The dead of winter may cause cravings for the fresh produce bounties of spring and summer. Community Supported Agriculture farms know this, which is why the time is ripe (get it?!) to consider signing up for a CSA box.
Friend of Amateur Hour and all-around awesome person Lili Daniel details her experience with a CSA in a DINK (dual-income, no kids) household.
You can find more of Lili’s musing at http://ellegolightly.tumblr.com.
As I gear up for 2015 and reflect back on all the ups and downs of 2014, I realize that in the past twelve months, I crossed a massive to-do off my food related bucket list. I got incredibly adventurous with my diet. I ate local and supported small business and farms. And I learned a lot about freezing food, preserving produce, and stretching leftovers into lunches and new meals.
How did I achieve all this? By necessity – I bought a half-share of a CSA.
Now, all of the readers of this fine blog are inevitably foodies, but in case you live where this is not the cultural phenomenon it’s become in yuppie New Jersey, CSA stands for community supported (or shared) agriculture. What it means, basically, is that a farm is offering shares like stock options to local people who want to support it. The people who buy those shares are then called “members” of the CSA, and on a regular basis – usually once a week – the farm prepares a box of produce for each member. The members of the CSA then go to a pickup place, often the farm, to get the box.
The biggest question mark with a CSA is that not only do you only get things that are in season and presently being grown by the farm, you do not get to choose what’s in your particular box in most cases. (My CSA did offer an option of going to the farm and “choosing” your produce, but even that only involved a choice of two veggies and the rest of the box that the membership received that week.) So if you don’t like a certain veggie, and your farm is having a boon of that crop this season, looks like you have to find a way to love it or sell it on the black market.
I’m kidding, unless there IS a black market for vegetables, in which case I’ll sell a kidney to get some heirloom tomatoes right now.
My journey being a CSA member began in April, when I got my tax refund check and frantically emailed a local farm (of which there are many – this is the Garden State, after all) to see if there were still shares available. Note to all: if you want to join a CSA, believe it or not, the dead of winter is the time to buy a share. People become loyal to certain farms and space becomes very limited. Luckily, there were still a handful of slots available, and I bit the bullet and sent them over $399 of my hard-earned tax refund.
This is another big thing to keep in mind with a CSA – it’s not cheap! Which makes sense, because you get months of produce that are prepaid, but don’t do this if you’re not going to eat all or most of the things you receive. A full share of my farm was $750, and it was one of the cheaper ones in the area. That was recommended for a family of 4-5 or two families to split, so I figured the half share, at $399 for the season, was more than enough for me and my veggie-loathing fiance. When you broke down the price for what they anticipated to provide each week, it came to $15 a box, which was the amount I usually spend on produce in the grocery store anyway. So I viewed it as an investment. Especially considering that the farm anticipated its season going from May through October. All those months of summer veggies PLUS the bounty of squash during the fall?? Sign me up. Literally.
But the question I’m sure most of you ACTUALLY want to know: how was the produce?
The season started in late May with beautiful strawberries, fresh herbs, and greens. Greens as far as the eye could see. Unique greens that I never would have purchased – baby bok choy, lacinato kale, that lovely purple-tipped soft lettuce that comes in salad packs. I am a fan of salad greens with a lot of taste but not a ton of crunch, so this was a good first week to pull me in and keep me hooked. Summer continued with more strawberries, including a delightful pick-your-own session at the farm that yielded so many that I chopped and froze at least a quart. I also got blueberries, tomatoes, carrots, and an absolute plethora of unique greens. So many delicious fresh salads were consumed.
When the peak of summer hit, in late June or early July, the zucchini started coming – and continued coming. I love zucchini, but I unfortunately did not find a way to prepare it that my fiance did not hate, so I had a lot of veggie stir-fry lunches at home. A real lot. An embarrassing amount. Also included at this time were green beans, broccoli (although the crop had suffered from the harsh winter, so it was not a lot of broccoli), cauliflower, more salad greens and herbs, radicchio, leeks, radishes, cabbage, and spinach. Turns out I don’t love radishes, but the fiance actually does, so at least they got eaten.
Late summer brought much more summer squash, along with gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, scallions, massive eggplants, more cabbage, the beginnings of beets and root vegetables, snap beans, and bell peppers that I could eat like an apple. This was my favorite time of the whole season. My box every week was overflowing with vibrant, tasty things, and I felt slightly overwhelmed just unpacking it each week.
That is the box from one week, taking up the vast majority of my counter. On the side there, partially in frame, is a whole watermelon that was sitting outside the box for every single member. This happened multiple times during the summer. An entire watermelon. The mighty struggle to get to my car with my half share box and a watermelon precariously balanced on top was, probably, the stuff of which YouTube celebrity is made.
