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.
Happy CSA members are a lot like devoted fans. Dana Smith of Fairfax joined the Potomac Vegetable Farms CSA for the first time this year, along with her husband, her adult son and his girlfriend. After receiving a weekly e-mail about what they should expect, the four of them would exchange messages and plot ways to use the food in their weekly meal together.
"There isn't much we didn't like about the CSA," Smith says. "We took it as an opportunity." They knew the produce from the CSA would not look as perfect as the stuff found in stores. Carrots that looked like arthritic fingers didn't faze them a bit. "Our CSA produce was beautiful on the inside," she says.
Smith and her family belonged to a top-notch CSA, the same one we joined. Hana Newcomb and her mother, Hiu Newcomb, own and operate Potomac Vegetable Farms in Vienna, where they have a vegetable stand, sell at local farm markets and run the CSA. They strive to provide the best experience possible for the members. All the greens are rinsed before being packed in bags, and the cabbages are trimmed. Hana takes the extra step of buying fruit and vegetables from a network of farmers to supplement her produce.
"I buy surplus fruit to get diversity in the bags," she says. At first she worried that she was taking the CSA in the wrong direction: away from the idea of shared risk and into the world of commerce by going outside her farm to meet her members' needs.
But now she sees the benefits. Her members are able to get items they treasure, such as corn and blackberries. (Every time I went to pick up my bag and found a box of berries or a bag of peaches, I felt as if I had been given a gift.)
Newcomb's approach is one way CSAs foster distinct personalities. Rockville homemaker Shari Begel, who joined the CSA at Red Wiggler Community Farm in Germantown, liked the fact that the farm is a nonprofit horticulture therapy and vocational training program for adults with developmental disabilities. Begel found the whole experience fantastic.
"Your blood pressure drops when you get there," she says. Begel liked buying fresh produce, locally grown and in an environmentally friendly location, but the real payoff for her was in the eating: "It expanded my cooking repertoire."
It's a given that things can go wrong. During the time I wrote about my CSA experiences, I fielded readers' reports of skimpy shares, crop failures and general chaos. Even the best farmer has to deal with unpredictable weather and infestations. CSA members have to be tolerant.
My CSA managed the challenges of farming with few outward signs of stress. Every week, my crate was full. We had fun poking through our share, discovering new vegetables and finding the unexpected.
That said, we won't be signing up next year. We live close to the farm stand, so I can pick and choose what I want from the very same farmers who ran my CSA. I also have access to farmers markets almost every day of the week.
Kane sees the growth of farmers markets as a threat to CSAs. "The average consumer has many other options outside of CSA to support farmers and buy local," she says. Offering more choice and allowing customers to make special requests are two ways Kane says CSAs could be more valuable to consumers.
Hana Newcomb has her own thoughts on the subject. She says people should join, experience CSA life and then transition to the farmers markets, making way for new members. "I want turnover," she says.
I like to think of our months in the CSA as the perfect college seminar. The class was on eating local and eating outside our comfort zone. We did well, and we're ready to graduate. Next year you'll find me at the farmers market, searching for radishes with strange names and carrots that look like pencil stubs.
Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, a former Food section recipe editor, can be reached at email@example.com. Her In Season column appears monthly.