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Getting the Most from Your Share in a CSA

(post, DawnHeather Simmons)

Having a share in a CSA farm isn’t like shopping at the super-mega-mart.  Many of us have shopped there for so long that we’ve forgotten – or maybe never even knew – that produce has seasons, and that not every product can truly be available locally every single day of the year.  Real farm produce is affected by a number of things, including (but not limited to) location, seasons, weather, soil conditions, farming methods, and the availability of people to pick produce on a given day or at a given time.  Even with everything else being equal, sometimes a farm on one side of the county may have totally different results this week from another farm on the other side of the county.  

Before you sign up to become a shareholder, ask a lot of questions.  What farming methods does your farmer use?  If it’s important to you, does your farmer have certified organic fields?  Do you really know what that means?  If you’re not sure, ASK!  Find out what crops your farmer grows – and if he or she gives you any flexibility as to what crops you particularly want.  Find a farmer that offers the variety – or lack of variety – that you want for your produce share.  If you only want greens and herbs, then a farm that specializes in a wide variety of vegetables probably isn’t going to be a good match.  Do you like a wide variety of produce, but not a huge quantity of any particular thing?  Then find a farmer that grows a lot of things, but maybe not a lot of any particular thing.  Ask, ask, ask!  Ask how hard it is to trade out produce that you don’t especially like for something you might like better.  Ask if your farmer has agreements with other area farmers to sell their products.  Sometimes this will allow you to get a wider variety of produce or value-added products (homemade jams, or soaps, for instance) than you might otherwise find.  This can save you money, gas and time from having to shop around for these things.  Consider the value of that.  If you talk to a farmer that doesn’t seem to have what you want, then maybe he or she knows another farm that would be a better match for you!  

Get to know your farmer!  Find out who they are and why they do what they do.  You might find them very interesting people – and isn’t that part of why you want to do CSA shares in the first place?  If there’s something you really like – or don’t like – then let your farmer know.  Part of being a shareholder – at least if you buy in early enough in the season – can be having some say in what gets planted in a season.  If you aren’t sure about how something works, then make sure you find out!  If you find that you can’t communicate with your farmer, then maybe you need to consider a different farm!  Attend “meet-the-farmer” events which are publicized in the paper near the beginning of the growing season here in Clark County.  Attend open houses at your farm.  It’s a chance to see the farm where your food is grown, and get to know not only your farmer, but other people who have shares in the same farm.  As we get to know the people who grow our food, and the other people who share our commitment, our community becomes stronger and healthier.  YOU can make that happen!  How cool is that?

Understand that, unlike the super-mega-mart, you won’t get the same produce from week to week.  A lot of weeks, you won’t have a clue what you’re picking up until you pick it up!  Take the attitude that this is part of the adventure.  Great cooks don’t plan out a whole week’s menu on paper and then go out and buy what they need.  Great cooks see what “looks good” at the market and then plan their menus around what’s best.  Learn to go with the proverbial flow, and be willing to experiment.  Invest in a cookbook (or several!) that you really feel comfortable with, and try new things out of it when you get something you may not have had much of – or ever – in the past.  

Also understand that, unlike the super-mega-mart, sometimes your produce won’t look as flashy as it does all neatly stacked under pin-spot lights that make every curve look juicy and perfect.  Remember that a lot of that produce has been grown using massive quantities of chemicals, enhanced to grow to abnormal size, picked before it was fully ripe, washed, treated, and usually waxed to gaudy brilliance, then shipped to you from miles – or half a world – away.  Sometimes that produce looks great because it was picked, processed, and shipped when it was still hard as a rock!  Produce grown on a local small farm by people who don’t use a lot of machines and chemicals isn’t always as big, and doesn’t always look as “pretty.” But your share produce has generally been picked the same day you pick it up, by hand, so it’s perfectly in season and fully ripe, so it tastes its very best, and generally lasts much, much better than store-bought.

Of course, when you have a CSA share, there’s one sort of “elephant in the room.”  Maybe you don’t do – or like or want to do – a lot of cooking.  If that’s an issue – and it is for a lot of people – find someone who can teach you what you need to know, or find someone who is willing to trade off cooking duties with you, if you can.  Or just find a CSA that specializes in the easy stuff that you like and know how to do.  They’re out there.  There are options.  You just have to look for them!  

Find new recipes.  Yes, I already said invest in a cookbook.  But even if you love to cook and have a huge stockpile of things you know how to make, being a CSA member can stretch you thin at times.  So, invest in not just one, but maybe several cookbooks.  Vegetarian will be helpful; ethnic may also give you more options.  Look at lots of them, and decide which ones interest you the most.  Look for new recipes in the newspaper you take, the magazines you read, websites that you may become aware of, and ask everyone you know.  If you smell something tasty in the lunchroom at work, ask your co-workers what they’re having – and find out how to make it, if it’s something homemade.  You might make a new friend AND find a new recipe!  If you find a recipe that you really like, then share it with everyone you know.  You may discover that veggies you thought you hated have become new favorites.  I learned to like pattypan squash from having it at a friends’ house in a preparation I’d never had before.  Those same friends showed me a way to like sweet potatoes – and that helped me learn to like winter squash!  Now I love all those things in dozens of ways.  My approach is this:  If I try it and like it, then it becomes a new favorite – or at least something new in my repertoire; if I try it and hate it, I never have to eat it again!  Be adventurous!  You might only find out that you still don’t like something.  But you might also find out that you DO like it – and contribute to your health at the same time!  The broader variety of foods we eat (especially truly fresh, locally-grown fruits and vegetables), the better chance we have of living a long and healthy life!  And it’s said that as we continue to try new things, we also help ward off some of the sadder things that can happen to us as we grow older, like confusion and forgetfulness.  

And don’t worry if you “need” to supplement your produce with stuff you buy from the super-mega-mart.  For instance, I love pineapple and avocados – two things that don’t happen to grow locally.  I love them enough I’m not willing to give them up to become a total locavore.  So they’ve become treats that I buy from time-to-time in addition to what I get from my CSA farm – and instead of things I can get locally at my CSA farm, like berries, which are so much better than the store-bought ones that I hardly miss store berries, even in the dead of winter!  I don’t eat pineapple or avocado as much as I did when I lived in places where I could get them locally.  But I sorta figure if God, or the Universe, or whatever, didn’t want me to eat them, then He/She/Whatever wouldn’t ever have let me live in places where I learned to love them!  I could be wrong about that, of course, but I guess by the time I find that out, it’ll be much too late…  

Belonging to a CSA farm is a commitment to family farming, local agriculture, community, health, and good value.  It’s probably a good deal more than that!  But whatever reason you chose to try it, remember that you have a lot to do with whether or not it succeeds for you and the farm you buy into.  So be pro-active, be happy, be healthy, and EAT YOUR VEGGIES!