By Alicia Wein (Life@Home)

As the Eat Local movement grows across America, Community Sustained Agriculture farms are cropping up as fast as zucchini in August’s heat. The CSA movement emerged in the U.S. in the mid-’80s. By the mid-’90s there were 500 CSA farms and today, there are more than 1,700 … and growing.

Under the CSA model, individuals pledge support to a farm operation so that the land becomes the community’s farm. The growers and consumers provide mutual support and share the risks and benefits of food production. Members of a CSA farm typically pledge money in advance to cover the cost of food production, and due to the direct nature of the relationship with the farm, growers tend to receive better prices for their crops.

CSA farms also let participants buy vegetables for reasons other than just fresh eating. People interested in supporting organic farming, for instance, can choose an organic CSA farm, while others can feel good about lowering their carbon footprint for the food they eat. “The CSA model is less about service and more about partnership. It becomes your farm,” says Justine Denison of Denison Farms, an organic vegetable CSA farm in Schaghticoke. “You’re invested in it on all levels.”

In the summer of 2005, I paid into a share of a local, organic CSA farm. As the summer progressed, I noticed the share box from my CSA farm grew heavier each week. No longer filled with lightweight greens and radishes of early spring, the veggies were getting more robust and occasionally less familiar.

I began to panic. Was I in over my head? How could I possibly make use of vegetables I didn’t even recognize? Would I have to resort to googling the items in my pantry to figure out how to use all this bok choy and eggplant the same week? The learning curve was steep that first summer. I had to adjust my thinking, grocery shopping and cooking routines. Here are some thoughts to help other CSA newbies navigate their summer share.

Like me, many CSA participants have quite a bit of waste that first summer, a disappointment if you have selected a farm that works to avoid that very thing. Some overbuy other ingredients in order to experiment with new vegetables. Others realize, as did Colleen Ottalagano of Slingerlands, that “a vegetable share is just too many vegetables for us when we have a child that will only eat carbs.”
One solution is to share your produce with a partner or another family, particularly in the first year of participation. Divvying up the vegetables can make the produce amounts more manageable, and provide flexibility as you become familiar with both what your farm share offers and the kinds of vegetables you prefer. Your share partner who lives for roasted beets can take the roots, while you can take the beet greens to eat with your pasta, for example. Or she can take the turnips when you still haven’t used yours from last week! (No, seriously. Does anyone want my extra turnips?)

Making a shift from an “I-can-get-what-I-want-when-I-want-it” mindset of purchasing produce also can take some awareness. Although I spent my early childhood on a farm, my first farm share summer I was continually startled to remember summer is not one long block of uniform produce; the season has ebbs and flows. I had long since become accustomed to seeing all the summer produce in the store at the same time, and my share box reminded me that first come the spring greens, followed by asparagus; the strawberries and watermelon arrive weeks apart; and the Brussels sprouts signal that soon the box will be brimming with root vegetables and it will be time to simmer hearty soups on Sunday afternoons.

Familiarizing myself with the nuance of the growing season has impacted my grocery list when my CSA isn’t in season, as well. As bright as yellow corn looks in April when I’m craving barbeque, the CSA experience has made me aware it’s unlikely to taste as it does in August, so opting for an early spring green that’s actually in season will probably taste better and consequently be more satisfying.

The upside of a farm share with vegetables you might not usually select can be the chance to experiment with new recipes; some CSA farms even provide recipes each week. The adage above also can be a useful guide to trying vegetables in combinations that may be new to you, such as a quick sauté with corn, squash and basil, a pan of roasted apples, onions and potatoes, a peach-cantaloupe puree, or a steaming pot of mashed potatoes and celeriac.

This mantra even can help to minimize a grocery list intended to supplement your share. If I have nuts, cheese, pasta, olive oil and maybe some beans on hand, I can make a delicious dinner no matter what arrives in the box. Not having to make weekly decisions about produce purchases can even begin to feel like a luxury. “It takes some courage, but some people find they are really happy with one less choice to make,” Denison says.

Excess produce is also a chance to learn to can or freeze fruits and vegetables, if you’re not interested in cooking fruit crisps and forcing them on everyone you meet. Ottalagano experimented, blanching and freezing apricots, for example, and freezing blueberries, a process she has tweaked in successive summers. She’s discovered, for instance, that freezing them on a flat surface like a cookie sheet works well to keep berries plump and separate. Christopher Mazura, a CSA member in Albany, plans to learn how to jar some jams this summer to deal with extras: “A good friend of mine does it every year, and she’s my tutor.”

Another option if you’re overwhelmed by produce is donation. Many CSA pickup areas provide a place where vegetables that will go unused can be left behind to be delivered to local food pantries. Other organizations, such as Just Food, train urban community members to start and manage CSA projects in partnership with farmers, with a focus on getting produce to the inner cities.

While some find the amount of produce just right, others are surprised that the quantity and type of vegetables is less than expected. That misunderstanding stems from the idea that CSA shares are intended to be bargains or not realizing that signing on to a share also means signing onto farming’s inherent risks. This year, for instance, the cold stuck around a few weeks longer than usual, so first plantings were delayed, resulting initially in fewer vegetables per share. Last year’s tomato blight, meanwhile, meant far fewer tomatoes. And there’s always the danger a mid-season hailstorm will crush more sensitive greens, or damage the zucchini past salvaging.

Part of what people sign on for with a CSA farm is the potential for small disappointments and shared risk, and the logistics of managing a share the first time through can be a challenge. To cope, some CSA members, when confronted with circumstances they can’t control, find solace in turning their attention away from the vegetable count and focusing instead on the connection with the land and the community.

“It helps me see that food can be a metaphor not only for the ways we are connected, but also illustrating how community plays out in relationships,” says Mazura,“ and how we are affected when we provide time and space for the expansion of those relationships.”

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