Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The CSA Dilemma

No good deed goes unpunished - Clare Boothe Luce 
This was not supposed to have a happy ending. It does. At least it seems to. I think.

This post has been in the works for a while, as many are while I struggle with saying what I want to say. It's also been gestating along with our decision making process. So it goes.

Community Supported Agriculture. CSA. What a concept. Local farms and farmers, raising food in a healthy, sustainable manner. Not merely as a customer, but as a shareholder. A partner in the bounty and the risk.

It's a concept that fits into the way we live our lives. We are far from fanatics. We just try to do it best. We are members of the Lexington Co-op, and we are at the North Tonawanda farmers market at least one Saturday a month. We love the meats from local pasturers like T-Meadow and Erba Verde Farms and tasty treats from White Cow Dairy.

But, more often we shop at Wegmans and Dash's and Aldi and Price Rite.

Still, the idea of joining a CSA was attractive to us. We had looked into it on several occasions, but found ourselves stymied, either by lack of available shares or a pickup limited to a city location or both (one of the basic principles of the CSA is the reduction of the carbon footprint).

Then driving down County Road, an unremarkable rural highway that seems to sprout culinary treats, we found our CSA. A hand-painted sign in front of a nearby farm stand for Root Down Farm, a new startup. We pulled in and took down the info.

I called and spoke to Steve Blabac, who, with his then fiancée Erin, was starting up the farm. He spoke of his philosophy of agriculture, the offerings they planned and the opportunities for participation. The deal was almost closed. Just one more question needed answering.

Are you Organic?

I have issues with the whole "organic" thing - its use and misuse. The misleading ways the term is employed. There are additional issues when it comes to small, independent producers. Organic Certification is both expensive and time consuming.

I got the answer I was looking for. The methods they would employ were everything I hoped for without certification - the resources put into the ground rather that satisfying bureaucratic prerequisites. We signed on.

From the start the offerings were amazing. Flavors clean and intense. In addition to the farm share, there was an extensive u-pick section filled with herbs and flowers and more vegetables. There were limited offerings from other local producers available for purchase – fruits, meat and eggs with a similar provenance. Simply wonderful.

We saved household waste to be composted for the farm, often quite fragrant in the summer heat. We signed on for a winter share. Cabbages, kale, onions, roots and tubers. Hearty produce for cold winter nights.

So what’s the dilemma, you may be asking. It falls in to two categories, both well known to those familiar with the CSA concept.  The first is overabundance and waste. This Rhymes With Orange comic is funny. Funny because it is too often true:

The advantages of CSA produce go out the window if you don't actually eat what you buy. As noted in Slate "[a] limited body of research surrounding these farm shares suggests that food waste is a big problem: Many participants report receiving too many fruits and vegetables that they don't want or don't know how to cook." You can understand how this realization could affect a consumer, even one who has done their homework and took this into consideration when joining a CSA. Frustration City.

Frustration City even for one who wants every variety of product provided and has a pretty good conception of how to make use of it. The problem is most acute in the early weeks - what what I call the "Salad Days" where the share is filled with perishable greens. They don't hold up well. There use in cooking is primarily limited to soup, and those are best consumed when prepared.

So you make salad. And more salad. Maybe a topping for a sandwich or burger. Then more salad. All this at a time long before tomatoes have budded. It strains the most creative of cooks. Fill in the blanks.

The second issue arises as the season progresses. It's a problem of storage. Later produce is hardier, literally ripe for preservation. Freezing, canning, pickling and drying are appropriate methods.

But you need a place to store them.

Freezing is a great option for preservation, if you do it right. We have three refrigerators, each with a freezer, as well as a stand-up. One is "mine" - filed with meat trimmings and other sausage makings, bones and poultry carcasses. The kitchen one is the usual family detritus. The "I"s, from ice to ice cream.

The full-size in the basement is a mixture of bulk purchases, leftover food and ingredients. The one in the garage was saved from the garbage truck to be a curing cabinet for charcuterie. Instead it contains overflow from the stand-up. So it goes.

To reduce the freezer space consumed by preservation, we invested in a pressure canner.  Stable stocks and soups fill shelves next to pickles, condiments and jars of tomatoes. There is room for no more.

I do not tell this to be self-congratulatory, but most people are far more limited in their options. When I started working to preserve the bounty of 2012, the shelves and freezer still held items from 2011. There were pickles and relishes, jars of kimchi and chillis. Foodsaver® bags of squash and quarts of squash soup still. We determined we were not going to invest in a winter share this year. There just wasn’t room.

The CSA did allow the splitting of a share, but we had no one to split it with. (Heck, most our circle that we could give stuff to, rather than letting it become compost, are either in CSAs or hours away.) We were ready to make the tough decision not to renew our share four 2013. We really enjoy our membership. You think you know what a carrot tastes like until you eat one grown like this.

On top of that, we really like Steve and Erin. They are good people.We support what they’re doing. We even hooked them up with a pig from T – Meadow Farm for their wedding, when the one they'd planned for fell through.

As the 2012 season approached the end we had made our decision, but luckily we never had to announce it. When the forms came out to reserve a share for the 2013 season, a new possibility was presented – that of a half share. It seems share splitting was not working out for anyone.

It took 30 seconds to decide to stay in with the half share.

There will still be waste - of that I am sure. After two years I am better equipped to deal with that and hopefully reduce it. I think it likely that as time passes, and people become more familiar with the concept of the CSA, a new paradigm is likely to arise that will alleviate these situations. Something that will allow both producer and consumer to be more comfortable.

In the meantime, while I strongly endorse the concept of the CSA and urge you to consider joining one, please think things through carefully. Really carefully. This guide is just for starters. Do it for the sake of the farmers, and for you.


Jon in Albany said...

I enjoyed my CSA share the year I did it, but I only did it once. I did eat lots of very good, but way too plentiful cole slaw that summer...

Scotty Harris said...

Know the feeling, Jon.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -