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On Community Supported Agriculture

This year, like many people it seems, we took the plunge and subscribed to a summer CSA. CSA stands for community supported agriculture and the idea behind it is simple. You pay for a subscription and in return you get a weekly delivery of locally produced food. There are a lot of variations on the model. Some CSAs let you pick what goes into your box, others choose for you. Some include food produced at a single farm while others gather food from multiple local producers and create the boxes. Around here there are CSAs that include vegetables, fruit, bread, eggs, and meat. There’s even a seafood CSA.

The CSA we joined was associated with a single farm, included vegetables and eggs, and required us to pay in advance last winter for the whole summer. There are plenty of others that let you pay every week.

The first question everybody asks is whether you can tell the difference between vegetables from the CSA and the vegetables from the supermarket. My answer is, I don’t know, because most of the vegetables we got through the CSA we don’t normally buy at the supermarket. Our main reason for joining the CSA was to break us out of our food routine. One of the great triumphs of the summer was an awesome dish out of spaghetti squash. I had never eaten that vegetable at all before. And many of the other vegetables we got were not on our regular shopping list, even relatively mundane things like yellow squash and zucchini.

The more common vegetables we got were really good. The tomatoes that arrived through the summer were fantastic — as good as you get in a really good restaurant. We braised some turnip greens that we got through the CSA and they came out better than any I’ve eaten at restaurants. Early in the season we made a lot of great, simple salads with the mesclun greens that came from the CSA. Overall, the quality was high. What we really appreciated, though, was the variety.

You may have heard the most common complaint about CSAs, and I’ll echo it: vegetable fatigue. This comes in two forms. The first is that someone brings you a box of vegetables every week, many of which may be unfamiliar to you, and you feel guilty if you can’t find a way to cook all of them before they go bad. We wasted very few vegetables over the course of the summer, but handling the constant influx of vegetables wore on us at times. I was happy to have a friend who likes cucumber more than we do.

The second form is fatigue with specific vegetables. On a farm, some vegetables grow better than others from year to year. When a particular vegetable is growing well, you’ll see it for many weeks in a row. For us, that meant a lot of squash over the summer. It also meant five straight weeks of okra toward the end of the season. I like okra, but nobody likes okra that much.

I think we’ll be better prepared to deal with vegetable fatigue next year. We now have a list of really good recipes for vegetables that we didn’t have going into the season and we’ll have a better idea of which vegetables will be arriving as the season progresses. I’m already looking forward to certain vegetables with short seasons that we won’t see again until next year.

That brings me to the final really cool thing about the CSA — learning more about which vegetables grow in which seasons. I had no idea that when it starts getting hot, you’re done with greens until the fall. When the lettuce was gone, it was gone. And around here, it’s gone before the tomatoes start to ripen. The traditional American salad of tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers is a testament to the climate of California and our ability to ship fresh vegetables coast to coast. There was no overlap between lettuce and tomatoes in our CSA. Suddenly, Middle Eastern salads like fattoush and Italian salads like insalata Caprese and panzanella make sense. They’re made using ingredients that all grow at the same time.

Spending the summer as a CSA subscriber was a lot more educational than I would have predicted. It’s a great way to expose yourself to varieties of produce that you may otherwise never get to try. At the same time, it’s a commitment to learning and cooking new recipes that many people may not have the time, energy, or interest to take on. If it’s something you think you might enjoy, I’d encourage you to give it a try.

6 Comments

  1. I’ll second the love of in-season, random vegetables. My wife & I found it was a good way to try recipes which are dependent on the quality of a few ingredients (e.g. the caprese you mentioned) and fail miserably with bland, marginally in-season produce.

    One cookbook which got a lot of mileage with an awesome CSA in San Diego was Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking which has a lot of regional recipes which use less common ingredients. Crates of root vegetables which turned into things like turnip pilau topped with cooked turnip greens, beet greens cooked in mustard oil, etc. The only change I’d make is that she notes turning down the spice in many recipes to avoid overwhelming milder American vegetables, which really wasn’t necessary with flavorful CSA veggies.

  2. We’ve been getting organic produce from a local company, Orlando Organics, for about 3 years now. They deliver right to the door either weekly or biweekly. It’s not a CSA, since they do get produce from outside the area, although they do try to get local produce when possible. You choose a “bag option”, which means you pick the size of the delivery and whether it’s fruit, veggies or a mix, but you don’t pick what’s in the bag. My biggest “vegetable fatique” item is avocados. I swear, it seems like there is an avocado in EVERY delivery! And I’m not an avocado fan, so when I can’t think of one more thing to do with them, I give them to a coworker who loves them. On 2ndaygourmet this weekend, I chronicled how I managed to use up an abundance of kiwi fruit I had from our deliveries. I take it as a personal challenge to find ways to use this great produce, especially if it’s something I’ve never seen before, like persimmons. I’ve gotten persimmons a few times, and have yet to throw any of them away! I too feel incredibly guilty when I have to throw any of this stuff away! But when we absolutely can’t use it, at least it goes into our compost bin. Thanks for posting about this. I share your view, and encourage anyone to get involved in a program in your area.

  3. We have definitely enjoyed the occasional oddball — sunflower sprouts were a major hit, for example — as well as the general mix, the seasonal sensibility, and the inducement to do more of our own cooking. We have also laid in some recipes for things we tend to get a lot of — Carolina kale is a great one. However, there’s been a lot of variability from year to year, which can make it hard to get into a routine: one year we were buried in lettuce and kale (and friends), another in cabbage and potatoes. I realize that the farmers don’t control the weather, but it makes the vegetable fatigue all the worse.

    Three thoughts: (1) a multifarm deal might buffer you against some of the overrepresented crops, (2) you might try either a smaller share or a biweekly system to help with the Keeping Ahead of the Wave sensation, and (3) fruit can make a nice mix with vegetables, in part because it can leaven a heaped season — e.g., apples make me happier about all that squash.

    But in the end, you’re just cooking a lot for those months! Imagine the good it does your system!! 🙂

  4. We’ve been subscribers to a local CSA for nearly 9 years now. We get the smallest box size, but I still end up throwing away some produce from time to time. We are in San Francisco, so our CSA runs year-round, but the produce is seasonal to most of the country: corn, tomatoes, and basil in the summer and squash, kale, and chard in the winter. We don’t get salad greens and tomatoes at the same time, either! (Our CSA is located inland, and it has hot summers and cold winters.)

    My favorite part is eating seasonally – like you, we look forward every year to certain seasons. Grapes, tomatoes, strawberries, and corn, for example are here and then we don’t have them again for the rest of the year. It was a cold summer in our area, so we got many fewer tomatoes than usual this year, a disappointment.

    It’s more challenging when we either get too much of a certain vegetable (carrots) or we just don’t like it.

  5. We found ourselves throwing out far too much, probably based on our irregular dinner schedule. What works much better since we moved is the farmer’s market that is on the next block to our house twice a week – really very convenient!

    That way you get the same assortment of vegetables but you can buy just what you plan on cooking in the next day or two.

    Being in California I haven’t noticed the seasonal variability so much. We kinda don’t have seasons here.

  6. Seafood CSA? I’m looking for a seafood CSA in San Francisco. Can you provide me with a name? Nothing’s showing up when I do a search.

    Thanks!

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