CSA can provide a fresh share of family food

By Tom Phelan - ReminderNews
Feature Article - posted Tue., Nov. 22, 2011
- Contributed Photo

As we make the transition from enjoying abundance at Thanksgiving into the winter months ahead, it's difficult to move right into planning for the next spring and summer. Personally, I don’t usually start thinking about my vegetable garden until January or February.

But this might be just the right time to think about taking part in community-supported agriculture (CSA) next year, and plan for the food you will eat over the next 12 months. It will take you some time to do the necessary research, and adjust your household budget. But for those of us who try to be conscious of healthy choices for our bodies and the environment, a CSA could be just the right alternative.

In a CSA (community-supported or community-shared agriculture) arrangement, the participants agree to share in the risks and benefits, the successes and failures of a farming operation. The individuals or families commit their funds to support the farmer, while the farmer-grower commits to producing and distributing the products he grows.

Distribution is done on a periodic basis - usually weekly - and usually through the buyer picking up the box(es) of produce the grower has to offer.

The CSA brings the consuming family into direct relationship with the producing farmer. In this socioeconomic model, the people consuming the foods know where they came from, how they were produced, and have the confidence that the organic or naturally-grown food is healthful for them. There is no intervening structure of middlemen and distributors.

When CSA participants commit to the farmer to purchase produce, they are likely required to pay a membership fee up front. The fees and additional share payments pay for the cost of producing the vegetables, fruits, etc., as well as the farmer's salary. They become "share holders" in the CSA enterprise, and for this commitment they receive regular distribution of produce based on the "share" they have purchased. Some farms offer half-shares. Others also may offer "working shares," which reduce the amount paid because the participant will contribute labor toward the value of the share he receives. So rather than pay a certain price for a specific amount and assortment of produce, the share holder is agreeing to essentially support the operation of the farm, while hoping to get a bountiful array of seasonal crops.

There are a host of reasons why people in the northeast and in other areas of the country patronize this grower-consumer model. In general terms, it gives them reason to feel good about what they are doing. The dollars they spend for the food they receive are staying close to home, and they even know to whom those dollars are going. The consumers can take satisfaction from their actions as being better for the environment and the economy.

Since middlemen and distributors are not involved, and since participants may even have to pick up their own shares, they can feel confident that they are getting the freshest foods and those which are often the highest quality.

There is tremendous diversity in the food choices available from most CSA farmer-producers. They typically offer a large variety of vegetables and herbs, as well as fruit, dairy products, maple syrup, local honey, eggs and even flowers. Such diversity in the products offered can also mean a corresponding greater nutritional diversity.

The CSA participant may pay as little as $300 and perhaps twice that for a full share of the farm's output. For that sum, the buyer has to adapt the family's eating habits to whatever is available as one crop's season ends and another begins. Think in terms of radishes and green peas in the early spring. That's not a lot of variety, but freezing some of the excess of any one crop extends the benefit of the CSA arrangement.

As the weather warms, strawberries, zucchini, yellow squash and green beans show up in the weekly shareholder box. But along with those, or instead of them, might come spinach, collard greens, beets and chard. Those last four selections might not light up the eyes of your 8-year-old at the dinner table. Asking that same child to develop a liking for something called “bok choi” might be pushing the limits of family tolerance for your CSA decision.

In the fall, you might be searching cookbooks and the Internet for multiple ways in which to prepare and preserve purple top turnips and acorn squash, as you freeze as much sweet corn as possible.

CSA participation is not without its challenges, but the solutions are there for the taking. There is a fairly substantial CSA community, and it is an active one. What's more, there are some variations on the CSA theme that may make the concept appealing for you.

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