Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Benefits of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Program

Ever year I say I'm going to join a CSA. Each spring (after I've obsessively plotted my garden, ordered seeds, and become stuck in the mud attempting to till early) I search the internet and local ads for CSAs in my area. I narrow down the list based on farms closest to me and within my budget and sometimes even call or email to see if they have openings for the year.

Then I wuss out.

I start wondering what I'll do if I get a box full of stuff no one will eat. Won't I save money just buying what I know everyone likes (and that I know how to prepare) rather than take the chance of having a mess of plant matter that will end up going to the chickens. What to do? What to do! I always end up talking myself out of joining.

With this summer's experiment of staying out of the box stores and sticking to a strict budget I decided to look at a CSA program again. In Week 1 and (so far) of Week 2 the only produce we haven't gotten from the farmer's market were bananas and a couple hothouse tomatoes. Hmmm....we don't really need the box store, do we? So I went back to my notes and looked at all the CSAs I had decided on earlier this year. After weeding out those that were full for the season, or that would put me over the current budget, I was left with a two farms, one nearby (and that I usually hit at the farmer's market) and one a bit further away.

I ran the numbers.

The nearby place, Winter Green Farm, offers a half share program. The program lasts till the end of November (24 weeks) and costs $326 with delivery to a local drop-off point (in my case it would be the farmer's market). That ends up being $54.33 a month.

Wait. My plant matter budget is $120 a month. $120!!! That's a savings of $66ish bucks! True, I may still need to buy something from the farmer's market, but in theory the CSA share would have most of what we'd need. Hmm...

The farm offers a variety of organic veggies and meats (certified by Oregon Tilth), is owned and run by three local families, and works closely with local programs to provide produce for those in need. The farm is designed to leave plenty of area free of development for wildlife and has won several awards. Definitely people I want to support, with the sustainable production practices and high quality produce. The second farm was about the same in goods and pricing but after figuring in the added cost of driving into the city I decided to go with Winter Green.

So I signed up. 

We got our first box today Just. WOW. Hubby came in packing three STUFFED grocery bags full of veggies:

Look at all that! I could barely get it to fit in the fridge. Munchkin tackled the carrots as soon as I unpacked them and ran off with two (she doesn't do that with store bought). Was this a good deal? I certainly think so.

Are you part of a CSA? 

There are so many benefits to belonging to a CSA I'm kicking myself now for not joining years ago. What are some benefits? Well...short of U-Pick its the best way to get the freshest, most local, fruits and veggies around. Many CSAs pick for their customers first, then for their market stalls (or so I've been told) so the very best produce goes in the CSA boxes.

It forces you to try something new. I'm already eye-ballling the fennel, trying to figure out what to do with it. Its an interesting looking plant and I've often used the dried seed, ground, in pizza dough but the plant itself? I feel rather excited at the challenge.

Buying from a CSA ensures that your dollar stays in the community.

You know where your food is coming from. Most farms have no problem showing customers around their acreage and talking about their growing practices. Its almost like growing it yourself!

Saves on time... Sure, you might get a box full of beets (Hubby's fear) or have to figure out what to do with something you don't care for (that Swiss Chard looks so tasty, yet my taste-buds hate it) but considering what an adventure it is to get everyone up, dressed, and out of the house early on Saturdays to hit the big city market I'm willing to give up the fun of picking through many different stalls to find what I want. Heck, by the time we usually make it to the big market its so crowded that all the joy of talking with different farmers are gone-they are just too busy to chat. Its crowded, hot, and within 15 minutes I'm getting cranky. I've tried going at different times but I've yet to find that quiet time. Its worth it to me to go to the small market in our little village, pick up a huge box of produce, look over the few other stalls and chat with the farmers (I really wish our market was bigger), and have a fun, leisurely trip. And not having to drive into the city? Bonus!

...And money. I'd budgeted $120 a month on produce since that's what I've been spending, on average, going to the two farmers' markets. I've NEVER brought home 3 grocery bags stuffed full. Now, our grocery bags aren't standard, they're a collection of cloth bags we've slowly picked up over the years but each one is at least the equivalent of a standard brown paper bag. My usual haul from the farmer's market is 1 1/2 bags full for an average of $25. The CSA is about $14 a week and we got 3 bags full. Come on, that's math I can do!

Need help looking for a local CSA? Try searching Local Harvest or Organic Ag Info. Your local Extension Office or Food Bank would be another good place to start. My Food Bank provides a free guide called Locally Grown: Guide to Sourcing Local Food that provides a list of farmer's markets, farm stands, U-Pick, CSA, and other local food interests. its outstanding! Look and see if your local organizations carry something similar.

If you still aren't sold on a CSA then I highly encourage going to the farmer's market and talking with the farmers. I've been buying from Winter Green Farm for two years now and so I knew they had good produce. It made moving from buying at the farm stall to the CSA easier (I knew I was getting quality).

Now to find a recipe for that fennel. Know of any good ones?

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