicked, lots of fruit just falls to the ground to rot.

And they have beautiful photos!

Some cherries from the July 2 pick

Some cherries from the July 2 pick

Picking pears on August 21.  Photo by Clayton Turner

Picking pears on August 21. Photo by Clayton Turne

All of the fruit looks superb, and those volunteers look like they’re having lots of fun.

The benefits of this kind of organization are really kind of hard to overstate.

  • Community food programs, like homeless shelters get beautiful fresh fruit.
  • The owners, who may be busy or elderly, get their fruit harvested, in exchange for not far from the tree keeping two thirds of the harvest.
  • The volunteers get to keep one third of the harvest.

On a more macro level, everyone involved learns a little bit more about where their food comes from, and what a ripe apricot looks like, the most effective cherry-harvesting methods, or how delicious a fresh pear can be. You learn to look at your neighborhood with fresh eyes, knowing that many of the trees have an edible bounty.

Moreover, this is a great way to build community: the tree owners meeting the organizers and the volunteers, people interacting with the food programs and the homeless shelters, and explaining to curious passers-by that this tree being harvested is actually an apricot tree, overflowing with ripe apricots. As I learned when I was harvesting mulberries on my block in Brooklyn, people love to come up and ask what you’re doing, or tell you the story of their grandma’s mulberry tree. The people in not far from the tree have met a lot of their neighbors on their harvests and scouting missions, and they’re the richer for it. And I can’t wait for their map to go live!

Back in Action

I’m back, after much traveling and many adventures, with a surprising amount of maps and local foods goodness involved. More about that will be up soon, as well as my commentary on a lot of food-related news.

In the meantime, one of my first stops when I got back to the city was the Grand Army Plaza farmers’ market, where there was a super-abundance of delicious things to eat. Pastries, peaches, nectarines, pork, wine, cheese – it was stupendous.

And this photo doesn’t even include the corn on the cob, pork belly, tuna, squid, half and half and ice cream that I also picked up. Mmmmm, August! Tomatoes, peaches, plums and corn!

Oh, yes. More to come soon.

Water or Wheat?

A melon farm in Toshka, Egypt.

Much of Northern Africa, the Middle East, and other countries in dry climes are facing this dilemma. They have too little water to farm intensively and be food-sufficient, and yet are getting hammered by rising food prices, which have caused the prices of imported staple grains to as much as triple. Add in rising unrest and food riots and the political volatility of many of these countries, and it is a very tense situation indeed.

To recap, there are basically two radically different choices:

Option 1: Stop growing what entirely, or cut way back to preserve your water. Rely on your foreign income to purchase as much wheat as you need. This is the path that Saudia Arabia is taking. While this seems pretty safe for the Saudis, due to their large reserves of cash and oil, this is a lot more problematic for poorer countries.

Option 2: Grow your own wheat. Don’t rely on a global supply chain or risk astronomical prices; ensure that you will have your staple grain by growing it yourself. Worry about water later.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, it looks like Egypt and several other middle Eastern countries are pursuing this latter choice. Smug though I am to have beaten the NYT to this issue, I’m glad they’re writing about it. This is a big, big deal, particularly when you factor in the politics at play in the region.

Global food shortages have placed the Middle East and North Africa in a quandary, as they are forced to choose between growing more crops to feed an expanding population or preserving their already scant supply of water.

For decades nations in this region have drained aquifers, sucked the salt from seawater and diverted the mighty Nile to make the deserts bloom. But those projects were so costly and used so much water that it remained far more practical to import food than to produce it. Today, some countries import 90 percent or more of their staples.

The problem with importing such a huge percentage of your food is that you become incredibly vulnerable to disruptions in supply and price increases. The governments who, like Egypt, subsidize wheat imports are spending a lot more on those subsidies. Fears of supply disruptions and rising prices have sparked food riots in dozens of countries worldwide. In some cases, such as Egypt and Pakistan, the army has been mobilized to maintain control of the grains and prevent looting.

“The countries of the region are caught between the hammer of rising food prices and the anvil of steadily declining water availability per capita,” Alan R. Richards, a professor of economics and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said via e-mail. “There is no simple solution.”

