Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Old MacDonald had a CSA

What is a CSA and why should I (or shouldn't I) join?

A CSA or, Community Supported Agriculture is a farm in your area that produces animal and/or vegetable products to be sold mainly in the community.  These are not huge farms that crank out Nuclear Chickens to be shipped all over the country.  These are small Mom and Pop operations, usually with a few additional hands to help with the heavy workload that comes with farming.  CSAs make their money before you get your products.  They buy the seeds, pay for labor, and buy/fix equipment needed to grow the food.  If your farm (once you pay for your share, it really becomes your farm) flourishes, you reap the benefit and get more food but what happens if there is a drought or animal sickness?  There is always that risk but farmers are not stupid and they care about their farms.  If they didn't, they wouldn't be in the business.  More often than not, people who join a CSA find that they have more food than they can use.

There are a variety of CSA programs, each one decided upon by the individual farms.  I found several CSA farms in my area just by searching the web.  The one I chose was fairly small, convenient to my home/commute route, uses organic growing methods, and I liked their website.  Before the season started, they had a sort of "Meet the Farm" day where they hosted a potluck lunch, gave a tour of the farm on a hay wagon, and invited all the members to hang out and mingle, to see who else was interested in the CSA.  There were a lot of new-comers and just a handful of returning members.

I did some research before I finally made up my mind about joining.  It is a big commitment after all and I had a ton of questions: "What if I get vegetables I don't like?"  "Will I really get my money's worth?"  "What if I can't eat it all every week?"  For me, joining the CSA was a big part of making the commitment to eat Paleo.  I found that, with all the produce I was bringing home every week I was forced to stay out of the grocery store since there was simply no room in my fridge for anything more.  The rest of the household is very anti-vegetable so I had to be very creative with using up my weekly share without letting it go in the compost.  I learned ways to keep lettuce fresh, longer.  I learned to make lettuce soup and lettuce pesto (which my daughter later decided she loved).  Lettuce pesto also freezes beautifully so when you're getting 5 heads of lettuce per week and you are tired of salad, make that pesto!  I learned to make pickles from a wide variety of vegetables.   Pickled radishes wowed a few people at work.  I learned it's possible to can cantaloupe and it's a wonderful treat in January!

If you find vegetables you don't like or can't or won't use, share!  Your family/friends/neighbors/co-workers will love you for it and you will be thankful that you don't have to throw it away.  You can also use this method when you are getting beyond capacity in the fridge or if you're planning to go away on vacation.

Some quick advice tidbits:

Before the season begins, clean out your fridge, freezer, and pantry as much as possible so you have enough room for all the wonderful veggies coming your way.

A salad spinner will make cleaning your produce infinitely easier.

Read about canning and find recipes that sound good to you.  Keep them in a place you can find them quickly.  Buy canning equipment if you don't already own it.  Buy canning spices if you don't already own them.

Stock up on paper towels, plastic zipper bags, and save the plastic grocery store containers from lettuce and spinach.

Sharpen knives.

On the day of your CSA pick-up:

Be sure your sink, counter,and cutting boards are clean and ready to use.

Don't plan to do anything else before your share is cleaned and put away.
Lettuce and greens get wilty very quickly if even a small amount of dirt is left on them for a couple of days.  I set aside at least an hour and a half to clean and put away my share.  I plan to eat something left over from the previous week so I don't have to worry about cooking on top of cleaning and putting everything away.

Pull out anything left from the previous week and be sure it is still usable.
Delicate lettuces wilt or get slimey very quickly, so always eat those first.  Save heartier lettuces and greens for later use.  Some items such as cabbage will keep a VERY long time if kept dry.  I have had them last more than a month and they were still delicious.

Plan recipes to cook later in the week with what you have brought home.  My CSA posts recipe suggestions on a menu board at pick-up and sometimes emails recipes.

This post comes after my CSA has started, but there are other CSAs near me that are still taking members, if you're looking to join.  If you think you want to join but aren't sure about the commitment, start at the weekend Farmer's Market.  You will see what produce is in season in your area on different weeks and can buy a little to try recipes or get the hang of canning.  I think the reason a lot of people don't return to a CSA is guilt over not being able to use the whole share every week.  I did give away a few things from my share and the recipients were very grateful.  I will admit, there were also a few things that slipped through the cracks and ended up as compost but not many.  Supporting local farmers makes me feel really good and I love being able to visit my farm each week.  Please note that some CSA programs deliver to a central location or even to your home.  Check them out for all the answers.

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