From June until November, Saturday mornings find our family picking up farm-fresh fruit, vegetables, and eggs at a community garden eight blocks from our Brooklyn apartment. My toddler keeps up a running commentary about the produce he encounters. “I like green beans…I don’t like broccoli…Corn is sweet….” Rankings change day-to-day. He is not into “leaves” (greens), but tries most fruits without hesitation. Today, he bit into some Romanesco, said “It’s good?” a bit uncertainly, and handed the rest of the mysterious vegetable back to his dad.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs exist across the United States as way for people to connect with and support area farmers by purchasing “shares” of local, seasonal produce in advance of the coming season. Many participating farms are dedicated to organic and other sustainable agricultural practices.
The element of shared-risk and -reward that comes with membership in a CSA is part of the experience. Members pay in advance for an estimated quantity and variety of vegetables, but there are no guarantees. Farmers need shareholder money up-front to buy equipment, seeds, and to pay for labor, but each season is different. Collectively, we don’t know which years will bring heavy rains, tomato blight, drought, or bugs in the corn. Will you receive more cabbage than you know what to do with? You may. You may also take home the best peach you’ve ever eaten. Shareholders agree to take whatever bounty is provided by the earth, the weather, and the people who grow our food. We are in this together.
Membership in a CSA can bring us back into community not just with farmers, but with the land. After five years of CSA membership, despite my lack of a garden, I can begin to anticipate the ebb and flow of a “typical” growing season. When might the share be green, leafy, and kale-heavy? When will the potatoes hit their stride? How short is my rhubarb or strawberry window? This knowledge has enhanced my appreciation of seasonal cycles and made my trips to the Farmers Market or grocery store for “supplemental” produce more informed.
We can get to know ourselves better, too, participating in CSA programs in our communities. I’ve learned a lot about my own consumption habits, as well as how to strategize with my family on minimizing waste. It’s also helped me (a dyed-in-the-wool cookie and casserole enthusiast) eat more healthily throughout the year.
CSA options in this country continue to expand. Farms may offer fruits, vegetables, eggs, flowers, beans, meats, honey, spices, granola, and many other products to shareholders. Winter shares are often available (vegetables frozen on the farm, pea shoots grown in a greenhouse, root vegetables, etc.). CSF (Community Supported Fishery) programs are also increasing in popularity. One local option, Iliamna Fish Co., focuses on wild salmon. Caught sustainably in Alaska each year, it is blast-frozen and delivered to shareholders in Oregon and NYC.
Another exciting development in the field has seen the “CSA” acronym rewritten. In communities across the country, creative people have been replacing “Agriculture” with “Art” and using the CSA model to connect local artists with a supportive community of patrons. In these programs, shareholders may receive a pen-and-ink drawing, rather than half a dozen different vegetables, but it’s still about sustainability and connection.
Laura Zabel, Executive Director of Springboard for the Arts (St. Paul, Minnesota), the organization which — alongside artists from mnartists.org — created a model for Community Supported Art in 2010, told me, “It’s has been so exciting to see how well the CSA model works for artists. Just like in agriculture, the program builds direct relationships between community members and artists, helps shareholders understand the process that goes into making artwork, and gives people a way to support their local economy. After seeing the impact in our own community we wrote a toolkit to help others start Community Supported Art programs of their own and now there are about 40 locally-adapted and run programs all over the country.”
Are you part of the growing CSA movement? Interested in locally-sourcing some honey, granola, seafood, or oil paintings? For more glimpses into CSA art programs across the country, see this New York Times article. To find lots of links and resources about CSA food programs, check out this USDA National Agricultural Library page. You may also want to check out Local Harvest and subscribe to their newsletter (they also list local farm markets in your area, as well as online sources). Many CSA food subscriptions run sign-ups during the winter months to have funds for planting in early spring. Although it is October when this blog entry posts, it’s not too early to begin thinking about the fresh produce you’d like to receive when harvesting begins next spring; in fact, in some parts of the country there may be year-round CSAs available.
One concern that keeps some from subscribing to a CSA is the question of waste: Will I be able to use or preserve the produce quickly enough? If you have this concern, you may want to check out PLOVGH, available in some major metropolitan areas in the U.S. Through PLOVGH, you order only what you want, pay for it that week, and pick it up on the day of share distribution. Find out if PLOVGH is available near you on their website.
This post is the first in an ongoing series, through the year, on economic empowerment in your own backyard. Our farmers seek to support their families through working the land. Some chain grocery stores do stock produce from local farms, but most ship it in from other parts of the U.S. or other countries. This not only raises questions about nutritional value (the longer fresh produce takes to get to your plate, the more nutrients it loses), but it can also make it difficult for the smaller local farm to provide a livable income for a family. As you consider how you can personally engage in economic empowerment, you might want to consider how you can support local farms through CSAs, farm markets, or other suggestions above.
This blog post has been contributed by Jennette Selig, blogger at snackreligious.blogspot.com. Jenny lives in New York City and attends Judson Memorial Church in Washington Square Park. Having been raised by two American Baptist ministers, she enjoys a good potluck as much as any fine dining experience. When not taking pictures of snack foods or her toddler, she works as an audiobook narrator and postpartum doula.