Several countries are starting or reviving huge irrigation and agriculture projects, while others are looking at developing agriculture. “You can bring in money and water and you can make the desert green until either the water runs out or the money,” said Elie Elhadj, a Syrian-born development expert and former banker with a Ph.D. in Islamic history and political economy from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Dr. Elhadj actually commented on this topic back in June, posting an excerpt from his article Saudi Arabia’s Agricultural Project: Dust to Dust, published in the Middle East Review of International Affairs [MERIA], Vol. 12, No. 2 June 2008.

The New York Times article continues:

Djibouti is growing rice in solar-powered greenhouses, fed by groundwater and cooled with seawater, in a project that produces what the World Bank economist Ruslan Yemtsov calls “probably the most expensive rice on earth.”

Several oil-rich nations, including Saudi Arabia, have started searching for farmland in fertile but politically unstable countries like Pakistan and Sudan, with the goal of growing crops to be shipped home.

“These countries have the land and the water,” said Hassan S. Sharaf Al Hussaini, an official in Bahrain’s agriculture ministry. “We have the money.”

In Egypt, where a shortage of subsidized bread led to rioting in April, government officials say they are looking into growing wheat on two million acres straddling the border with Sudan.

Economists and development experts say that nutritional self-sufficiency in this part of the world presents challenges that are not easily overcome. Saudi Arabia tapped aquifers to become self-sufficient in wheat production in the 1980s. By the early 1990s, the kingdom had become a major exporter. This year, however, the Saudis said they would phase out the program because it used too much water.

Egypt is intensifying efforts to ramp up agricultural production with the Toshka Project, also known as the New Valley Project. Started in 1997, the project involves diverting water from Lake Nasser (created by the construction of the Aswan dam) to create 558,000 new acres of arable land in the Western Desert, part of the Sahara.

From the New York Times article:

When the Toshka farm was started in 1997, the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, compared its ambitions to building the pyramids, involving roughly 500,000 acres of farmland and tens of thousands of residents. But no one has moved there, and only 30,000 acres or so have been planted.

The farm’s manager, Mohamed Nagi Mohamed, says the Sahara is perfect for farming, as long as there is plenty of fertilizer and water. For one thing, the bugs cannot handle the summer heat, so pesticides are not needed. “You can grow anything on this land,” he said, showing off fields of alfalfa and rows of tomatoes and grapes, shielded from the sun by gauzy white netting. “It’s a very nice project, but it needs a lot of money.”

Egypt’s increasing population is also cited as one of the motivations behind the need to expand domestic food production:

Mr. Mubarak calls his country’s growing population an “urgent” problem that has exacerbated the food crisis. The population grows about 1.7 percent annually, considerably slower than a generation ago but still fast enough that it is on pace to double by 2050. Adding 1.3 million Egyptians each year to the 77 million squeezed into an inhabited area roughly the size of Taiwan is a daunting prospect for a country in which 20 percent of citizens already live in poverty.

The Toshka Project is not the only effort to increase agricultural production in Egypt. According to this website from Egypt’s State Information Service, Egypt will increase its arable land by 3.274 million acres in 2017 from 8.159 million acres in 2006, a 40% increase in arable land.

The website, which emphasized the technological marvels at hand and details how important agricultural exports are to Egypt’s economy, also lists several other massive projects. The Toshka project and the Al-Salam Canal are listed as adding over half a million acres each to Egypt’s agricultural land. Both are to be fed with water from the Nile. East Uwaiynat and Darb al-Araba’in, both smaller projects irrigated from underground aquifers, would add 45,000 and 11,000 acres, respectively.

Essentially, Egypt is trying very hard to increase its amount of arable land, relying on the mighty Nile and underground aquifers to do so. But rivers can be overused, as the Colorado River is, and aquifers, once depleted, can take thousands of years to recharge naturally.

In this situation, there aren’t really any good options. You can import food at ever-higher prices, and risk supply disruptions and food riots. If the food is subsidized, you also risk depleting currency reserves and draining the government treasury. And yet attempting to become more nationally food self-sufficient and rely on domestic production, you risk totally depleting your non-renewable water resources.

Naturally, the Times suggests a free-market, capital-intensive solution: abandoning subsistence agriculture to focus exclusively on low-water cash crops for export, exploiting the law of comparative advantage, and then using the proceeds to buy staple foods.

