by Irene Costello
I learned about Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) 12 years ago while volunteering for the Food Project in Lincoln. On a crisp, deep blue September morning I helped the farm staff with the fall harvest. We started in one field pulling up carrots and beets followed by kale, chard and Brussels sprouts. Then we got down on our knees and rummaged though the soil for potatoes.
I remember feeling an intense, almost intimate, connection with the land. I thought of my grandfather, an Irish farmer, and the potato famine that brought him to America. My back ached, but I did not want to stop or to take my hands out of the earth. After lunch we set up the roadside stand for the CSA members who would stop by that afternoon to pick up their weekly shares—what I had just picked. Any surplus left at the end of the day went to a nearby food pantry. Intrigued with this concept, I wanted to know more.
CSA is a partnership between a local farm and its community. The idea dates back to mid-1960s to biodynamic farming experiments in Europe and the teikei movement in Japan, where a group of women concerned about their increasing dependence on imported food approached a local farm to grow fresh fruits and vegetables for their families.
Teikei means partnership. As partners the farmer and the members share the costs, risks and benefits associated with the production and distribution of locally grown food. The movement spread to the United States in the 1980s. The USDA’s 2007 census reports more than 12,000 CSA programs across the country with about 200 in Massachusetts. Great Barrington has one of the first CSAs in this country.
Basically, a farmer sells a certain number of shares of the harvest to the public at a set price in advance of the growing season. The upfront commitment by the shareholders helps cover the farm’s annual operating expenses and mitigates the farmer’s risk. The farmer receives a cash infusion in the spring when he needs it most to buy equipment, seeds, etc. In return the farmer provides a diverse supply of fresh produce to his shareholders throughout the growing season.
There are many kinds of CSA. Most operate on a system of weekly pickups of vegetables. Prices vary based on several factors including whether shares are pre-sorted, boxed and made ready for the members versus their selecting, weighing and bagging themselves. Fruit and flowers shares carry and additional cost.The CSA model has expanded
past vegetables and now you can find a few CSAs inMassachusetts offering shares of grass-fed and naturally raised livestock. Most farms offer tiered pricing to make shares affordable to all income levels; they also donate surplus to area food shelters. Some farmers ask for a few hours of labor from their members during the peak times.
Alas, my excitement about joining a CSA was short-lived. The weekly pickup became an immediate obstacle for me. Living in Brookline I knew that I did not have a schedule that would allow me to drive to the farm every week. I heard of some CSAs that did drop-offs to nearby towns, but they were still too far for me to take on Boston traffic every
week. So I waited and finally someone came up with a great idea: Bring the produce to the city and set up pickup sites in residential neighborhoods.
The closest to me was Brighton. Every Friday they set up a tent in a parking lot from 4 to 7 p.m. I subscribed to a 24-week vegetable and fruit share for $830: $680 for the vegetables plus $150 for the fruit. Upon learning that one share can feed a family of four, I decided to split mine with my upstairs neighbor. Farms do not generally sell half
shares, but members are welcome to divide theirs if they want. Finally, June arrived with strawberry season, and I was ready to reap the rewards of my first CSA.
Well, the season got off to a bumpy start. Recall that shareholders assume the risks as well as the rewards, and last summer was cold and wet. I remember severe thunderstorms, power outages and people struck by lightning—very scary weather indeed. The rain delayed and damaged some crops. Farms had to reschedule tomato festivals because
there hadn’t been enough hot, sunny days as of August. Consequently, through June and into July I found the weekly produce meager. I was most disappointed with the strawberries. I received only two quarts for the whole season, and they tasted downright watery—not intensely sweet and aromatic, as is characteristic of local strawberries—probably
due to the rain.
Every week the farm emailed a newsletter telling us what they were harvesting on the farm and what we could expect that week. I thought I already knew what it meant to eat seasonally. I consciously practiced it well before joining the CSA. I knew that in this climate the real bounty arrives later in the season. Still I was nonplused with my share for the first two months. I got more salad greens, summer squash and kale than I could ever want to eat. Likewise, they came in different forms and exotic names like kohlrabi and Hakurei, but they were still an overabundance of cabbage and turnips.
On the other hand, items such as broccoli, the first corn and early tomatoes were puny or picked too soon, and I found myself back at the store to purchase staple items. One week I read that pickling cucumbers would be available. I had the great idea that it was time to learn how to pickle and preserve. I bought a supply of mason jars and a book
on preserving vegetables and could hardly wait for Friday to set up operations in my kitchen. I got ONE cucumber. Exasperated, I cut it up and threw it into a salad. With my vision of living off the land shattered,
I wondered how our ancestors ever lived this way.
At last the summer picked up momentum. By August the quality improved tenfold or more. Eggplant, beets, beans, blueberries and watermelon arrived, followed by the long-awaited native corn and tomatoes. I wait all year for these two favorites. I parboiled and froze the extra plum tomatoes and enjoyed them through the winter. I did the same with the spinach. Later in the month crispy sweet apples and succulent pears arrived. They were the best I ever remember. I made compotes and my favorite tarte tatin. One night I made a few batches of ravioli with a variety of fillings using Swiss chard, squash and fragrant herbs. I froze them to enjoy during the winter too. I was in a groove; this was the experience that I had expected.
It is hard to put a value on a CSA. Each week I would sort and weigh my share hoping to arrive at a cost-benefit proposition—the business brain that I am. In terms of dollars and output last year’s share was certainly more expensive than what I could have purchased commercially. However, it is also a more accurate reflection of the true cost of food. Therefore the value must go deeper than price per pound and anyone looking for a bargain or ultimate convenience should look elsewhere. For me the value of a CSA lies in the partnership that reconnects consumer to farmer. It is taking personal responsibility for land stewardship. It is democratic by including all income levels. It is by all accounts the root of a community.
TIPS FOR MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR CSA
Be patient. Remember that you are truly eating in the season.
Do a CSA with someone. You will inevitably have days that you cannot
make it to your farm or pickup site. You and a neighbor or friend
can cover for each other.
Participate in the farm. Even if your share gets delivered to you, plan
to visit the farm at least once.Making a direct connection to the source
of your food and its growers is important to the overall experience.
Preserve what you cannot use right away. Consider freezing, canning
or even drying techniques. It is a real treat to make your favorite
pasta sauce in the middle of winter with your own tomatoes.
Share. If preserving doesn’t interest you, then give your extra produce
to friends and neighbors. Sharing is the best way to help promote your
farm and spread the word about CSAs.
Compost. What you receive is exactly the way it is pulled out of the
earth—stalks, stems, leaves and all. Consider composting as a means
to return scraps and trimmings back to the earth. Many towns offer
composting bins at a discount, or search online for a “how to compost.”
Here is one site to get you started: eartheasy.com/grow_compost.