For the past three years, Michelle Zarella has been the co-organizer of Asbury Fresh, a popular weekly summer market on the corner of Cookman and Grand Avenues, Asbury Park. When she taught English in Santiago, Chile in 2010, her interest in eating organic local produce was piqued and her motivation to bring these practices home was fueled.
“The produce was unbelievable – really varied and bright with a fantastic taste,” Zarella enthuses. “Everything they purchased for their families was grown right outside of the city, and I could really taste the difference in the final product. I hated broccoli until I tried it fresh from the market.”
Back home, she became a restaurant manager at David Burke Fromagerie in Rumson and at David Burke Kitchen in Soho. That’s when her love affair with food, especially farm-to-table meals, sparked.
Inspired by a lifetime of her father’s “amazing” annual summer garden, she says, “There’s something so perfect about picking your own produce and creating meals entirely on your own. I think as we get further and further into technology, the further away we get from knowing where our food comes from and the ability to grow it for ourselves.”
If you are an aspiring self-sufficient gardener, or even a frustrated one, Zarella suggests having some patience with it. “Growing your own food is a lot of work, but the peace of mind you get from the end result is worth it. You will be empowered and will feel like you can do anything.”
Zarella and her boyfriend, Brad, now rent a house on three acres in Jackson Township; their property, called Chick and York Farms, is home to a garden, two goats, chickens and ducks. But even when she lived in an Asbury Park apartment, Zarella managed to grow herbs, tomatoes and cucumbers.
“Anywhere you can stick a pot or an old bucket is enough room,” says the Bradley Beach native. However, if you have the space, she suggests either building or buying raised beds with organic soil.
“The problem with buying produce from the food store is, you really don’t know if that apple has been genetically modified, sprayed, or how far it has travelled to get to you,” she explains.
For instance, Zarella rarely buys bananas. “I can’t justify the big, fossil-fueled trip they had to take to get to my kitchen,” she shares. Zarella highly recommends reading the book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life,” by Barbara Kingsolver, which she describes, “is a great look into the effects of eating out of season and/or conventional produce.”
Even if you may think you’re doing the best you can by buying organic produce from the grocery store, Zarella still encourages you to try gardening yourself. Never had your own garden? Fear not. Information is power. Research what it takes to grow a few of your favorites.
“Start small,” she advises. “It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by growing seasons, planting times, water and sunlight, composting, etc. I like to plot out a planting schedule on a little calendar, and write myself care instructions for particular plants on the different days. Brad makes diagrams of our garden every year so we are sure to rotate where we plant to ensure that we don’t grow the same thing in the same plot year after year. All plants pull certain nutrients from the soil, and crop rotation keeps everything fertile and balanced.”
If you are thinking, “No way, this isn’t for me,” but still want to eat fresher, sign up for a local CSA (community supported agriculture) program. You get your veggies (and sometimes eggs, milk, etc.) boxed up every week, and you support a local farmer. Or, visit your local farmer’s market if you’d rather not shell out the cash up front.
“Supporting local and organic farms, as well as putting some thought into what you consume is a small step you can take to reclaim your health,
the local economy and our planet,” she says.
Follow Zarella’s project on instagram @chickandyorkfarms, where she posts photos of her animals, projects and gardens.