As fall settled in, the watermelon and peppers were ushered out in favor of sweet potatoes, shallots, beets, cherry tomatoes, and heartier greens like collards and the return of kale. I knew it had actually become fall when I got the email that outside my box would be a pumpkin. Then a spaghetti squash (far and away the best squash!) Then acorn squash – and I was implored to take two of them. It was a Squash 101 seminar, in the best of ways. I was still, inexplicably, receiving cabbage, which I was direly sick of at this point, but I was also receiving bagged spring mix and arugula which were insanely delicious. I had no idea arugula was a fall harvest but I was incredibly glad for it. It’s by far my favorite salad green and it was worth the wait.
The season didn’t tail off until the week before Thanksgiving, thanks to the relatively mild fall. By November, the tomatoes had finally ended (they continued far later into the season than I had anticipated), but sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts had made an appearance, as well as the return of a lot of early season crops like carrots and cauliflower and leeks. I was legitimately sad picking up my last box, except when I opened it and saw one final head of cabbage. I wanted to yell, Austin Powers-style at it, “WHY WON’T YOU DIE?”
So what did I learn from my CSA season? Well, first off, it was definitely worth the monetary investment. According to my calculation, my $399 investment bought me 26 weeks of CSA boxes, or a solid half of the year. That breaks down to $15.35 a box, which was absolutely worth it. It gave me a glowing do-gooder feeling to have spent a chunk of my money on a local farm. My grocery bill was reduced significantly over the course of the season, mainly because I wouldn’t buy veggies for sides with dinner or for my lunches – I’d use what the box had provided that week.
That brings me to my biggest lesson: I learned SO much about vegetables. I was well-versed in arugula salads and roasted Brussels sprouts and sauteed green beans, but I’d never cooked a collard green or a leek in my life before I got this box. Now, I still think fondly about the roasted leek soup I made on a whim back in September, and I miss my easy lunches of braised collards with turkey sausage and a fried egg on top. By necessity, I found a billion ways to make cabbage, including as the cups on lettuce wrap-style fajitas, cut into steaks and grilled (don’t knock it until you try it, it’s surprisingly good), and shredded fine into a thousand different slaws. And it wasn’t until the end of the year, on what was probably my 670th head of cabbage, that I got sick of it. That’s impressive. I learned about garlic scapes, and swiss chard, and so many other vegetables that I don’t even remember them all. I made so much new delicious food.
I also got the hang of prepping veggies ahead of time, also by necessity. Beets and root veggies? Chop ‘em, toss with oil, throw on pan, roast! Ready for lunches. Carrots and peppers? Wash ahead of time, peel carrots, chop and throw into containers for snacks! I ended up making time on the Saturdays after I got the box (or Sunday, if things were busy) to deal in some way with all the veggies I’d just received.
In the interest of presenting the full spectrum of CSA emotions, however, there were a few drawbacks. The prepwork for my box took up a lot of time, and I frequently would spend 2-3 hours on a Saturday chopping and roasting and washing (there’s a LOT of washing to do with organic farm produce) and then subsequently washing the knives and salad spinner and cutting boards. I could have amortized this over the week, but I found that the less work I have to do on a Tuesday night to make my Wednesday lunch, the better. Along those lines, the half share was still a lot for two people, and we threw out more than I’d care to admit. Especially in the winter, when a potato can go from “fine” to “dear God get it away from me it’s developing a brain” seemly in ten minutes. And that was with sharing our unwanted veggies and giving away two of our weekly boxes – and altogether forgetting a late-season box on a Saturday morning, which was maddening. Fresh organic stuff just goes bad more quickly. Better for your body, worse for your fridge.
Furthermore, while I liked the variety and the mystery, it was at times annoying that I would just feel like some roasted green beans but instead I had salad greens for the eighth week straight. Or tomatoes. I never thought I’d get sick of tomatoes, but after the summer of receiving about three pounds of tomatoes a week, and being the only person in my household that eats them… I needed a breather. There were definitely times where I said to myself, “I know for a fact that ____ is in season and I really wish I had some of that right now instead of MORE CABBAGE.” You are at the mercy of your farm, and their luck in growing crops this year, so you take what you get and like it and don’t complain.
Overall, I’m still on the fence about whether or not I’ll become a member of my farm again this year. I felt great about making an investment in local agriculture and eating fresh Jersey vegetables all year, but I felt guilty and weird about eventually coming to hate swiss chard and throwing out entire bags of vegetables that we just didn’t have time to eat. It might be better, for my household with two people (one of whom is an incredibly picky eater), to just make a habit of going to the farmer’s market every Saturday and getting a couple of seasonal items instead of getting a cornucopia delivered once a week.
My 2014, though, was definitely enhanced by my CSA. And until I decide about 2015, you can find me here, wrapped in a blanket scarf at my desk and waiting patiently for collard greens to come back into season. My sincere thanks to Bonnie for letting me share my story, and for having a fabulous blog that has inspired many a veggie-laden dinner for my CSA bounty!
You can find more of Lili’s musing at http://ellegolightly.tumblr.com.