09 November 2011

your first csa season, tips & advice

Has an entire season of peeking inside my CSA share convinced you to join one?

No? Well let me try one last time to convert you.

Yes? Well let me give you a few fair warnings to make sure you've really thought it over. We loved our experience and will talk about it to anyone who will listen, but CSAs aren't for everyone. Here's the deal.

A few overly-generalized CSA basics...

You find a farm that runs a CSA program. I found mine through a CSA Fair at the Troy Farmers Market. That's where I first met Christina and Farmer Michael. Those two, they'll get you to buy anything. You can find your farm by asking around at your local farmers market or going to localharvest.org.

A few months or weeks before the season starts, you pay up. That's right, you pay upfront for an entire season of produce. That's the whole point-- you buy a "share" of the farm, helping supply it with capital to make investments for the upcoming growing season. It may seem like a lot of money. It probably is a lot of money. But it's a great place to spend a lot of money. Cut back on your nasty Starbucks habit, stop buying expensive processed foods or pre-cut veggies at the supermarket and reign in your shoe fetish. Reinvest in your health and your community. Yes, it supports local farms and farmers but it's not like you are making a charitable donation. YOU GET FOOD FROM IT. Real, whole, healthy, fresh, local and interesting food. It's a very good deal.

You pick up you produce (or maybe they deliver it) once a week. In a typical CSA model, you pick up a box of veggies that have already been chosen and sorted for you. It's a surprise! As members of a pilot delivery CSA from Kilpatrick Family Farm, this is the model we belonged to,. We had no control over what we got each week. Fun! Scary! Exciting! There are other CSA models where you do get a choice in your vegetables, but the surprise option is the most common and also the most intimidating so that's what I'll cover here.

The veggies you get aren't your boring, run-of-the-mill grocery store varieties. You know that by now. CSAs help farms continue to grow many types and varieties of vegetables, keeping diversity alive out on the fields. That's good for the earth (maybe? seems like it would be), good for farmers and good for eaters. Your tomatoes will be varied and juicy, your onions will also be varied and (surprisingly) juicy.

You get to meet great people. Even though we were part of a home delivery program wherein our food magically appeared on our stoop every Thursday (ha, kidding my dear CSA Coordinator), I still know who the people are that grow my food and make it accessible to me. I went on a farm tour and u-pick strawberry field trip and hung out with Michael, Keith and all of the other super hardworking people that bring me my cherry tomatoes and green beans. If you pick up your share each week, you'll get to know your farmers that way. You're part of a team. Holla! And really, you're the funnest part of the team... you're the part that gets to sit back, relax and eat good food.

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You...

If you don't like to cook, a CSA is not for you. There, I said it. By all means, get yourself to a farmers market stat and start supporting the hardworking people who bring you fresh, local and healthy food. Do as much of your produce shopping at farmers markets and farm stands as you can. But you may want to think twice about a CSA. At the farmers market, you'll be able to pick out exactly what you like, what you need and what you know how to cook. A corollary to this point is: it takes time to thoughtfully plan meals and menus with a bunch of semi-foreign vegetables. Even with veggies you know and love, you need to be able to set aside a good chunk of time to sort through cookbooks and the Google to find new recipes and different ways of cooking up all that farm-fresh goodness.

You pay upfront for a season of produce. That season may go very well for your farm, or it may go less-than-perfectly. It's a risk and it's a risk worth taking. Yes, check your farm out to make sure they have the capacity to handle a good CSA program. But know that Mother Nature has a way of meddling in your best-laid plans and budgets. Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee dropped the hurt on our region this year, leaving behind many devastated fields and lost crops in local farms. It was then that we were most happy with our decision to become CSA members. Although the revenue from KFF's CSA program is designated for specific, long-term investments rather than weekly operating costs, we were happy to have made a commitment to support a local farm through a tough season. (I should note that the quality of our shares remained stellar but even if KFF not been able to maintain that level, we would have been ok with that.)

Most CSAs are different than shopping at a farmers market and different than having your own garden. All three are really awesome options. We've tried our hardest to squeeze a little fresh food out of our living space; a Topsy Turvy hanging in the bathroom (fail), a container garden on the windowsill (meh, aliens took it one year) and even a little pepper tree on our window ledge. Not exactly a self-sustaining operation, you know? We love a good stroll at the farmers market, but we were ready to go a little deeper into crazy vegetable town. And seriously, as lame as it may sound, our CSA was a total adventure. I loved peering inside our cooler each week, not always knowing what was in there or how on earth we were going to cook it. You have to be willing to try new things and to experiment a bit with your diet.

Thus concludes my wrap-up of the 2011 Summer CSA Season. If you haven't already picked up on it, we are big CSA advocates and cheerleaders. A warm shout-out to the peeps at KFF that fed Chris & I all season long. We're looking forward to next summer :) Anyone else have CSA tips to share?

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