Truck Farmer: Esther Mandelheim Elliott, 28
With husband Pablo, she runs Stoney Lonesome Farm and its “eat local” CSA (Community Supported Agriculture Program) on 91 acres in Gainesville, Virginia.
I lived in St. Petersburg until I was nine, and my earliest memories are of playing in the woods — with acorns, sticks, weeds. I could spend a whole day with myself examining “pieces of dirt.” I am very nostalgic for that. In the early fall, my grandmother — we called her Babulya — would take us to pick mushrooms near the Finnish border. There were swamps and cranberry bogs; the smells were so earthy. After my family moved to America, I went twice back to Russia to go up the river in my uncle’s little boat. We smoked our own fish and ate wild blueberries. It was very satisfying.
In New York, my parents sent me to yeshiva. In Russia there was such a climate of fear that we were deprived of Jewish knowledge. But in America, in school, Judaism took root at the core of my being — it became my guide for everyday things, large and small. In college, for the first time, I was able to begin putting together Jewish observance and a passion for nature. Pablo, a friend from Vassar, invited me to stay on his family’s farm — it was very neglected — and help him start a CSA. We became boyfriend and girlfriend, Pablo converted, and we were married under a full moon.
Our CSA is in its fourth year. We have 85 members. Membership is $490 a year; $440 if you help with the farm work. In the spring, members get lettuces and greens, herbs, cool weather vegetables. In the summer we harvest zucchini, potatoes, garlic, onions, dill, rosemary, cukes, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, zinnias and sunflowers. In the fall we pick cabbage and winter squashes, carrots, kale and other leafy greens. Everything is delivered the day it is picked. You could not eat any fresher. It is a tremendous amount of work for us, and this year, our fourth, we are, finally, almost breaking even.
Pablo and I are still very much learning. Should we scale back the CSA? Host people to work the farm? Move towards bio-intensive farming? We both have, more generally, a deep interest in education. Can we combine farming in some way with teaching? Our goal, of course, is to make a living without killing ourselves in the process.
Shabbat and the Jewish holidays sustain us. It is so healthy to stop working. If we didn’t rest and feel spiritually renewed, the exhaustion — physical and mental — would be too much. Shabbat enhances our ability to farm, and farming highlights for us the importance of Shabbat, and of Judaism more generally. It’s challenging being observant — this year, both Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot fall on our CSA distribution days — but it is also our observance that propels us forward. Rosh Hodesh, Sukkot, the lunar calendar, the first full moon after our season ends — these are “organic” markers for us. We are discovering not only back-to-the-land farming, but back-to-the-land Judaism.
Esther, whom would you like to invite into Lilith’s sukkah?
Friends whom I’ve fed through their pregnancies — that’s been amazing. Also, Blu Greenberg, the well-known Orthodox feminist. She’s honest about the effort involved in making Shabbat and the holidays happen.
Who’s a significant role model?
My mother. She wasn’t born Jewish, but she has clung to the Jewish people. She’s a wonderful cook, a seamstress, a weaver, a baker. She has a green thumb. She’s my model of simple living.
What shakes your lulav?
The deep ethical concept from Torah to be a caretaker of the Earth, not an owner.
The Earth is a fragile sukkah. What one act of repair can we undertake?
Grow a vegetable.