Top | Dinner Guest Blog

What is a Householder CSA?

(post, Harriet Fasenfest)

It is CSA time. Farmers are planning, plotting, and planting their fields, while eaters are considering their seasonal needs. In a perfect show of mutual support, the two come together each year in a system of farm-direct purchasing known as community-supported agriculture. 

The CSA system is brilliant: Eaters pay up front for a farm share (to offset some of the farmer’s early planting costs) and farmers, in return, offer the best their fields will yield. Together, they have nurtured a farming renaissance in this country. 

There is a maturity to this union, since some years are better than others. As it turns out, the harvest will not be manhandled. The good earth can be fickle. A great year for tomatoes will not necessarily suggest a great year for potatoes. Those who cannot abide the vagrancy of CSA farming might balk; their sights have been set on a different model. They are yet looking for the blemish-free, perfectly shaped, tweaked, and modified bonbons of produce land. These shoppers are harder to win over.  

Others, the more idiosyncratic among us, understand nothing in the universe is perfect, let alone the harvest. We are the ones who honor the misshapen when and if it arrives in our baskets and look upon our temperamental vegetable brethren with relief knowing that they, like us, are fickle creatures. Good years, bad years? You bet your life.     

Which is not to get you CSA newbies all worried. Judging by the produce that shows up at the farmers' market, you know our farmers know what they are doing (my eyes have seen the glory). But beauty is not the entire reason for going with a CSA share. The relationship suggests a certain commitment to putting one's money where one’s mouth is. Consider it dinner-plate activism. Healthy environments, city-wide food security, and a thriving (hopefully) farming community? Could there be anything more obvious? 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="People who preserve food often want large amounts of food."]

Many have never participated in a CSA and aren't sure how to go about it; usually, it takes some research to find a good match. Here in Portland, we are fortunate that the Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture (PACSAC) website allows us to connect with CSA farmers in our area. 

Not all CSA shares are the same. Some will cater to the single person who knows he will not cook big vats of food but loves a nice salad every night. Some will allow for half shares, weekly shares, or one-time sample shares. From what I can tell, there is something for everyone. Which brings me to the newest kid on the block — the Householder's CSA. Let me tell you about it.

Though I have been growing food for a decade now, I have decided to give some of my garden beds a rest. In a nod to biblical prompts, I am allowing them to lie fallow, to renew and revive after offering me a good go of it. Well, that sounds noble, but to be honest, it was I who needed the rest. That the beds would benefit from a little vacation made it easier for me to accept my own. 

You see, I’m going on a long-awaited trip to the south of France this summer, and will be gone during some of the planting year. I know, I know. What’s up with that, Ms. Householder? Excuse me. I am a failed human given to flights of fancy and overseas enticements. I am appropriately guilt-ridden (a condition that drives much of my life, I might add), and believe you me, it was not an easy decision. 

But there it is. I’m going, although not for the whole season. I can still grow a few things, must grow a few things. Mom is coming later in the summer, and she has already spoken. “What, no pattypan squash?” Mais oui, il y auront des pattypan, ma mère (or something like that). No problem; pattypan squash is a happy thing for me to grow. It is a reasonable summer squash that rises bush-like from the ground; it does not trail and invade like some of the summer squashes I know. So yes, a pattypan pour ma mère. 

Still, a pattypan squash does not a full pantry make, and I am determined to have a full pantry. Even if I don't sow the harvest, I will have plenty of time to put it up. So, I need produce. 

Besides, I am ready for some new thinking on the matter of produce. Yes, the beds need a rest, but over the last decade, I have learned that some things are made for backyard gardens, while other foods need more space. Trying to grow all the foods I wanted required an endless balancing act. Do I grow those shelling peas in early spring? Will they yield in time to replace them with a summer crop? Do I dare grow butternut squash with its terminally long growing season and endlessly invasive need for real estate? Will they ripen and cure before the frost? And where shall I plant all those plum tomato plants? 