Economists say that rather than seeking to become self-sufficient with food, countries in this region should grow crops for which they have a competitive advantage, like produce or flowers, which do not require much water and can be exported for top dollar.

For example, Doron Ovits, a confident 39-year-old with sunglasses pushed over his forehead and a deep tan, runs a 150-acre tomato and pepper empire in the Negev Desert of Israel. His plants, grown in greenhouses with elaborate trellises and then exported to Europe, are irrigated with treated sewer water that he says is so pure he has to add minerals back. The water is pumped through drip irrigation lines covered tightly with black plastic to prevent evaporation.

A pumping station outside each greenhouse is equipped with a computer that tracks how much water and fertilizer is used; Mr. Ovits keeps tabs from his desktop computer. “With drip irrigation, you save money. It’s more precise,” he said. “You can’t run it like a peasant, a farmer. You have to run it like a businessman.”

Israel is as obsessed with water as Mr. Ovits is. It was there, in the 1950s, that an engineer invented modern drip irrigation, which saves water and fertilizer by feeding it, drop by drop, to a plant’s roots. Since then, Israel has become the world’s leader in maximizing agricultural output per drop of water, and many believe that it serves as a viable model for other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Already, Tunisia has reinvigorated its agriculture sector by adopting some of the desert farming advances pioneered in Israel, and Egypt’s new desert farms now grow mostly water-sipping plants with drip irrigation.

The Israeli government strictly regulates how much water farmers can use and requires many of them to irrigate with treated sewer water, pumped to farms in purple pipes. It has also begun using a desalination plant to cleanse brackish water for irrigation.

“In the future, another 200 million cubic meters of marginal water are to be recycled, in addition to promoting the establishment of desalination plants,” Shalom Simhon, Israel’s agriculture minister, wrote via e-mail. Still, four years of drought have created what Mr. Simhon calls “a deep water crisis,” forcing the country to cut farmers’ quotas.

I don’t love this option; I’m skeptical of any solution that puts so much risk (of price collapses, dips in demand, crop failures) on the people who are relying on this to buy staple foods. Moreover, technology required to move to computerized drip irrigation and greenhouses represents a huge capital investment, an enormous barrier to poor farmers and an incentive to centralize and scale up farming operations.

But is a greenhouse running on recycled wastewater more sustainable than relying on the aquifers? Certainly. There’s no easy answers to this one.

Working Farm or Lifestyle Prop?

Apparently, the New York Times has decided that urban dwellers relocating to the suburbs or rural areas to start small farms has become a trend: they’ve followed up their March 16th article on young people starting organic farms with another article today about their middle-aged counterparts. I commented on the initial article here.

On a certain level, this makes a lot of sense. The number of acres being cultivated organically has certainly been increasing rapidly, up to 4,054,429 acres of cropland and pasture or ranch land in 2005, up from only 914,800 acres in 1995. It’s still only .51% of American cropland, but that’s an increase of over 400% in only a decade. 2005 is the most recent year for which the data is available on the USDA’s Economic Research Service website (the data I’m citing is in Table 3: Certified organic and total U.S. acreage, selected crops and livestock, 1995-2005). Even the most organic crops, like carrots, lettuce, other vegetables, and apples (at 5.8%, 3.69%, 4.66%, and 3.35%, respectively), still make up only a tiny fraction of the harvest. Meat and milk don’t even come close, with milk cows representing the largest orgnic herds, with .96%. Organic agriculture is growing faster and faster; the amount of cropland increased over a million acres between 2004 and 2005 alone. I’m sure it’s increased a lot more between 2005 and now, mid-way through 2008.
Demand from consumers is certainly strong. As another ERS/UDSA website says, “[The] USDA does not have official statistics on U.S. organic retail sales, but information is available from industry sources. U.S. sales of organic products were $15.7 billion in 2005—nearly 2.5 percent of total food sales—and will reach $17.8 billion by 2007, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.”

So, there’s sharply growing demand (circa 2005), we import more organic food than we export (at least in 2002, when we imported $1 billion to $1.5 billion of organic food and exported between $125 million and $250 million. Why is the data so old? No idea, but I’m sure the disparity is still there) and consumers are both more mainstream and willing to pay a high price premium for organic products. (Lots of additional reading.)

