Thursday, July 19, 2012

Scribbles and Scrambles ~ Is a CSA For You????

Is a CSA (Community Sustained Agriculture or Community Supported Agriculture) for you?

Good question. Most of the ones in our area are halfway through and you may be hearing all about how awesome the hauls are and are feeling jealous that you didn't get on board.

Before you leap into one these are a few questions you need to ask yourself.

What is your goal/motivation? 

It might be to support local farmers. Maybe you want to force yourself to eat more vegetables or try new ones. Possibly you think local is better nutrition or less poisonous. You could be looking for a way to save money over farmer's markets or just can't get to farmer's markets. Or friends or co-workers are going on and on about their CSA hauls every week and you are tired of drooling on your keyboard.

What are your expectations?

Every single CSA is going to be unique. And not all of them are organic or completely local. What? Yep. The definition of local can be a little wishy-washy. You can hook-up with a cooperative, or a single farmer, or a CSA that is a single grower with an occasional collaboration. Some CSA's contain fruits and other products, some contain only vegetables. The organization you are going with should have a website or pamphlet, or can verbally tell you what they grow, how long the season typically is, and what you should expect in your weekly box. If you are thinking about joining one, get your facts, do your homework before signing on the bottom line.

Generally, each contract is going to look a little different, too. Some offer whole shares, a big box every week, from mid-May thru September or October, but offer half-shares as well. A half-share could be a weekly 1/2 portion of what the full share gets or a full share every two weeks. You need to understand that and know what works for you and your family. If you are getting a half share because you know you can't eat 7 tomatoes, a pound of lettuce and 8 ounces of basil in a week on top of the cabbage, kale and chard, an every other week box of that quantity will probably result in waste for you and you'd do better with less every week. If you are trying to feed a family of four on a full share, but that family is picky and only likes sweet corn and tomatoes but hates anything green and leafy, you are going to be disappointed. If you don't do your homework and find out halfway through the season that half of the produce in your box is organic but the rest is traditionally grown, you will likely not enjoy your CSA experience. If you sign up for organically grown produce and expect it to be untouched by bugs, that's unrealistic.  

Why a CSA may not be for you. Period. No matter how neat you think the concept is, here is why you should not jump in.

If you are picky. Here’s the deal. You get what you get. Two weeks of sweet corn might be all you get out of your organic CSA. If your palette hates green leafy veggies and you let those go to waste, why invest the money? And all of May and throughout early summer and then again at the end of the summer season (September/October), you are going to get lots of green leafy. Tomatoes (organically grown heirloom) are going to be 4-6 weeks in your boxes, depending on weather and bug conditions. Sweet corn, 3 to 4 weeks, and that’s if the farmer staggers the crop to extend it and the weather is cooperative to growing corn. Case in point. Last year we got 3 weeks and the last week was small chopped up portions of salvageable ears harvested after the softball sized hailstorm that rocked the farm. Expect cucumbers and zucchini, but not enough to make pickles every week for 6 weeks, or enough to supply your co-workers. If you don’t know what to do with an summer squash or swiss chard, you may not want to invest in a CSA until you do some serious homework.

If you are looking for a bargain. Honestly, speaking organically here, and with a minimally involved point of view regarding the man hours that go into growing organic, organic CSA’s are a bargain. The prices charged at farmer’s markets and grocery stores/health food stores and coops are a bargain, too. 

Conventional farming is designed to get the biggest bang for the buck and to produce quantity and the quantity that looks picture perfect. Consumers want red tomatoes without defect, shiny apples, and lettuces with no bite marks. To that end, conventional farming is scientifically and mass-productively making those items. Tricks, chemicals, tools and timing are keys. 

Organic farming is sweat and tears. In organics you can’t shoot a mist of chemicals over the field and know that you just likely wiped out the nymph cycle of a pest. Nope. You go out, look under leaves and scrape the eggs off of the back side of said leaves. And you crush every adult bug you see, unless it’s a lady bug, or a spider. And then you watch those plants for any evidence of nearly invisible hatchlings. Because within a day or two you could have overrun plants and lose your harvest. 

Weeds? You don’t spray those either, you bend over and pull them out. Gotta make sure they don’t end up choking your plants. And, after harvest, you have to make sure you don’t let either weeds or bugs go unchecked because some can over winter making your next growing season challenged before it even starts. Then, the produce, if it survives and thrives through weather, bugs and weeds, needs to be picked and prepped. No mass picking in a small 1 farmer CSA. Nope. All picked by hand. You will never, never, never fully appreciate organically grown vegetables until you’ve spent a few hours weeding, whacking bugs, and picking the produce. Back breaking, thankless work. Then. Washing, drying, looking over and bagging produce. Counting, weighing, measuring…and delivering. Oh, and any newsletter or recipe page, and the picking up of boxes from the last round. And dealing with any phone calls or emails while doing it all again the next week. Trust me. Organic, local CSAs are a bargain.

If you love one or two or three kinds of veggies but not so much the rest, or you think this is a great opportunity to be buried in produce.

Do not, do not, do not expect a plethora of the things you love. If you want 7 pounds of broccoli or enough cucumbers to put up pickles, then go to the farmer’s market or nursery or big box grocery store.