In Season

The CSA Chronicles Comes to a Close

Feta and Kale Tart, a dish made with some of the produce from the author's final CSA share.
Feta and Kale Tart, a dish made with some of the produce from the author's final CSA share. (By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)
By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I've just shopped for a week's worth of produce amid the throng at my local supermarket.

Big deal, you're thinking. Well, it was my first full-scale expedition in months.

That's because my family had a share in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program from June until mid-November. CSA members pay in advance for a weekly delivery or pickup of produce and other fresh items from a local farm. Every week we went to a farm and picked up our surprise-filled bag, then chronicled the exercise in the Food section.

We had a great ride, enjoying watermelon radishes and the sweetest watermelons we've ever tasted. Swiss chard has become one of my favorite vegetables. We learned that a few worms at the tip of an ear of corn are nothing to worry about; they're a sign that I picked a good ear.

Instead of writing about seasonality, I was living it. Most raspberries, it turns out, come late in the summer. I had assumed they were always a late-spring/early-summer fruit. Red bell peppers may be at your grocer year-round, but they didn't show up in our CSA share until late in the summer. Then, as the days got cooler, they were gone; the green ones kept coming, but there was not enough heat to ripen them to the red stage. I was happy to find that the flavor of fall greens improves after the first frost.

Yet now that the great adventure is over, I'm relieved. If I don't want eggplant, I'll just pass it by. No more matching the mystery greens (kale? turnip?) to an identification sheet. No more black turnips. No more wasted salad greens in the fridge, pitched with a twinge of regret.

I won't miss the remorse. On that, fellow CSAers agree.

"The guilt factor was pretty big," says Dana McMahan, a CSA member in Louisville. "You know the people who grew the stuff." She and her husband tried to use everything they received each week, but for some, waste is an inevitable part of the CSA experience. "We got beets for weeks. I tried to acquire the taste, but I hate them," she says.

CSAs are a valuable tool for independent small farmers, allowing them to raise capital in the offseason. Some farms rely strictly on CSA members, while others use the CSA as one of several outlets for their produce. Either way, the shareholders assume some risk. If the farm has a bad year, the shares will be smaller than expected. If the farmer has a great year, the shareholders might end up with more produce than they can handle.

The risk is one that few members fully consider until they are part of a failing farm. One member of an area CSA, who asked to remain anonymous, was disappointed when there were weeks in which she received almost nothing in her share.

Bashi Packer of Rockville, a member of the Sandy Springs CSA, did not like the lack of variety or having to receive unusable quantities.

"The quantities were weird," she said. "Six small potatoes. What can you do with that?" Even after experiencing some of the negative aspects of CSA membership, Packer says she still appreciated the program: "Everything was very fresh and in good condition." Next year she hopes to find a CSA that offers greater variety.

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