CSAs the Right Way

Spring ushers in the return of the bluebirds, tulips and, increasingly, members of community-supported-agriculture farms.Here are four ways to make the most of your CSA membership.

by John D. Ivanko
CSA Vegetable Box
Photo by John Ivanko
By becoming a CSA member, you sign up for a weekly share of a farm’s harvest.

Spring ushers in the return of the bluebirds, tulips and, increasingly, members of community-supported-agriculture farms. Commonly known as CSAs, these farms allow you pre-purchase a “share” of a farm’s ongoing harvest and receive a weekly box filled with fresh, local produce and possibly other items, such as meat, flowers or eggs.

Over the last 25 years, the CSA model has grown significantly, providing a strong means to eat fresh and connect with and, importantly, directly support your local farmer. Up from less than 100 CSA farms in 1990, LocalHarvest now lists more than 4,000 such farms in their online database. When farmers receive your payment and commitment upfront, they can focus on growing beautiful produce and not worry about the financials.

Early spring marks the time to sign up for your CSA share. In many cities, farmers participate in open houses so you can meet the farmers and find the right mix of products for your family. We have two coming up near us in Wisconsin, in Madison and Milwaukee. To find one near you, check out the Farmstead Chef resource page.

“For us, a CSA is where consumers and farmers come together in a mutually beneficial relationship,” explains Beth Osmund, who, with her family, runs Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm, a meat CSA serving the Chicago area. They’ve also run a vegetable CSA in the past. “A CSA means knowing where your food is coming from and knowing where the food is going.”

The success of the CSA model relies on engaged and active members. As a CSA member, you’re not just checking off your weekly shopping list. You’re a stakeholder in the farm, sharing in both success (a bumper crop of basil for pesto) and weather challenges (a drought wiping out the spinach crop).

Here are four ways to make the most of your CSA membership:

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1. Be flexible and creative.
Part of the fun—and challenge—of the CSA model is not knowing exactly what will be in your next box. It requires you to be adaptable, flexible and adventurous.

“One year we may have a bumper cabbage crop while another year it’s tomatoes,” says Paula Manalo, co-manager of Mendocino Organics, a biodynamic farm in northern California, and co-author of the upcoming book Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers.  “You may be inspired to make sauerkraut or can tomatoes. Not only are you eating with the seasons, but you’re connected to the bigger weather cycles.”

One way to bond with those veggies is to eat them raw with a dipping sauce. This can be the most nutritious way to eat greens, carrots and other veggies, as the highest nutrients are found in their raw, uncooked state. (Stay tuned next week for our Ranch Dressing and Dipping Sauce recipe.) You might also pursue culinary adventures, like learning to prepare Daikon radishes or a kale salad.

2. Keep organized.
Don’t feel overwhelmed by seeing all those vegetables at once. Have a plan.

“One of our vegetable-CSA members had a great idea by cleaning, peeling and processing the whole box right away when she got home,” Osmund says. “She could then easily whip together meals all week long with minimal time. Adopting this strategy meant nothing went to waste. She’d even take the peelings and trimmings and throw those into a pot with water and boil them for vegetable stock.”

The challenge of cooking up or eating through all the fresh ingredients can be overcome with careful meal planning. Some CSA members even share and split a box of produce, finding it less likely that anything would go to waste. It’s true: Real food rots.

3. Befriend other shareholders.
Other CSA members likely share your values supporting local family farms and eating seasonally. Linger a bit during the pick-up times or try to attend any on-farm events.

“Be social and get to know the other folks in your community supporting the farm, as you might get an amazing eggplant Parmesan recipe out of it,” Manalo says with a smile.

4. Hug your farmer.
Knowing—and appreciating—your farmer connects you to the land and your food sources.

“Our happiest customers are those who know us well,” Osmund notes.

Read the farm newsletter (typically included in CSA boxes, full of updates, recipes and stories of farm life), ask questions, and take advantage of any on-farm events and open houses.

Savoring the good life,

John and Lisa's Signatures

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