Maybe you’ve heard a bit of the buzz or maybe you have even been a member of one, but CSAs are becoming an increasingly popular way to build connections with your local farmer and enjoy great, fresh, seasonal foods. If you’re wondering what in tarnation is a CSA, read on to discover more about this exciting program.
CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture” and is organized like a membership in the farm’s produce. Interested families purchase a “share” in the early part of the year (when farmers are shortest on revenue to kick-start the season), which ensures a certain quota of whatever the farm produces through the growing season. This bounty is distributed in a weekly “box” (or bag or other clever vessel) to members either at the farm or at designated pickup locations. Because CSA members have paid ahead for this service, picking and saving goods and produce for them comes ahead of other venues, such as farmer’s markets.
But unlike a farmer’s market (which operates like a micro grocery), CSA members typically do not pick and choose what they desire. Instead, it’s more like receiving a Christmas box from the farm each week, with a mix of familiar and new goodies to discover. A weekly newsletter with updates from the farm, a list of the week’s features, and recipes can be helpful for folks who are new to Swiss Chard or Broccoli Raab. Sometimes, folks discover something they never knew they liked!
This process also involves trust—trust that the farmer will choose an appropriate mix of foods for the box each week. Some folks have a hard time giving up the control of shopping off of their weekly list, and a CSA program is not the right fit for them. We’ve found that these families try the program for one year and then say, “Well, we’ll just shop at the farmer’s market next year.” Sadly, very few keep the promise.
Culinary flexibility can actually be exciting. Learning to cook with the seasons is as easy as the recipe in the newsletter or a quick Google search. And just about anything can be put together in a sauté pan with a little tortellini, bacon, or cheese for a great and quick lunch. The ideal way to utilize a CSA share is to see what you get for the week and then plan the meals and any auxiliary shopping around it. One year, a single fellow purchased a share for the summer season and found it an extremely economical way to eat great food far into the winter because he was able to freeze, dry, or store away extras. He still had potatoes into March!
At North Star Homestead Farms, we’ve been offering CSA shares since 2007. For many years, this has been in the very traditional form of full or half shares in the garden—veggies, fruits, and fresh herbs overflowed canvass totes each week from mid-June through the end of September. But as with many of our endeavors, we wanted to take the CSA idea to the next level. Some farms offer a “meat” CSA—a weekly mix of pork, lamb, poultry, or beef from their farm. Others offer eggs in their CSA program. There were many possibilities floating around in the world of sustainable agriculture.
To start, because of our new aquaponics greenhouse (where we raise tilapia and greens) we are now able to offer fresh produce year-round. Our CSA members have often moaned at the end of the traditional growing season that facing the grocery produce after a summer of our fresh-off-the-farm veggies is a major letdown. Expanding the CSA to a year-round process meant that local food could be an option, even in mid-winter.
The only trouble with offering a winter CSA program was that, while fresh lettuce, kale, chard, kohlrabi, herbs, endive, arugula, bok-choy, radishes, and more might be available, it still wasn’t possible to grow the other vegetables that help bulk out a week’s box—zucchinis, cucumbers, eggplants, carrots, green beans, and more. What else, instead, could we offer?
What developed is our “Winter Pantry CSA,” which utilizes many aspects of our farm’s value-added products, including: bakery items (bread, cookies, bagels, muffins, etc.), pantry items (jams, honey, granola, mixes, etc.), eggs, and cuts of grass-fed meat. We were also able to network with other area farms like Springbrook Organic Dairy and Crystal Ball Organic Dairy to feature milk, yogurt, and cheeses as well. It was a basketful of delightful farm goodies, along with fresh produce from the greenhouse and storage produce from the root cellar, including winter squash, onions, garlic, and potatoes.
The new program received such a positive response that we decided to extend the option through the rest of the year. But folks always like to have choices so they can find an option that works best for them. Our present “omnivore share” includes all the items listed above. The “vegetarian share” is the same, excepting the cut of meat. Then there is also a “garden share” which is very similar to the traditional half share in the garden.
But some folks go away in the winter, and some leave on long vacations in the summer, so how would a year-long CSA program work for them? In the past, a CSA share was for a whole growing season (typically 16 weeks in the Northland), and if you couldn’t make it to a pickup, you gave it away to a friend or neighbor. But given our customer feedback, we structured a new system that allows members to pick the dates they want, as well as the style of share. You can sign up just during the summertime, every other week, once a month, or whatever works best for you. You could even choose to have the omnivore share some weeks and a garden share on others. It’s entirely up to you! The program caps off at the first 15 families that sign up for any particular date that is available (otherwise we might find ourselves filling 50 boxes on one day and 2 on the next).
It must be understood, however, that belonging to a CSA not only gives you the opportunity to share in the bounty of the farm but also in the risk. Despite the best efforts of the farmer, surprises can always happen. A hale storm can devastate a crop that was almost ready to harvest, high winds can break plants or blow away all the blossoms, or a freak frost can destroy the apple harvest. It’s one of those everyday hazards of farming. But being a member in a CSA gives you a chance to directly support a farming family of your choice, to learn their story and the rhythms of their work and harvest.
Even if you don’t live in this area, please explore CSA options through local farms. Not sure where to look? The website www.localharvest.org is a great place to start. Type in your Zip Code anywhere in the U.S. to begin researching small farms, farmer’s markets, and more in your area. If these farms offer CSA programs, this will be listed on their “bio” as well as other unique offerings they may have—you-pick berries, value-added products, or farm tours.
Early spring is a great time to sign up for CSA shares. Remember that for every dollar that is given to a farmer, at least 90 cents stays in the community. Your support makes a difference towards the future of sustainable agriculture and the families who are devoting their lives and efforts to make wholesome, local, and organic foods available to everyone right now.
Do you know where your food comes from? Do you know the story of the people who grew or raised it? Joining a CSA is a unique and adventuresome way to say “yes!” to all of these. Are you ready for a culinary adventure? See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com