I don’t know how much the steep rise in food costs over the last year have affected organic purchasing trends, but my guess is that people will still buy organic where they can, or try and buy certain organic items, like milk, even if they switch back to conventional apples or plums. Here’s an April 18th, 2008 New York Times article on the topic, and my post on the costs of organic food.

So, if there are more organic farms, there must be more organic farmers, right? I don’t know how much of the increase in organic acreage is due to conventional farms switching to organic farming methods or existing organic farms expanding their operations vs. new farmers starting new organic farms.

Regardless, the middle-aged neophyte organic farmers have a lot in common with their younger idealistic counterparts: they’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemna, they want a more meaningful life, they’re tired of the rat race. All the usual reasons. The key difference, according to the article, seems to be the older farmers’ attachments to their middle-class or upper middle-class lifestyle.

Mr. Gibson, who sells at the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturdays, is a case in point; he may have dirt under his fingernails but he also has B.M.W.’s in his driveway. “I’m a rough-it kind of guy,” he said recently, “but I like my amenities as well. We knew we’d be here the rest of our lives. And we didn’t cut any corners on the house.”

Indeed, the house has a theater that wouldn’t be out of place in a Steven Spielberg residence, a wine cellar and a log cabin annex with a magnificent dry stack stone fireplace, a billiards table and a stuffed bear and bobcat glowering down between beams made of North Carolina pine — each beam an entire mature tree.

This is very New York Times-esque: a lavish, almost envious description of the property. But how does this connect with their farming?

Anecdotal evidence suggests the number of urban professionals trading BlackBerries for manure spreaders is growing fast. In the last three years, for example, membership in the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, a nonprofit trade group, has grown by a third, to about 1,700, with 45 percent of members certified as organic farmers. Many of these are “people from New York City,” said Greg Swartz, executive director of the association, “everyone from stockbrokers to teachers, writers, fund-raisers.”

“They have enough funds to be able to purchase farmland,” initially as second homes, he said. “It’s a nice bucolic retreat, and then they get excited and want to do something more active.”

It seems to be the change in home life, as much as in career, that appeals to the post-professional farmers.

Although Mr. Gibson estimates that he spends 12 hours a day raising his grass-fed Angus and persuading the public to pay premium prices for it, he says he has more time than he ever did in his former life to focus on what matters.

“We had a gorgeous home,” Mr. Gibson said of his family’s five-and-a-half-acre spread in Katonah, N.Y. “But I never sat outside sipping a cocktail, holding my wife’s hand. I do that now. It was all about making money and living that life and going on to the next business deal.”

What does it mean if farming is a life-style rather than calling or even a job? Will these farms be successful enterprises, or is this something of a trendy, expensive hobby, albeit one that fits in well with the greenwashing so prevalent today.

Obviously not all second-career farmers just jump in and try and make a go of it. The people behind Flying Pigs Farm, purveyors of truly delicious bacon and pork chops, took the slow route, and are currently very successful full-time farmers with sought-after product.

Ms. Small, a former development director for Williams College, and Mr. Yezzi, a lawyer, bought their farm in 1997, but moved slowly. They didn’t get their first pigs, three of them, until 2000, and didn’t start farming full time until 2004. They now have 500 pigs, 500 laying hens and 1,000 meat chickens. Ms. Small still works three days a week in the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., office of the American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit group based in Washington that is dedicated to protecting farmland. She said she does so because she believes in the organization’s mission but also for the health insurance it provides her family. “It scares me when I hear people quitting very good full-time jobs to jump into full-time farming,” she said. “I think a slow transition works very well.”

Mr. Swartz of the organic farming association didn’t know where to start when asked about common mistakes second-career farmers make. He apprenticed for seven years on a nearby produce farm before he thought he had the know-how to go out on his own this year. “They’re not benefiting from the generational farmer’s knowledge,” he said of second-career farmers, and going on to list, “everything from buying the wrong-sized tractor, to the wrong implements, to not tilling at the right time — and not having a market for your product before you plant it.”

So, what’s the dividing line between a project and a productive farm? Sales? Acreage? Zoning? There are people in Hawaii who are snapping up expensive land in a development called Kealanani, zoned for agriculture, dreaming of fruit orchards and the “agrarian lifestyle.”

Homeowners can lease their land to another farming outfit, raise livestock themselves or grow the crops of their choice. Mr. Friend and Mr. Kyno say they expect residents will grow a variety of tropical fruits and other cash crops.

