For almost three years now, Next Gen House has been committed to community supported agriculture (CSA) by purchasing a CSA produce share from a local, organic farm. We live in an urban area and couldn't possibly grow enough produce for ourselves for the entire year, having neither the time nor the space to do so.
We feel very strongly that CSAs are important contributors to the growth and vitality of our community. As CSAs help farmers to sustain their livelihood through lean times, for instance when crops fail or weather decimates a harvest (which happens frequently in a climate like ours), by participating in a produce CSA, you are making a statement that a farmer's work and livelihood is important.
You are also making a statement of support for the type of agriculture practiced by that farm - GMO-free, organic, etc. When you do some exploring, you will often find that local farms are willing to share their agricultural methods with you, to let you know how your food was grown. Sometimes farms use organic methodology but can't afford the cost of the regulatory requirements to call their crops certified organic. CSAs encourage you to get to know your farmers and your farm and your food on a different level than you could ever achieve at a grocery store.
This year we are also subscribers to a local meat CSA. This is a new step for Next Gen House and we're pretty excited to support another local farm group. We will continue with our produce share and also the sourcing we do through another local farm on a week-to-week basis. Throughout the summer and fall, I'll be sharing with you what we receive from our produce share and what we do with those items in a series called Real Life CSA.
To start off, here are what I see as the benefits and draw backs of being a CSA subscriber.
Fresh, high-quality produce
You will never find picked-that-morning produce in your grocery store, but when it shows up in your share box, you can bet it was freshly harvested. That means you don't lose any days of peak flavor and nutrients to the goods riding in a truck across the country. Items are given in the share at their peak - no waiting around for fruit to get ripe or for veggies to reach a desirable size. Everything comes to you ready to go.
Delivered (almost) to your door
Both our produce and meat CSAs have plenty of pick-up locations throughout the city (and some all up and down the western portion of the state!), which means you don't have to go more than a few miles to pick up your share. We also serve as a pick-up location for a farm, which means we don't pay a delivery fee when we order, and our items literally land on our front porch.
Exposure to new foods and ways of preparation
There is more to produce than just apples, carrots and tomatoes. CSAs expose you to many new foods and also give you great resources to learn how to prepare them. We get recipes each week with our produce share, giving us ideas on how to use what was provided that week. When we signed up for our share, we could also tell them which foods we definitely did not want. (BEETS. I will eat any vegetable on this earth but beets.) This way, you aren't getting foods you won't be able to use and it reduces waste.
This education also extends to understanding the growing season in your area. You aren't getting strawberries in your October share in Pennsylvania, and you also won't get a good tomato until July or August, but you will know it when you do. Anticipating the first tomato of the season has become a big deal for me, since I don't eat tomatoes out of season. (Why not? Read Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook)
Community support - both ways
Many CSAs offer the opportunity to donate your share to a local food bank when you are unable to pick it up that week due to vacations, etc. At least one CSA in our area that I know of offers what they call ASC (agriculture supported community) where they will pack shares for low-income families in need of fresh produce who pay a reduced fee or nothing at all, depending on circumstances. Our farmers don't let food rot on the vine that could benefit local families.
Access to special deals
Think that it's wonderful when you find fat, tasteless California strawberries in a Pennsylvania grocery store for $1.99 a pint in the summer? When you sign up for a CSA, you know when the berry boom happens and can get access to bulk deals and extra special add-ons. We've purchased extra produce for preserving - flats of PA strawberries (California's got nothing on us for berries in June), bushels of tomatoes and peppers for salsa and sauce and whole canning, etc.
Many CSAs offer access to other locally produced foods, like grains, cheese, mushrooms, breads, etc. through partnerships.
Saves you money
While CSAs are an up-front expenditure, if you are committed to cooking and eating what you get in your share each week, you will save money compared to buying that same produce at the grocery store. Especially when you consider the quality and longevity of the produce that you receive. Ever buy some produce at the store and then within two days it's moldy or liquified in your vegetable crisper? That doesn't happen with a CSA.
It can sometimes be overwhelming, knowing that you are getting a new share box the next day and haven't finished what's in your house from last week. This drawback can be overcome by learning how to preserve foods - we freeze small quantities and can large quantities of items if we think we won't be able to eat them. If they get to a place where they are past being really edible, we compost. That way at least the future plants of our own garden will get to benefit from the nutrients!
What do I do with this?
It can be frustrating to see some weird looking vegetable in your share and have absolutely no idea what to do with it. Use the wealth of information the Internet has to offer to research what you can do with different vegetables. Also, ask your farmer. Chances are, if they are raising it, they know what to do with it!
So how do I find one?
In general, do some Internet research. Use sites like Local Harvest to find providers in your area. Check our your area's Edible publication too.
In the Pittsburgh metro area, use Edible Allegheny's CSA Guide.
Our produce CSA is Kretschmann's Family Organic Farm.
Our new meat CSA is Clarion River Organics. (My parents subscribed to their produce share last year and it was amazing too. They also have stands at farmers' markets all through western Pennsylvania. Follow them on Twitter at @ClarRvrOrganics.)
We also use Green Circle Farms each week, for chicken feed and all sorts of other goodies. Their eggs are amazing and we bought them faithfully until we started raising our own.
Our shares start around Memorial Day, so look for more Real Life CSA in the coming weeks!