Sunday, July 14, 2013

My first foray into CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)

For years, I have thought about buying into CSA (community supported agriculture), but there was always some reason that it didn't work out – I didn’t have the money to put down up front, there wasn’t a pick up location near my work/home, my schedule was too busy to pick up at an inconvenient location, it was too much food for one person, I could go on… This year, all of my excuses were thrown aside when the hospital that I work at started offering CSA pickup on site.  I took the plunge – and my taste buds, waistline and conscience are glad that I did!

Garlic Scapes: the above-ground curly top part of garlic - use just like garlic

In the past three weeks, here are some of the things I’ve made from the boxes (aka. what’s in season right now):

Roasted Chioggia Beets
Beet Green Smoothie with Chia Seeds, Banana and Blueberries
Sautéed Rainbow Chard
Sliced Fresh Tomatoes with Olive Oil and Salt
Baked Potatoes with Cilantro-Serrano Chili Oil and Garlic Chives
Roasted Zucchini with Garlic Scapes and Thyme
Massaged Kale Salad with Breakfast Radishes, Croutons and Reduced Balsamic Vinaigrette
Broccoli Rabe with Pasta and Garlic Scape Pesto
Strawberry (and Blueberry) Lemon Scones with Thyme-Lemon Glaze
Green Smoothie with Rainbow Chard, Mango, Pineapple, Banana and Blueberries
Curried Mustard Greens and Kidney Beans
Gujaranti-style Hot Sweet-and-Sour Potatoes and English Shell Peas
Swiss Chard and Herb Summer Salad
Steamed Snow Peas
Cucumber and Cilantro Salsa
Stir-fried Summer Squashes with Sesame and Soy
Broiled White Fish with Pounded Fennel Oil
Marinated Shaved Fennel Salad
Many, many salads made of the Green Leaf Lettuce, Red Leaf Lettuce, Dandelion Greens, Arugula and Sorrel
Lots of sliced fresh veggies: French Breakfast Radishes, Kohlrabi and Standard Red Radishes

Clockwise from top left: Steamed Snow Peas and Roasted Chioggia Beets,  Massaged Kale Salad with French Breakfast Radishes, Baked Potatoes with Cilantro-Serrano Chili Oil and Garlic Chives, Roasted Zucchini with Garlic Scapes and Thyme, (center) Whole Roasted Beets.

Sounds delicious, right?  You may be wondering, what is a CSA? To summarize Wikipedia’s definition, community-supported agriculture or community-shared agriculture is an alternative, locally-based economic model of agriculture and food distribution.  A CSA also refers to a network or association of individuals who have pledged to support one or more local farms, with growers and consumers sharing the risks and benefits of food production.  CSA members pay at the beginning of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest.  Once harvesting begins, they receive a weekly share of produce.  Many CSAs include or allow adding on of fresh-cut flowers, honey, eggs, dairy products and meat.  In theory, a CSA can provide any agricultural product to its members.  Some CSAs also allow contributions of labor in lieu of a portion of subscription costs. 

(Left) Half vegetable share, (Right) Full vegetable share
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The CSA that I joined offers a variety of subscriptions including two different sized vegetable boxes and one size fruit box. Within each of these options, you can also choose which produce you want at the pick-up site or elect to have the farm decide for you so that you can pick up your box and go.  I paid $417 for the small vegetable box, farmer’s choice, which contains enough vegetables for two hearty vegetable eaters.  The boxes are available weekly for 20 weeks.  That breaks down to just under $21 per week.  In some locations, the farm also offers home delivery for an additional fee. The money is paid up front.  I paid about two weeks before my first delivery.  Many people sign up much further in advance.  As the definition above mentions, this allows the farmers to have money at the beginning of the season when needed and get a better sense of what they will make overall for the season.  It introduces a bit of dependability into a career with a lot of unknowns.  It allows give-and-take between farmer and eater.  There is a weekly conversation at the drop-off location between a farm worker, member and any other members that might be picking up at the same time.  What did you make with the fennel last week?  Do you know what I wish there was more/less of? I’ve seen this or that at the farmer’s market, are you (the farmer) going to offer that this/next year? There is too much/little of this vegetable.  This other vegetable that I’ve never had before is delicious and not something you can buy in a grocery store – thanks!

Cucumber Salsa in a Mortar

One thing that most people think of when they think of CSA is “organic.”  Well, the CSA that I am a member of is not certified organic.  Many of you are probably thinking, what is the point of a non-organic CSA?! I should say “certified” is the key word to focus on here, not organic.  Being certified organic is not a guaranteed of a farm doing good by the land nor that your produce is chemical free.  This is a longer discussion in an of itself, that I’ll try not to delve too deep into today other than to say it is an expensive and lengthy process to become certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  My advice for those who value supporting small businesses in your community, earth-friendly growing practices, flavorful produce, and little or no chemical use is to look for a farmer who is transparent about their growing practices and allows people to come out and visit the farm if they want (not that you have to go, but at least there’s an option to so you know there’s nothing to hide).  The farm I get produce from is open to visits, makes sure to rotate crops and does a lot of experimental things to try to try to grow vegetables without chemical pesticides and fertilizers.  They have not, however, paid for organic certification, so cannot advertise their farm as organic.  Because they don’t pay for certification, they don’t pass the cost along to their members – hence, why I can get a big box of organic (in the sense of the word most of us think of or care about) vegetables for about $20 per week.  Other people pay even less by going in together on a larger box (aka. full share) to get twice as many vegetables for about one-and-a-half times the price.

Blueberry Lemon Scone before getting Lemon Thyme Glaze
Photo credit:

This has been my toughest stretch of residency – as I post this, I am enjoying my first weekend off since early April! Only the CSA’s gorgeous, fresh, it would be a terrible shame to waste, pile of vegetables every week could motivate me to make all the dishes listed above.  Trust me, before the CSA weekly pickup began, there were several busy, boring months of old standby meals made quickly (or, being truthful, heated up quickly or take-out picked up from a variety of Mexican, Thai, vegetarian or Japanese restaurants) because I was too exhausted to be very creative in the kitchen.  For anyone else who loves fresh-from-the-earth flavor, likes to experiment and try new things, or grew up like I did with a deeply engrained sense of it being a shame to waste things, a CSA is definitely a good investment and ticket to healthier living.  Give it a try!

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