Valerie Van Balen, 30, is one of the first buyers. She was drawn by the property’s situation above Kealia Beach, a popular strand on the northeast side of the island where Ms. Van Balen likes to surf. She also wanted to buy a home with a farm to contribute to Kauai’s local food supply. Ms. Van Balen, the owner of Majestic Gems, a fine jewelry store on Kauai, plans to work on the farm. “I want to grow tropical flowers and fruit,” she said. “Mangoes and avocados — all the good stuff.” She also plans to grow cacao, which is used to make chocolate.

Is this a farm, or more of a kitchen garden? Again, what constitutes a farm? When a certain percentage of your income is derived from the crops?

In August, Kate and Dean Silliman decided to buy a lot at Kealanani, hoping to build a bigger home than the 1,500-square-foot house they now occupy in the nearby town of Kapaa. Having a farm appealed to them as they enjoy spending time outside with their two young sons. The couple went into contract on a $500,000 six-acre lot in the Kealanani development in September.

It’s not just the prospect of agrarian living that appeals to buyers. Kanuikapono, a charter school based in Anahola, a town 3.5 miles away, may lease an old plantation building on the development. Mr. Kyno said the school was hoping the site at Kealanani would allow it to expand, perhaps adding a high school curriculum. “Who wouldn’t want their kids to walk to school?” Ms. Silliman said.

In August, Kate and Dean Silliman decided to buy a lot at Kealanani, hoping to build a bigger home than the 1,500-square-foot house they now occupy in the nearby town of Kapaa. Having a farm appealed to them as they enjoy spending time outside with their two young sons. The couple went into contract on a $500,000 six-acre lot in the Kealanani development in September. [emphasis added]

It’s not just the prospect of agrarian living that appeals to buyers. Kanuikapono, a charter school based in Anahola, a town 3.5 miles away, may lease an old plantation building on the development. Mr. Kyno said the school was hoping the site at Kealanani would allow it to expand, perhaps adding a high school curriculum. “Who wouldn’t want their kids to walk to school?” Ms. Silliman said. [emphasis added]

This sounds a lot like the classic agrarian narrative of the romance and beauty of the land, but divorced from the practicality, risk and heartbreak associated with farming today. Farming is nearly always an incredibly demanding, 365-day a year job, where your costs are fixed and your returns dependent on weather, luck, and the market for you cash crop. My fear is that many of the type of new farmers profiled by the New York Times are more attracted to the lifestyle than the actual reality of farming, and will soon founder and give up.

As the Hawaii article points out:

This hybrid development of luxury homes on working farms is in part a result of Hawaii’s long and bitter history of residential development on agricultural land.

Owners of agricultural land sometimes plant a few coconut palms, or graze a horse in the backyard, but ignore the laws that require them to “derive income primarily from agricultural activities on the property,” said Ian K. Costa, the director of planning for the County of Kauai.

Mr. Costa said that plantation owners on Kauai began selling off large tracts of agricultural land in the late 1980s. These parcels covered “essentially half the island,” Mr. Costa said. Because of the sales, “80 percent of the agricultural land is owned primarily by nonfarmers.”

Mr. Friend [one of the developers] believes that most residential developments on agricultural land have not gone far enough to preserve the lands for agricultural uses. Developers “create what locally they call gentlemen’s estates,” he added, “where there’s large landscaped acreage but no agricultural activity.”

The development intends to avoid that by requiring buyers to have an agricultural plan in place before purchasing a parcel, and the contract allows a lien to be put on the property if the plan isn’t implemented.

Still, agriculture advocates question whether buyers will be able to derive a significant income from their small farms. “If you preserve and protect agricultural land but farmers cannot be economically viable on the land, then it’s defeating the purpose,” said Andrew Hashimoto, the dean of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Mr. Friend, though, sees farming more as a lifestyle than an occupation. “It’s not a golf-course kind of property,” he said of Kealanani. “It’s rural. There could be livestock. There will be tractors and field equipment.

This is really the crux of both of these cases: will this land actually be working farms, or merely elaborate set pieces with the appropriate props and rhetoric? In the Hawaii case, it seems like the farm-as-set will prevail. It’s an open question as to whether the new second-career farmers will be able to make a successful go of it.