You might frequent Cheryl Rogowski's vegetable stand at the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket on Sundays for a number of reasons. Maybe it's the Rogowski Farm's golden onions beckoning like shiny round ornaments, or the colorful and swoon inducing sweet carrots, or the impeccable butter head and romaine lettuces that always seem to be harvested at their peak flavor. Or maybe it's the celery, which is so green and crisp I have witnessed it fool several incredulous shoppers ("What is this?" they ask.)
There is always something new to try out in your kitchen at Rogowski's stand, like the sunchokes and red onion apple marmalade currently available.
And to top it off, there is Cheryl. She's always there greeting you with her warm smile, doling out useful growing and cooking tips, chatting with her customers about their children, their lives and what's new on the farm.
Cheryl is a force of nature: a woman whose lifetime labor of love has helped move the once invisible family farmer into the mainstream, bringing to light the struggles of small farmers everywhere.
Despite her convincing farmer get-up, (round and ruddy cheeks, layers of work clothes, weathered hands), Cheryl is not your everyday farmer. In 2004, she was named a MacArthur fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation -- the first farmer to ever receive the prestigious and often life-changing "Genius Award." Ironically, Cheryl was standing over the wreckage that a recent flood had caused in her fields when she received the news. The award (which comes with a $500,000 stipend over five years) has changed her life in innumerable ways.
When asked how being named a MacArthur Fellow has impacted her life, she laughs and replies, "How hasn't it?"
Cheryl says she is thankful for the platform she now speaks from, to tell the world her story and teach others about the everyday struggles small farmers still face, despite the current trendiness of sustainable farming.
"Most farmers don't have health insurance, unless they have a spouse with an off-farm job," says Cheryl, citing just one example in a long list of health-compromising problems small farmers often can't afford to fix.
The award has catapulted her from relatively unknown "farm girl" status to a woman with worldwide recognition. Rogowski recently introduced Council Speaker Christine Quinn at a sustainable food policy address Quinn gave.
"I went from being a farm girl to having national and international recognition," she says. "It has opened up new avenues for me, and a platform to speak on."
Cheryl was also recently named the 2010 "Farmer of the Year" by NYC sustainable food systems non-profit Just Food, and honored alongside celebrity Chef Mark Bittman and Brooklyn community gardener Yonnette Fleming at the annual "Let Us Eat Local" fundraiser gala in September.
A descendent of Polish farmers who immigrated to the area in the 1800s, Cheryl took over the family business when her father's health began to fail. At the time, her father was an onion farmer, like many farmers in the Black Dirt region upstate, which was the former US onion growing capital. Now, Cheryl grows a veritable rainbow of roots, shoots and leaves that you can behold every Sunday at the intersection of Smith and Carroll Streets.
Cheryl has a way about her that is both welcoming and jovial. She says the most unusual thing about her farm is herself.
"I'm kidding. But it's true," she says. "It's me, my personality that you see at my stand. The colors, the shapes, the flavors – it's the palette of the farm."
What do Carroll Gardens shoppers like the most? Onions, garlic and potatoes.
"Oh! And the lettuce!" Cheryl adds.
Since taking the reins at the Rogowski Farm, Cheryl has been at the frontier of the farm to fork movement, setting new trends for her fellow farmers, and stumping the average customer with now-hot items like Sea Buckthorn (a citrus family member, tiny and tart, well known in Scandinavian countries for its high Vitamin C levels) and cardoons, the lesser-known artichoke relative.
Though a boundary breaker by day, back on the farm, Cheryl is just another pioneering woman in a long line of strong women farmers. Her five-foot-tall grandmother drove tractor-trailers (full of onions, presumably), and her great grandmother was the local midwife for the farming community in Pine Island, where her 150-acre farm is located. Now farming 100 of those acres, Cheryl serves 400 CSA members in the NYC area and sells at five farmers markets a week, including the Carroll Gardens market, and the Union Square market on Wednesdays.
Cheryl has been selling at the Carroll Gardens market "since the day it opened," four years ago. She says she likes the community feel of our market.
"We've been watching the kids grow up here – literally! Just a few weeks ago, we watched the Halloween parade go by – we know the adults, the children, and the dogs!"
Cheryl says she has good relationships with her fellow Carroll Gardens vendors, and likes to incorporate some of their products in her recipes for value added products she sells back at the farm.
"We have a whole symbiotic relationship," she says. "And we cross promote when we can."
The next time you visit Cheryl's stand, take the time to shake her hand and thank her for the myriad little things she does everyday to help us all eat more fresh, local, healthy food – changing transmissions in her delivery trucks in the freezing cold, instructing young farmers who intern at Rogowski Farm and for growing great vegetables 365 days a year.