Remember, as a preserver, I’m looking for big yields, 100-pound yields. That ain’t no cute cherry tomato plant on the deck, I can tell you. Oh, no, that’s some kinda forest. Clearly the logistics were not for the weak of heart. Sure, everything looks good on paper, but planting guides are only there to taunt you. A proposed 60-day maturation date can easily turn to 80 if the weather is uncooperative. Which is my way of saying, I was looking for a little extra space even before France entered into the equation. 

Given my travel, my mom, my guilt (those last two “givens” being oddly related), and my need for space, I decided to talk to a farmer friend of mine. I knew about CSAs, but had not participated before. Now I was thinking better of it. I wanted a share that would serve my preserving and long-term dry-storage needs. I was looking for the auxiliary share, a share for those of us who have space to grow some things, but not for all things, not big batches of things.  

Happily, she was willing to help me out — not just for my sake, but because it made a certain sense in the bigger picture. It might offer a piece in the puzzle for food equity and security in the city (more on this in a minute). 

Putting our heads together, we came up with the perfect solution: the Householder’s CSA. Here’s what it will look like:    

100 pounds of storage potatoes   
100 pounds of winter squash (assorted)  
50 pounds of storage onions   
10 pounds of green beans (for pickling)  
10 pounds cucumbers (for fermenting)   
100 pounds canning tomatoes (for sauce, paste, ketchup, and barbecue sauce) 
40 pounds of sweet corn (for blanching and freezing in 2-cup packs)  
50 pounds of apples (for saucing or storing)  
One flat wild blackberries (for making jam)

I have chosen these items because I eat these items and my family eats these items. I have chosen these items because my farmer already grows them and is willing to offer me parts of a share. I have chosen these quantities because experience (I’ve been keeping a record for a few years) proves that they will get me through the year. 

In essence, I will be getting half the variety of her normal CSA share, but twice the weighted volume — and at the same price as a regular share.   

As with a normal CSA, I will pay at the beginning of the season. I will add the cost to my food budget for the year, but it makes plenty of sense. What will cost me $500 on the farm would likely cost me $1,200 to replace at the farmers' market or grocery store. I base those figures on the market rates I have been recording over the years and on the replacement costs of my value-added cooking (tomatoes to ketchup, berries to jam, etc.). A jar of jam you make yourself will cost you 75 percent less than one you buy, particularly if you glean wild blackberries (which I normally do).   

Though it is not immediately related, I have even calculated the monies saved by cooking all my meals in a year versus going out to eat (I’m a Virgo — hear me roar). All I can tell you is holy cow! You save an astounding amount of money when you cook your meals at home. Though I did not undertake this life as a way to save money, I absolutely do. Not, perhaps, in the beginning as I was developing my skills, but certainly now.

As I have mentioned in other posts, I am a value-adding maniac. Even before giving this householding CSA a spin, my gardening efforts resulted in close to $5,000 a year in savings on my grocery bill. Keep in mind, to buy $5,000 worth of groceries you would have to make $7,500 before taxes, so this sort of savings is nothing to sneeze at. 

Yes, it takes time, but so does farming, and I doubt a single farmer is brave enough to calculate his or her hourly wage. In fact, you can bet the farm on that. Which is why a Householder's CSA may not work for all farmers. Before working out the particulars with my own farmer, I spoke with a few others. I wanted to hear what they thought. I wanted to see if this model would fit into a larger city-wide effort to face off with food equity and security.  

Some welcomed the idea, particularly those just starting out. Growing more of fewer varieties can be a great way to go. It can offer young farmers a revenue stream while they are building their skills, or give older farmers a bit of extra income if they don’t want to fuss like the kids. (Yep, I’m talking to you, Wolf Man.)

Some farmers I spoke to were less inclined to participate, given their need to cater to a “boutique” market. You can charge lots more for specialty greens than potatoes and winter squash, two things that take up a lot of space and time in the field. I understand. Everyone needs to respect the bottom line.

But I am eager to see how this model works for my farmer and me. I'll report back.

reference-image, l