Thursday, February 14, 2013

OMG, WTF is a CSA?

If you hang around me for any length of time, you'll probably hear me mention my CSA.  And if you're following my crazy antics on this blog, you've probably seen we write about it.  And you've probably figured out that it is something related to vegetables, or farms, or at least food in some way.  But you might not know what, exactly, a CSA is.  So, let me fill you in...

The acronym CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  Basically, people in the community buy a share of a farm, and in turn, receive a share of the harvest.  There are CSAs all over these days, and they can vary a lot.  Some include vegetables, fruits, some add meat, eggs, cheeses, preserves, or other local goods.  Some use several farms together and some come from a single farm.  For the single reason that it's the one I'm most familiar with, I'm going to use the CSA my family belongs to to explain it to you.


Green Earth Institute is a 49-acre farm snuck into the middle of the Chicago suburbs, and it happens to be less than a 10-minute drive from my house.  GEI is actually a non-profit organization formed to educate and promote healthy, sustainable, eco-friendly practices.   They provide educational programs, speakers, and tours, and they grow 40 different, certified organic crops for their CSA.

When you join a CSA, you're basically buying a share of the farm up front, and then, in return, you get a share of the harvest.  This has it's ups and downs.  It really gives you a good feel for how unpredictable farming can be.  You buy into it not knowing how crops will be that year, what trials and tribulations nature will throw at the farm this season.  You also have little to no control over what you get, and when you get it.  One week you may get 30 pounds of tomatoes, or 3 heads of cabbage.  Some weeks may be sparse.  Green Earth has done a great job all of the years we've been CSA members of keeping a good variety and good quantities of veggies.  I take this to be a result of all the experience, innovation, and wisdom that they use in their farming practices.  Last year was a particularly tough growing year, with a very hot, dry summer for the area, and I still felt that our shares were plentiful and abundant.

With the CSA we use, you can choose to join for a weekly pick-up, or for bi-weekly.  Personally, I have found that the bi-weekly is the best choice for us right now.  I enjoy having my own gardens, and perusing the farmers' markets in the area, so a bi-weekly pick-up gives me plenty of veggies to eat or process to store, but still not so many that I'm totally overwhelmed.  We also have the options of a spring and/or fall share for 4 weeks each, and those are weekly.  I do the spring, summer bi-weekly, and the fall.  I've found that spring and fall are some of my favorite harvests.  Lots of greens in those.

Every week, when the kids and I go to pick up our shares, here's the scene:  People line up early outside of the barn.  Some weeks, there are u-pick items...usually things that are too labor-intensive to make it productive for the farm to harvest on their own, like cherry tomatoes and green beans...and you can head back to the fields 15 minutes before pick-up time begins.  Everyone brings their own bags, baskets, boxes, whatever they want, to carry the haul.  Once the barn opens, we sign in on our check-in sheet and file along a long row of tables.  On the tables are bins of veggies, and with each veg is a sign telling us how much of that vegetable we get that week.  "Summer squash, take 5", "Kale, take 2", "Tomatoes, take 30".  At the end there is a trade box, where if there's something you don't want or don't need, you can trade that for something that someone else has traded in.

Here are some pictures of what some weekly hauls from my CSA looked like this past year:
Spring share: Spinach, tatsoi, kale, komatsuna, radishes, garlic scapes, carrots,
summer squash, harukei turnips, oregano, and snap peas
Early summer share: arugula, komatsuna, lettuce, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes,
tomatoes, radishes, garlic, green peppers, onions, Hungarian wax peppers, jalenenos,  and  red chilis
Mid summer share: TONS of tomatoes, zucchini, pattypan, and summer squash,
kale, peppers (hot and sweet), basil,  potatoes, and garlic
Late summer share: zucchini, summer squash, potatoes, kohlrabi,
assorted hot peppers, chard, kale, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and basil

Fall share: collard greens, spaghetti squash, pumpkins, Brussels sprouts, leeks,
cabbage, beets, garlic, thyme, potatoes, and spinach
The CSA has its' good and bad.  The first year, I had a lot that went to waste.  Which I felt fully awful about, especially knowing how hard the farmers worked to grow that food that had just gone bad in the drawer of my fridge.  Immense guilt.  I've had friends that have tried the CSA and not done it a second year because they ran into the same thing.  It is a little overwhelming to come home with 3 bags full of veggies to deal with. But, I will say that it does get better with experience.  Here's what has helped me deal with the abundance:

1 - Great vegetable cookbook resources.  From Asparagus to Zucchini is one of my favorites, and it's organized both by vegetable and by seasonal combinations of vegetables.
2 - Learning how to freeze and can to save vegetables for longer.  Googling "How do you freeze ____" is my go-to.
3 - Having an arsenal of recipes that can adapt to most veggies.  Stir fry is awesome.  A lot of nights when I go to pick up my share, I will have some chicken thawed and I'll throw the rice cooker to cook up rice while we're gone, then throw a bunch of the veg together to make a stir fry for dinner with whatever I get.  My creamy beefy veggie stuff is good for this too.

Every CSA is different, so if you make the decision to join one, be sure you're clear on what you're getting into.  Tour the farm, if you can.  Ask about additional opportunities that the farm may offer.  For example, my farm share is strictly veg, but they do have times when local sources come and you can purchase eggs or honey and such.  Get to know the people who work there.  Some farms allow volunteer opportunies where you can get your hands dirty helping around the farm.  My farm just started monthly potluck dinners on the farm this past year, and they were a great opportunity to visit with the people growing the food and other members of the CSA.  It also was another chance for my kids to feel more connected to the farm, which they already felt pretty at-home with.  Sitting around picnic tables, eating food that the community has grown and cooked and brought together, watching the kids run and play until the sun was setting...it was a zen-like experience.

CSAs aren't for the weak.  You take the ups and downs of a farm.  Nature controls your food in a way that few people can relate to in these times where food is so readily available.  You will be given things you may never have heard of or tasted before.  You will have little to no choice of what you're getting, and, if you're big on planning ahead, things may not go as you've planned.  But if you're up for an adventure and a bit of a challenge, CSAs, at their best, are great.  You spare the earth from the transportation costs of shipping your food from some state thousands of miles away.  You get organic food fresh from the field, and you will be able to taste the difference that that makes.  You're tied to nature, the weather, the seasons.  You share risks and rewards.  You connect to your food and the people who bring it to you in a way that's just not that common these days.  And that's pretty amazing.

This year, I'm going to do my best to post my CSA hauls, along with what I plan to do with each of them (and maybe even what I actually DO do with them), on this blog.  You'll get to follow along in the ups and downs, and help me be accountable for not wasting the bounty that we are given.  Maybe some of you will even be inspired to check out a CSA for yourself.

If you're interested in finding a CSA near you, www.localharvest.org is a great place to start looking.  And when you come across that vegetable you've never seen before and need a recipe, well, you know where to find me.