My newest obsession is Community Sustained Agriculture, or CSA. A CSA is program in which the member pays for a share of the local harvest in spring or fall upfront so farmers can buy supplies in the winter to start growing in spring. In turn, members get their “repayment” of produce from the farm weekly or bi-weekly during the harvest season.
Traditionally, a CSA was created when a group of neighbors got together to buy a farm and hire a farmer. They then split the harvest among themselves. It was like having your own personal farm without having to do all the work.
Most CSAs are available from spring to fall, so if you’re stuck on campus for summer session, it’s a great way to eat healthy and experiment with new ingredients. But don’t feel like you’ve missed the boat. Some CSAs will pro-rate the weekly dues so that when you join late in the season, you’re only paying for the remaining weeks. If you’re looking for a way to support the local farms, eat organic, or you just want to play Iron Chef with your weekly box of produce, here are some tips for joining a CSA:
1. Know whom you support. If you boast about how organic, green, sustainable, etc. your life is, you better do a background check. Make sure the farm(s) that participate in the CSA are certified organic, make an effort to be sustainable, use Integrated Pest Management techniques, and treat their animals well. But please refrain from asking a million questions about the quality of life of their chickens. This isn’t Portlandia.
2. Be flexible. I thought I’d be making a lot of salads with my vegetable share, but as it turns out, I haven’t gotten any lettuce so far. If you like to plan your weekly meals, a farm share might not be for you, but if you’re like me and like to pretend you’re on Iron Chef when the weekly box of produce is revealed, you’ll have so much fun with it.
3. Find your style. Not into surprises? Check out other types of CSAs that allow you to choose your own produce from the available options. “Mix-n-Match” or “Market-Style” CSAs are set up like a personal farmers’ market, where you are allowed to fill your box to your liking.
4. Think outside the farm share box. CSAs aren’t just for fruits and veggies. Some farms offer shares of fresh meat, dairy, or flowers and herbs. If you’re not ready to commit to a share of produce, try out one of these.
5. Don’t expect to get everything you need from a CSA. Obviously you’ll still need to get the pantry staples from the grocery store, and some CSAs don’t include fruit. First ask the farmer what you can expect in your weekly share.
6. Too much of a good thing. I’ve had to shred, fry, bake, broil, and grill zucchini in the last few weeks more than I ever have. Fortunately, I love zucchini, but there’s a point when you have to figure out how to save it for later. Learn how to freeze or can vegetables to avoid spoiling, as organic produce will spoil faster than store-bought. (That’s a good thing.)
Alexia Detweiler is a freelance food blogger from Lancaster, Pa. where she’s lucky enough to live within walking distance of one of the best farmers’ markets in the world.