We talk a lot about connecting with your food and cultivating local sources here on NOURISH Network, but a lot of people still counter with “how?” Yes, there are farmers’ markets, and there are gardens for those who have the room. But what to do when the farmers’ market is out of season, or if you can’t make the trip that week? Enter the CSA, or community-supported agriculture.
With a CSA, you’re helping support sustainable farming by paying a lump sum up front for produce they’ll grow for you in the coming month(s). It’s a win-win: the farmer benefits from a steady income stream and you get a steady supply of locally-grown, farm-fresh produce.
I’ve been psyched about the concept of CSAs for years, but as a professional recipe developer, I’d often be buying out-of-season produce to test (I can’t tell you how many Thanksgiving recipes I’ve tested in April) or need a specific ingredient list, so I held off on actually joining one. But I finally relented last year, and I’m so glad I did. Sure, it’s incredible produce and it feels good to support my local peeps, but there’s also a sort of underlying challenge of “how can I use this?” that’s just plain fun.
If you’re curious about joining one too, read on.
How much do I have to buy?
Each CSA works differently, but oftentimes you’ll pay by the month or quarter. Most CSAs also offer different size “boxes,” depending on how large of a household you need to feed.
What do you mean “box”?
Most CSA deliveries come in the form of a reusable cardboard box, milk or wooden crate.
What do I get in my box?
That depends on both the season and the CSA. Without fail, your box will be packed with peak-of-the-season produce, often picked just hours earlier; last fall our CSA boxes would come laden with kale, cabbage, chard, onions and radishes. But you may also find extra items like farm-produced eggs, honey or jams. Some CSAs are even partnering with local artisan producers to include their wares in the boxes.
What if I don’t want something that’s in there, or can’t use everything that week?
Being part of a CSA does take some getting used to. After all, it’s not like filling a grocery cart where you’re picking and choosing what you want; the choice is essentially being made for you based on what’s abundant in the field. But the taste—and the feeling of being part of your community and supporting a family farm—more than makes up for it.
One thing that helps me stay on top of what’s come in is my handy chalkboard. That way, I can piece together a meal by glancing at what’s fresh in the fridge. And don’t be daunted by unfamiliar items. I’ve found that the farmers themselves are often the best source for ideas—I’ve gotten great recipes for kohlrabi, nettles and more from mine. Just ask.
I’ve also become more resourceful with how I use ingredients. If poblanos show up, for instance, I might toss them in to roast with potatoes, whereas normally it would be spuds alone. If I have a surfeit of cucumbers in the box, I’ll make a jar of sweet-hot pickled cucumbers.
If I join a CSA, does that mean I can’t go to the farmers’ market or start a garden of my own?
Not at all. I find that I don’t buy the volume of produce I used to at the farmers’ market, but I still love to go for the connection, and to pick up things I’m craving that might not have shown up in my box.
Where do I find a CSA?
You might be surprised by how far flung CSAs are now these days. LocalHarvest.org is a great place to start; plug in your zip code and see what’s near you. Call around and get a feel for how each one works and sign up for the one that’s the best fit.