The Coming CSA Season
It's mid-winter and the thought of buying just-picked local lettuces and sour cherries may seem like a dream. But at the risk of sounding like a closing line from a vintage Bette Davis movie, spring will come. And our farmers will be back.
That means it's not too soon to be thinking about joining a CSA. I write about this every year because joining a CSA takes some thought and planning and if the recent past is a predictor of the future, many CSAs will sell-out fast; if you dawdle you may miss out.
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. With the help of non-profit organizations like churches or community groups, consumers and farmers get to have a direct relationship: you as an individual consumer buy -- in advance -- a season's worth of produce directly from a local farmer. In exchange, a small, family farm knows it has a reliable market and receives income ahead of the harvest, helping farmers plant crops for the year.
The concept began in Europe and came to the U.S. in the mid-1980s at a Massachusetts apple farm. Today, across the country, thousands of CSAs actively match home cooks and farmers. It may have started in a rural setting, but today's CSA is decidedly urban: it's now a familiar sight to see a farm truck double-parked in busy traffic as volunteers unload crates of just-picked organic fruits and vegetables and other foods to be brought home to city kitchens.
Each CSA is different and prices will vary. Nearly all require you to volunteer for several hours over the season to help run things. You may spend this time helping to off-load the farmer's truck, or help weigh shares of fruits and vegetables, or do paperwork and record keeping.
Some CSAs offer shares in different sizes to accommodate the wide variety of households found in any city, from large families to singles. Some let you pay by credit card. A few have fancy web sites. As with food co-ops, all require some of your time volunteered to help run the distribution.
Once a week your farm delivers produce, and sometimes also eggs, poultry, meat, dairy products, honey and other organic items, to a depot-like location where CSA members pick up that week's supply. You bring your own bags and usually need to weigh your shares taking the produce out of bins and large cartons. What you receive will depend upon what's in season, the weather, and the type of share you've purchased at the start of the season. For example, you may have only signed up for vegetables or maybe also fruit, eggs, or dairy products.
CSA in New York City and Just Food
If you're in New York, the best information resource for CSAs is Just Food. Just Food plays a key role in promoting urban CSAs and is a very useful clearinghouse for finding a CSA in your neighborhood.
On Sunday, February 28, Just Food and Columbia University are sponsoring "CSA in NYC Conference" at Teachers College at Columbia University. The Conference is all day, from 8:30 am to 6:00 pm and tickets cost $15 to $100. You can get more information, including a registration link, at JustFood.org.
Outside of New York City
CSAs are active across the country and if you're looking for more information, the best starting source I've found is Local Harvest.org. They declare themselves the country's "#1 organic and local food website" and they are splendidly resourceful.
Here you can find a nationwide directory of farms, farmers' markets, food coops, and CSAs, plus lots of reliable information about the local food movement and sustainability. They are non-profit, enthusiastic, and a good place to start if you want to learn more about the changing food world and how you can be a part of it.
The Plusses and Minuses
Being part of a CSA is not for everyone. It demands flexibility -- you have to be able to volunteer and pick up your shares at a time when many of us have to be at our jobs. Even when we're not in a recession, many bosses aren't going to necessarily understand that we need a break to go pick up vegetables.
There have been experiments in using pedicabs -- bicycle-powered vehicles -- to deliver our shares but these continue to be experiments. And just because you get your weekly share delivered doesn't spare you from your volunteer commitments.
What you get can be unpredictable because CSAs are based on risk and reward: if the weather cooperates and the crops are bountiful, your share will be bigger and you'll get more stuff. If the weather is not so good and there's a shortage, you'll get less.
Then there's the cooking. It's a challenge to plan meals and recipes not knowing what's coming from the farm that week. For city dwellers who are accustomed to constant variety and choice, it's not so easy to be cooking, for example, a bounty of zucchini for three or four weeks.
Some farms, including Norwich Meadows Farm in New York, have come up with a brilliant alternative: you can buy a share in the farm that's similar to a CSA but you choose your items at a weekly farmers' market. Norwich Meadows Farm does this with two New York City Greenmarkets: Union Square Park on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays and at Tompkins Square Park on Sundays. The deadline for signing up for this program for the 2010 season is June 1. We've added a link below for more information.
I have participated in a Norwich Meadows Farm CSA and buy regularly from their market stands and vouch for the superb quality of their fruits and vegetables. And farmer Zaid Kurdieh and his family are hard working and creative in keeping his farm in business while also trying to bring us food that is so splendidly flavorful it can change your palate.
Participating in a CSA is a complicated choice because it combines the political act of personally supporting a local farmer -- someone whose name and face you'll get to know -- with the practical stuff of life: money, time, and flexibility. Still, I believe you can't really know if a CSA is for you unless and until you try it. If you're thinking about it for 2010, it's not too soon to start planning.