Did your New Year’s resolution include healthy eating? Do you want to support local agriculture? Do you like knowing where your food comes from and how it’s grown?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, I strongly encourage you to consider a CSA or community sponsored agriculture program. This are programs where you essentially buy a share or stake in a local farm (or group of farms) and then get a portion of the harvested crops. I have been part of a CSA for the past 6 years and have loved it!
Now many of you may be wondering why I am asking you to think of spring and summer produce while most of the country is in a deep freeze and warm weather seems a million miles away. Well, I’m discussing this now because the farmers are already thinking ahead: planning, and buying seed and supplies. As you can imagine, the farmers don’t want to plant tomatoes for 100 people, then have 200 sign-up – or worse, only 50. Many CSA programs offer a reduced price for signing up early. Also, sometimes there are a limited number of shares available, so you can miss out if you wait to sign up. This is why it’s important to start thinking about joining a CSA now.
Generally how this works is that you pay up front. The cost of a share may seem like a lot, but covers weeks or months of food. After the produce starts coming in, you will get a box of freshly picked fruit and veggies each week for the length of the season (which varies from farm to farm and depends on the growing season in your area). Some CSAs also offer organic meats, eggs, dairy products like milk and cheese, baked goods, or canned items like pickles and jams. These additional items are sometimes add-ons or may be built into the CSA, depending on the program. I encourage you to shop around to find the best fit for your family.
Now there is a downside to a CSA share. Most CSA programs do not allow you to choose what is in your share each week. This is because you get whatever is ripe and ready to be picked, even things you don’t like – or may not know you like. But this is really a blessing in disguise: I have learned to enjoy all sorts of veggies thanks to my CSA, including greens and kohlrabi. Plus I love the anticipation and surprise – it’s like Christmas every week! And this produce is worth waiting for, like the peaches that came in my basket last summer. Amazing! In the absolute worst case, you can share your CSA leftovers with friends and neighbors. I just can’t do cucumbers, but I never have trouble giving them away!
You will also need to stay on top of what you get, which generally means cooking. Since the produce is picked when it is ripe, it won’t last as long as store-bought, so you’ll need to plan and cook what you get fairly quickly. Many farms send out newsletters with recipes and tips, and I’ve also learned new recipes from other CSA members. Canning and freezing are also options, and I plan to offer tips I’ve learned in future blog posts. I know many members also have juicers, which is a great way to use up extra produce. But proceed with caution: I’m not sure that yellow squash juice would be very good. Since the produce is picked when it is ripe and delivered so quickly, it is much better tasting than anything from the grocery store, so everything you cook will taste fantastic.
There is a risk associated with a CSA share. The farmers cannot control the weather and they can only give you what they harvest. In the years I’ve been a part of a CSA program, the crops have been affected by hail, late frost, and drought. This meant a shortage of strawberries one year and less corn the next, but there were plenty of other amazing things to make up for it. I’ve never been disappointed.
Convenience: Once you sign up, you will get a box of freshly picked produce that will be ready at the same time each week . Yes, you may have to go somewhere to collect your box, but it’s all ready to go. Think about all the times you’ve planned to go to the farmer’s market, but didn’t make it there. Your share is already paid for, which is a big motivator for you to pick it up. Plus, some farms will deliver to homes or businesses, which makes pick-up really convenient! You will also need to shop less often. I hardly buy any groceries in the summer since we have so much great produce to eat each week!
Eating locally and seasonally: It’s a known fact that a tomato picked ripe 20 miles away has more nutrients than a tomato picked green, sprayed with gas to ripen, and shipped 200 miles. Not to mention that the local tomato tastes 100 times better. A CSA lets you support the local economy and get better tasting, more nutritious food. Win, win. Plus, you know how it’s grown. Many small farmers are not certified organic as this is a cumbersome, expensive process, but they often exceed the requirements, so you feel good about what you are eating.
A CSA is not for everyone, but if you’re on the fence, I encourage you to at least look around. There are a lot of different types of CSA programs cropping up that allow you to choose your own contents based on what’s available or to pay for a certain number of weeks (say 4 out 8) and then decide if you want that week’s share based on what they have. If your schedule is busy, you may find a flexible program that fits or consider splitting a share with a friend. You won’t always get an even number of things, but you can usually work it out.
Now, where do you sign up? If you are in Nashville, I highly recommend Doe Run Farms, my CSA for the past 4 years. I can’t recommend them enough. Their small share is the perfect size for Tim and me, and we get tons of great fruit in addition to veggies. They even offer home delivery for ultimate convenience.
If you want meat in your CSA, check out Avalon Acres. Or if you want to try a CSA without a big commitment, the Green Door offers you the option to buy week to week and often has a build-your-box option so you can choose your produce. The downside is that pick-up is only available on-site so it may be a bit out of the way. But it’s perfect if you need a lot of flexibility.
If you aren’t in Nashville, Local harvest is the best resource for finding a great CSA program in your area. You can also try a local or regional agriculture group, like this one for TN or this one for KY.
Don’t forget that there are often discounts to sign up early. In fact, the early bird discount at Doe Run ends Feb 1, so don’t wait! Joining a CSA is one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I encourage everyone to give it a try!