Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Community Supported Agriculture

Produce, Virtual Farmer's Market, Westchester County, New York.

An Experiment in Health and Biodiversity with a Side of Crunchy Feel-Good Local Food Supply Promotion (CSA: Week One)

Hey there. Jen here. I haven't had much to say lately, but something fun worth sharing has started for me. Namely, after two years of trying, I have finally gotten into my local Community Supported Agriculture collective.

For those not in the know, a CSA is a sort of "next step" after local farmer's markets. Basically, it's like buying futures on the stock market but with fresh produce. Before the season begins, you buy a "share" at the CSA. There are only a set number of shares available for any CSA, depending on the size of the area serviced and how many farmers are participating in any one CSA. Some places have one flat share for everything that season (fruit, veggies, flowers, herbs, etc.) My particular CSA is the Hellgate CSA, which has lots of separate shares. I myself got the "full monty" of everything they offer this season: A veg share, a fruit share, a culinary herbs share, a basil share (4 drops of basil, I picked the weeks off of a calendar), and a tomato share (which I also chose the date for—let's just say that on 8/26 I'll be wondering what to do with 20 lbs. of mixed artisanal tomatoes—I see sauce). Once deliveries start, you show up once a week at an appointed time and place and pick up your share of…whatever the farmers collectively have in that week. Everyone gets an identical box of produce. The idea is that produce doesn't rot in the market if the weather sucks, and the farmers get their money up front. Lots of farmers now pre-sell most of their crop to CSA's and commercial versions for restaurants. It keeps small farmers in business even if the crops fail or don't produce as well as anticipated. In good years, everyone wins. It also encourages the planting of artisanal crops and heirloom varieties, as opposed to monoculture mass farming. So it's less likely that one farm's entire planting will fail if they plant 40 different things, even if it's 10 varieties of carrots, 10 of tomatoes, etc.

In addition to all of this, CSA members in my case get to order local meat, poultry, fish, dairy, bakery, preserved, and bee-produced products from a huge list of local providers on a special secure website that now (hallelujah!!) takes PayPal. Two Tuesdays from tomorrow I'll be getting some organic ground organic mutton (thinking real Navajo-style green chili) and a pound of raw-milk farmhouse cheddar-style cheese.

You have to pick up your own share; most don't deliver and won't hold a share for you. It's a commitment. In addition, many CSAs require you to work the distribution and sorting of at least a few distribution dates. (I was able to buy my way out of working 4 shifts, but I still have to pick up my stuff myself.) I see it as a commitment for myself to pick up my share each week (which means getting out of work at a reasonable time on Tuesdays no matter what, just like folks with kids and daycare arrangements) and to cook and eat it in a pro-health manner. If I can't squeeze out time for the gym, this is at least one step I can take which will force me to eat more fruit and veggies (and eat out less—more $ for important stuff like electronics, books, and perfume ;) .)

I first found out about the CSA 3 years ago when it was fairly new. I found out too late to join (all the spots were gone) but I got on the wait list for the FOLLOWING year (previous years' members are given dibs on a spot automatically; someone has to drop out for someone else to get in if no new spots are created.) Last year, I got a spot...sort of. Someone wanted to split a share, as some folks find a full share too much for one person. That meant paying a total stranger a largish amount of money and then counting on them to pick up the produce for us to split on "their" pickup day.

Then Gilly got really, really sick. I had better things to worry about—not my health, but his. His wake was two days after what would have been my first pickup.

I sent a polite email to the CSA management declining a half-share and explaining my circumstances; my spot was gone in 10 minutes. However, almost a whole year later back in April, some kind soul there remembered me and my story…and emailed me immediately when a spot became available for this year.

So, in a rush of enthusiasm, I dropped a fair bit of coin on six months of fresh produce—first pick up is tomorrow; last one is the week of Thanksgiving. I am dedicated to not wasting any of the goodness, even if it means brown-bagging it to work (which is probably a much better habit to get into anyway as the food at the office sucks.)

I already have a locally-published green market cookbook as well as a slightly tonier tome, both courtesy of Amazon's Z-shops. However I am open to suggestions and in fact am actively soliciting them. I'm going to try to send along what I'm going to get each week (apparently we find out on Monday) and what I wound up doing with the prior week's drop.

Here's what I'm supposed to be picking up this Tuesday
not sure what kinds of quantities we're talking:
Share for June 10, 2008

Veggie Share
strawberries (surprised that this isn't in the fruit drop but I guess they're ready now so here they are)
curly peppercress
Jerusalem artichokes
spring onions

Herb Share
flowering sage

Fruit drops start in two weeks.

Here are my ideas so far:

  • Eat the cress as-is, as much as possible
  • Poach the sunchokes; eat some fresh also; site for CSA also has recipe for a salad
  • Eat the strawberries as-is unless I have a ton of them in which case I may make a cobbler for a party I'm going to this weekend (may do this anyway)
  • Make my garlic slaw with the spring onions and use the rest to cook chicken with the herbs
  • Herbs: I was going to make herb butter but may just pick up some white vinegar and make more-healthy infused vinegar and/or olive oils instead. Okay, I may make just a little sage butter and freeze it. Eat the flowers off the sage in salad if they are not too strong.
Any other ideas, folks?

Also, I got (probably) ripped off ordering those special "keep your produce fresh" reusable plastic bags. Anyone got a favorite brand/maker of these or other "how to keep your fridge from eating your veggies before you do" solutions?

Thank you again everyone for your support and input.