(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 12, 2009)
My cousins have a vegetable farm in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington D.C. This is the ninth year they have offered shares in a Community Supported Agriculture program. Their CSA is tremendously successful, with more loyal, devoted, repeat customers than they have room for. I was in a CSA this summer, with a few disgruntled customers (too many greens). My experience notwithstanding, the CSA movement is sweeping the country.
Community Supported Agriculture, also known as Consumer Sponsored Agriculture, basically involves consumers, or customers, purchasing shares in a some or all of a farm's summer crops. If the harvest is extra plentiful, customers share in the extra bounty, and likewise if weather is bad and crops do poorly, everyone gets a little less. CSA enables farmers to plan ahead more accurately and to insulate themselves against really bad years. Customers like them because people are feeling an impetus to "think globally; act locally," and to know where their food has come from. In some cases they may get to know personally the farmers who grow their food. Often farms that offer CSAs are organic or, as in many cases, use organic methods but have not gone through the paperwork to be certified as organic.
CSAs typically go from sometime in June to sometime in October. Sometimes flowers, eggs or even meat are offered in addition to fresh—very fresh—produce. Full shares generally are designed to feed a vegetable-loving family of four to six people for a week, but some CSAs offer half- or even quarter-shares.
This year I decided to join a CSA! The CSA we joined offered half- and full shares, but since I knew I was probably the only one likely to be eating it, I agreed to share a half-share with a single woman who lived near me. After a few weeks, I began to realize that I should have taken my cousins' advice more seriously. On the website for their farm, they list who should not join a CSA. Many jumped out at me in retrospect: people who don't cook at home (my husband generally cooks at our house, but he mostly cooks from mixes), people who don't like vegetables (corn, peas, green beans and spinach, and that's it, unless you count iceberg lettuce), people who don't like trying new foods (I rest my case), and people who are looking for a bargain (he started checking the price on the supermarket Swiss chard, which was 70¢ a pound, and trying to calculate what we had paid for our several pounds of it).
Needless to say, my husband hates summer, fall, winter and spring squash. So having a refrigerator full of squash and greens did not endear him to the CSA idea. I chopped them up tiny and stir fried them with rice and chicken and called it "chicken fried rice." My daughter requested that in future I not cut the yucky stuff up so small so that she could pick it out more easily!
Then, in the middle of July, we had a horrible heat wave and didn't want to cook or eat anything, never mind that the fridge was full of vegetables we didn't know what to do with. Figures, our refrigerator broke down and we had to compost the whole refrigerator full of cabbages, cucumbers and Creamsicles! We skipped a week or two while we coped with that mess.
When the first fresh, organic ear of corn arrived, my darling husband took one look and went to the supermarket. I ate the organic ear; he and the kids ate the aged corn of indeterminate origin. By the time we got the tomatoes I'd been hoping for, I was exhausted. Besides, my own tomato plant in the container outside was actually producing!
Of course, since we were in New England, there were good carrots, potatoes and onions, and more kinds of winter squash than I had ever heard of. I'm forgetting vegetables, I'm sure, and making the CSA sound horrible. They weren't horrible, but they weren't a good match for us.
I don't know what's more embarassing, that I didn't enjoy the experience more or that I was surprised that I didn't enjoy it more. But I hope you can learn from my lessons to ensure that you have a terrific CSA experience!
how to enjoy your CSA experience
- start slowly: There are lots of blogs out there from people who have joined CSAs. Read them. [I didn't!] Could you eat that way? Do you eat local, seasonal produce every day? [No way!]
- find a farm you like: Different farms grow different assortments of vegetables. My cousins' farm's CSA subscriptions in 2008 were sold out in a few hours in February, and they are anticipating similar popularity this year, 2009. The CSA we joined was still selling subscriptions in May. [That should have been a clue.] Most farms have farm stands or sell at farmer's markets in addition to CSAs, so if you can, check out their style and their produce. Ask to see a list of last year's week-by-week offerings. [I did none of this, naturally.]
- make sure they've done it before: I'm not actually sure if our CSA had ever existed before this year, but I certainly should have checked. [My bad, definitely.]
- make sure you've done it before: I was totally unprepared for the volume of produce that was passing through my house. If you don't already eat a lot of seasonal fresh vegetables, joining a CSA won't force you to. [You mean they won't eat it just because all of a sudden it's there?] Consider learning how to preserve some of the excess bounty for the lean winter months, but be prepared! [I sure wasn't. I didn't know how to freeze the leftovers—it never occurred to me.]
If you can't wait for the farmer's market every summer, you make friends with the farmers, and ask a lot of questions, then you will enjoy learning more about how food is produced and how it makes its way to you, which you get free with a CSA membership.
If you enjoy trying funny-looking new vegetables, even if you don't quite know how to cook them, and you're willing to look upon it as a learning and growing experience, then you're the right kind of person (or family) to make the most out of joining a CSA.
If you want to have a stake in how your food is produced, where it came from and who grew it, then maybe a CSA would be just right for you! Please check out the links below.
photographs are of (probably my relatives at) Potomac Vegetable Farms, and are used with their kind permission. The exception is the thumbnail picture.