Last spring, soon after my sister and I combined our broods under one roof, we joined a farm cooperative. Surely our blended family of 11 could benefit from a crate of fresh produce each week, we thought.
A month after we joined, three-year-old Hilary ate her first green beans. “She’s not even close to eating kale,” conceded my sister. But then, we still had weeks of deliveries before us.
I’m the one with the career in food, but joining the cooperative — more commonly known as signing up with a CSA (community-supported agriculture) — was my sister’s idea. “It makes me feel like I’m doing something good for my family,” she said. Considering that her two older daughters had previously subsisted on a diet of chocolate milk and American cheese, this was no small feat.
We were turned on to the cooperative by our friend Lauren Hirsch, who cooks a mostly vegetarian diet for her vegetarian husband, Brian, and their two young daughters. She, in turn, was turned off by the high price of organic produce, and went looking for a cheaper option. She found it in her CSA.
“I thought it was a great way to buy organic produce at a discount,” she explains. But as she learned more about CSAs, she says, “I began to put more value into sustainable agriculture and eating seasonally and locally.”
In a CSA, members pay up front for a share of a local farm’s harvest; the farmer benefits by getting the money at the start of the season when he needs it most, and the members benefit by getting a crate of just-picked produce each week at a lower price (and usually higher quality) than at the supermarket. Traditional CSAs provide members with an equal share of the farm’s harvest for the week; the members have no choice in what they receive.
Hirsch, who has been a member of various CSAs over the past six years and is currently a member of Red Earth Farm in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, says, “I’ve come to view the lack of choice as a benefit. Some of my favorite vegetables are the sorts of things I never would have thought to buy in a supermarket.”
For many people, however, a box full of unfamiliar vegetables can be more burden than bounty. And in the middle of summer, a bushel of wintry vegetables like kale and turnips can be a seemingly incongruous addition to the dinner table. That’s why some farms offer member-choice CSAs. At Red Earth Farm, for example, members who don’t choose their items online one week prior to delivery receive the farmer’s pick of the produce instead.
Red Earth farmer Michael Ahlert says that as many as 75 percent of his members choose their own produce. Hirsch prefers to be surprised each week. “When your basket comes pre-loaded with Swiss chard, or fiddlehead ferns,” she explains, “you learn fast how to embrace new dishes.”
Buying a share in Red Earth Farm costs $525 for 23 weeks’ worth of produce; a typical weekly delivery might include one pint of cherry tomatoes, one bunch of Italian parsley, five sweet bell peppers, four summer squash, one pound of okra, four cucumbers, one bunch of Swiss chard, two pounds of yellow potatoes, one-and-a-half pounds of peaches, and one pound of carrots.
In addition to the standard share, members who order online have the option of adding other locally produced products, such as honey or cheese, to their delivery for an additional charge.
For many farmers, two major attractions of community-supported agriculture are the bond formed between farmers and members, and the connection members forge with their food. That’s why some farms require members to pick up their produce on site; some even allow members to choose what they want, within an allotted amount, from that week’s offerings. And occasionally, a CSA will encourage or even require members to put in a few hours per season on the farm, pulling weeds and harvesting produce.
But many farms, like Red Earth, are too far from urban areas to have members pick up their own produce; instead, they rely on centrally located pick-up locations staffed by site hosts, who typically receive a free share in exchange for overseeing member pick-ups.
“We wish we had more contact with the customer,” says Ahlert, but “site hosts are the next best thing.” To facilitate more interaction, he hosts a potluck dinner and one-day retreat for members. “If people come to the farm, they see what we’re doing,” he says, “and they have a chance to learn about where their food comes from.”
Once members get to know the farmers who grow and harvest their food, they’re likely to be more forgiving when calamity strikes: a week of thunderstorms in July that damages the lettuce crop, or a long drought that delays the arrival of tomatoes.
The fickleness of the weather, really, is the lone drawback of community-supported agriculture: you only get a share of what the farm harvests. If the harvest is affected, your share will be affected as well.
It’s been a year since our first CSA season, and now we’re gearing up for another round of produce. The kids are all a year older, and hopefully their palates have expanded a bit.
But although Hilary now loves raw baby spinach and bell peppers, I don’t think kale is in her future; she simply won’t eat it. To be perfectly honest, none of us will.
Cookbook author Keri Fisher (One Cake, One Hundred Desserts) has written for Saveur, Gastronomica, and Cook’s Illustrated. She lives outside Philadelphia with her sister, her husband, and her three children, and keeps a blog about living in a communal household.
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