Monday, October 17, 2005

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

My sister is an agricultural extension agent down in North Carolina, and I was complaining to her last February about how I couldn't find a good source of local produce. She referred me to the Community Supported Agriculture page on the US Dept of Agriculture site. This is a nifty little program which hooks up farms looking for capital to people like me who are looking for a regular supply of local produce. Just plug in your zip code and you'll see a list of farms near you who participate.

Basically, you provide working capital to the farm, which the farmer uses for whatever - seeds, fertilizer, labor. Once the harvest starts coming in, your dividend is a box of vegetables. Every farm is different; some offer multiple levels of investment and the pricing is driven by market and location. My farm is The Food Project in Lincoln, MA. Back in March, I wrote a check to them for $400 for the summer growing season; in Massachusetts, that's June through late October/early November. I did the math, and that $400 breaks down to about $20 per week during the harvest season. The money I've saved not having to buy produce from Whole Foods every week for five months has been enough for a decent vacation.

Every Tuesday, we pick up a roughly half-bushel-sized box of produce. I never know what we'll get; it's not like going to the market where I can pick and choose. I do go through the box and if there's stuff I just can't stand - eggplant or beets, for example - I'll drop them in the share basket for someone else to take. I might also take something out of the share basket if someone else has gotten rid of anything good.

Then I take it home, shake off the dirt and try to figure out what to do with it all. It has required a commitment, not only to figure out how to cook stuff I've never cooked before (or even laid eyes on - kohlrabi looked like a little purple alien baby) but to build menus around vegetables I've never cooked before. My husband called it my ultimate cooking challenge, and he was right. Some weeks I just couldn't get to it all, but I tried and have made a good effort. I've learned a lot, and am no longer afraid of unknown vegetables. To give credit where credit is due, I'll say I could not have managed without Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. She has good recipes, but I generally used the book as a reference guide on how to store and clean vegetables (and sometimes to identify them!). Every Tuesday after I'd run to Cambridge to pick up our box, I'd come home, unload the contents of the box and pull out her book to help sort through it all. Just invaluable. My biggest challenge? Finding space in the fridge for everything. I need a bigger fridge!

I should also give credit to my husband, who has always been a game sous-chef and vegetable eater. He takes great prep direction, and never makes a face unless I give him permission. I know my culinary horizons have expanded during this harvest year, and I hope his have too.

Okay, I'm off my soapbox. But now you know what I mean when I talk about my CSA vegetables.

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