My CSA Experience: Farm-Fresh Veggies All Summer (and Possibly Winter)
This year I joined the Gorman Farm CSA, which is located in my area. CSAs (community-supported agriculture) allow individuals and families to buy a share in a farm's crop for a season or a year. You pay a set amount at the beginning of the year and, during the growing and harvest seasons, you receive a share of the produce each week. The details can differ from farm to farm, of course: Some CSAs ask for part of your payment in the form of volunteer hours, others offer foods beyond produce (such as eggs, cheese, or honey), and so on.
I paid $550 for a full share at the Gorman Farm CSA, which is meant to provide enough food to feed a family of four. Based on the amount of food we received, it could have fed a family of four vegetarians with very little added. We received a full load of vegetables every week for twenty weeks, breaking the price down to $27.50 per week. Considering that most weeks I spend about $20 on produce when I'm shopping at the market, the price wasn't too bad. We did not receive fruit as a part of our share, so I did wind up spending a little more at the market — but it balanced out. Because of the sheer quantity of the vegetables we received, I cut down on the meat and even the dairy I bought regularly, making a lot more salads for meals. I still kept the monthly budget for food under $200 between the CSA and some careful shopping at the market.
I also preserved a lot of produce over the summer; between my garden and the CSA, I was able to can thirty pounds of tomatoes for the winter. There are also some CSAs that keep food coming during the winter months. LocalHarvest offers listings of many of the CSAs out there, at least in the US. Here are some lessons I learned in the process.
I don't know nearly as much about cooking vegetables as I thought I did. I routinely found items in my weekly share that I had no idea what to do with and would have to search around for a recipe. When in doubt, many vegetables do well broiled with a little olive oil, but I did enjoy the adventure of finding new meals. Some I'm repeating on a regular basis and some I will never make again, but that's how these things go.
Gardening with a CSA Share
Gardening and buying a CSA share may be overkill. I tend to grow produce that we go through in some quantity, like tomatoes and peppers, but there was a lot of overlap between my garden and the CSA. Between canning and dehydrating, I was able to preserve the excess without a problem — but there was a good deal of work in there that I hadn't initially planned for.
Food You Don't Want
There will always be food in your CSA share that you won't care for. In my case, it's eggplant — which Gorman Farms included in the CSA share for about ten weeks. They were kind enough to let me swap out all that eggplant for other vegetables, but many CSAs don't allow for such trades. It's worthwhile to have a friend you can share the bounty with, especially if you can find a friend who likes some of those vegetables you don't enjoy.