Community Supported Agriculture Lets You Share in Fresh Farm Offerings—Here's How to Make the Most of It
So you’re thinking of joining a Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA—supporting local farmers and receiving a weekly bounty of fresh vegetables and other foodstuffs in the process. The only problem—you’re not sure you’ll be able to make the most of those mountains of produce. First, do a little research. While all CSAs give consumers access to fresh farm products, they’re not all the same. Some require you to make pick-ups at the farm; others will deliver to your home or to another location in town. Some offer only veggies; others, eggs, meat or dairy. Most have newsletters with ideas and recipes on using their products. Many sell various size shares, offer a choice of how often you get deliveries, let you order products online, and may even let you make substitutions for items you don’t want.
Kristin Kimball—author of the recently published memoir The Dirty Life (Scribner)—and her husband, Mark, offer a free-choice CSA at Essex Farm in upstate New York. Mark explains: “We don’t believe in the box produce model. We sell shares by the person. Everyone can take as much or as little as they can use.” Meanwhile, the South 47 Farm in Redmond, Washington, offers an electronic card loaded with “farm bucks,” which customers spend through the season on everything from fresh produce to classes and activities like hayrides or their Corn Maze.
If you don’t have a free-choice CSA near you, fret not. A little planning will help you get the most from your weekly box. Make sure you know when your produce is arriving, and how much you can expect to get. You don’t want to leave it sitting out in the sun because you’re late getting there. On pick-up day, set aside time to sort, wash and store your produce—as well as plan how you will use it. Store any excess in your freezer.
Design the coming week’s meals around the contents of the box. Jet Doye, a member of Rio Gozo Farm CSA in Ventura, California, says: “I literally write a list of everything in the box, then make a note of its future, then prepare a weekly schedule of three meals and two snacks for each day. From there, it’s pretty easy to identify what’s missing and get the shopping done.“
Access to recipes is a big help in menu planning, and your CSA newsletter is a good place to start. Have a recipe box arranged by vegetable. Cookbooks, magazines and cooking shows can provide ideas. Frittatas, quiches, pasta dishes and grain dishes are all good ways to incorporate veggies from your CSA box. When all else fails, Google it: search by vegetable and “recipe” and you’re sure to find delectable ideas.
Mark Kimball emphasizes that the right kitchen tools are essential. Sharp knives, good cutting boards, a heavy-bottom skillet and salad spinners are all must-haves. Farmer, organizer, artist and educator Thea Maria Carlson has worked with CSAs in Califor-nia and Illinois. Her advice is to make vegetables the centerpiece of your meals. She says: “I sauté them—that works great for greens—or roast them, which is a good way to prepare root vegetables.”
Greens present a special challenge, because they’re very perishable. Use them first. They may need to be washed and spun dry when you get them. To store greens, wrap them in a dish towel and then place them in an open plastic bag in the fridge. Greens can also be cooked or sautéed the day after you get them. That way, they command less space in your fridge and are ready to stir into a casserole, pasta or frittata when you need a quick weeknight dinner. Once cooked, they can even be put into freezer Ziploc bags, labeled, dated and frozen to use later. And soups are great ways to use the odds and ends from your CSA. Nutrition Educator and Registered Dietitian Tali Sedgwick began making her own vegetable stock as a result of her CSA membership.
Giving and Receiving
If you know you can’t use the extra produce, don’t bring it home. Someone else may be able to make use of it, and many CSAs give their surplus to food pantries or soup kitchens, so it won’t go to waste. Kelly Harvey gives a lot of her produce away because it doesn’t always fit her diet plan. She says, “I give it to people in the neighborhood, our garden helpers or bring things to the park to supplement the lunches prepared for the kids’ programs there. This helps advertise the use of CSAs, the benefits of organic produce and gives people the chance to taste the difference.“
But don’t be afraid to try something new—that’s part of the fun of joining a CSA. Lyn Stein comments: “Eating all that produce made me feel healthier and connected to the earth. I got to eat stuff I never would have thought to buy. The quality was always high. I loved the fact that all those choices about what to buy were taken out of my hands, and that feeling of anticipation of ‘what’s for dinner?’ on CSA day.”
YVONA FAST writes and cooks in the mountains of northern New York. She’s online at www.wordsaremyworld.com.