Back in the winter my sister told me about an intriguing concept: Community Shared Agriculture, or CSA for short. I had never heard of CSA farms, and when she explained what they were, I was intrigued. Essentially each CSA farm is a small operation, growing enough food for a few dozen people, perhaps. At the beginning of the year they offer “shares” for sale. Interested persons can buy a share of the farm’s total produce for the year. During the season, every week or every two weeks, depending on the particular farm and the plan you buy into, you pick up a bag or basket brimming with fresh produce, picked that morning from your farmer’s fields. Most CSAs run from late June through October in our area, the harvest season for our short northern summers.
By buying in to a CSA farm you are essentially sharing, not only the produce, but also the risk the farmer takes in growing the food. If it happens to be a poor year for tomatoes (such as this year, our farmer was complaining that all the rain has caused a bad case of blight), the farmer isn’t on the hook for circumstances out of his control. You’re supporting your local farmer so that they can (hopefully) actually make a fair living at their work. In return, you get delicious freshly-picked fruits and veggies. Some CSAs also offer eggs or meat in their baskets. Most farms are also organically operated. Plus, by buying local you get fresher veggies than you would if they were flown/trucked in, and without having to burn any of the oil that transport necessarily uses.
I have been loving our CSA baskets, always excited to see what we get this week. For just Dan and I, there is always more food than we can get through in two weeks (our pickup schedule, since we only bought a half-share – a full-share picks up every week, and is designed for a family of four or five). It works out to about $100 a month, which is probably what I would be spending on produce at the grocery store in a month anyway. Admittedly, there is still the occasional item that you’ll need or want to buy from the store anyway, so that $100 isn’t all you’ll spend, but I still think it’s a good deal.
This week’s basket included everything you see above (except the red cabbage which I bought from our local grocery store, but does happen to be local produce as well – we got a cabbage in our previous basket, and it added colour to the photo, so I threw it in anyway). There is enough lettuce in that bag to last Dan and I for at least four salads. I’ve already used two tomatoes out of the bag on the right, soft, sweet heirloom varieties. Not shown is a bag of fingerling potatoes, which I’d put in a different spot and forgot to pull out for the photo. We ate half of them with dinner yesterday, deliciously soft and tender. We’ll be eating quite a few meals with zucchini over the next two weeks to get through those three veggies, and same with the green beans. I wish I could spread the bounty out across the whole year.
The other interesting thing about CSAs is quite often they include items that you’d never think to buy for yourself from the store, or sometimes can’t get at the store. For instance, in this photo is arugula, beside the green onions, something I would never have bought for myself. It also encourages you to try new things. My family can vouch for the fact that I was a sworn non-salad eater my whole life. This year I decided that we were getting so much salad greens, I should really make an effort to try to like it. Much to my surprise – I didn’t even have to try, it turned out I quite liked fresh salad! We’ve had other unusual items, such as garlic scapes (which I roasted and put in a chicken caesar salad), scallopini squash (which I stuffed and baked with fresh corn, tomatoes and basil), or spring garlic (like green onions with a garlicky flavour).
CSAs quite often grow heirloom or other unusual varieties of many vegetables. My sister is getting purple carrots in hers (did you know that carrots come in many colours, including red, yellow and purple in addition to the usual orange?), we’ve had a great selection of tomatoes and potatoes, and different squashes such as the scallopini.
In addition to our weekly baskets, we also signed up for a freezer share and a cellar share. As the names suggest, a freezer share is an extra boatload of produce intended to be frozen and stored for the winter months, and the cellar share is the same, only for your cold cellar. An example of the former might be broccoli, while the latter would be potatoes. It’s a great way to continue to enjoy locally-grown produce even through the cold winter months.
We have yet to pick up most of our winter share produce, but our farmer gave us the first of our freezer share items – 15 freshly-picked basil plants, which will make delicious pesto that can be frozen into ice cubes and thawed whenever one gets the urge for summer-fresh basil in the middle of winter. I’d never seen so much basil. Because the plants were pulled out with their roots still mostly intact, I put them in a pot with water and intend to actually plant a couple in pots to try to keep over the winter. I’ve also offered a couple to family members. The rest will be turned into pesto.
In Ontario you can find a directory of your local CSA farms here. For other provinces or states you may have to do a bit of poking around, but there are lots out there. You might be able to find some local farms at the website Local Harvest, which has a large database of farms and farmers’ markets across the USA. This USDA site and this Ecobusiness site also have a few additional links to databases. A Google search for “community supported agriculture” or “community shared agriculture” along with your town and state/province will usually turn up CSA farms in your area. You can also try this site, this site, or this site.
Although some farmers may have extra produce they offer for sale at farmer’s markets or just from the farm itself, here in the north it’s too late this year to sign up for a share, in most cases. However, you can sign up for next year’s harvest in late winter in order to start enjoying fresh produce with the first crop next June (or May, or maybe even April depending on where you live and whether the farm has a greenhouse). If you’re lucky enough to live in milder climes, it might be possible to get fresh produce year round – for instance, this farm in Live Oak, Florida, has a winter veggie program.
Most farms offer their shareholders an opportunity to visit the farm and see the operations. They’re often willing to discuss the whats and hows of farming if you’re interested. Our farmer is a really nice, friendly guy. When I picked up my basket this week I probably spent about 20 minutes chatting with him. In addition to discussing farming particulars, we also talked about nature observations. Most farmers, especially small-farm farmers, are probably pretty in-tune with nature. Our farmer commented that since they lost their honey bee colony last winter and haven’t had them working the fields, he’s seen more native pollinators at his plants than he can remember, including bumblebees, sweat bees, mason bees – I was surprised to discover he knew there were so many types of bee! He knew the names of the birds on his farm, and allows 5-10 acres to lie fallow in any given year so the bobolinks have an undisturbed place to nest. His 6-year-old daughter collects caterpillars that they raise in their kitchen and keep the pupae in the fridge over the winter, bringing them out to emerge and be released next spring.
Getting to know your farmer really gives your veggies a personal feel. They’re not just a piece of fruit that you pick up from the store shelf – you know exactly where they were grown, by whom, and how. It’s the difference between buying a pie from the store and your mother making one in her kitchen – the personal ones always taste better.
(This just might qualify as my highest word:photo ratio in a post to date! Lots of good things to say.)