Eve Fox explains the ins and outs of a flexible model for getting local produce
If you’ve ever considered making an effort to eat more locally and seasonally, now is the time to give it a go. There are honest-to-goodness leaves on the trees. Leaves, people!
Asparagus spears are pushing their proud green heads through the rich dirt. Crisp sugar snap peas are ripening on their vines. Wonderfully tender, flavorful lettuce, spinach and herbs are ready for picking. And that’s just the beginning of many months of incredible local edibles. Color has now crept into every corner of the landscape.
You could plant a garden. But if you don’t have the space, the time, the energy or the desire to garden, you can just join one of the Hudson Valley’s many excellent examples of Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), a model in which farms offer subscribers a share of the season’s bounty in exchange for an annual payment. This arrangement gives farms the support they need to purchase seed, equipment and more while giving subscribers a steady supply of fresh food. Everyone wins!
I remember feeling rather overwhelmed when I joined my first CSA about eight years ago. What would happen if I was away on pick-up day? How much cabbage could one family really eat? And what would I do if I got a veggie I wasn’t familiar with? But I’ve come up with ways to overcome these hurdles. I am now a huge fan.
In terms of the logistics, the CSA model has become more sophisticated and flexible as more farmers have adopted and refined it. For example, most CSAs now offer multiple pick-up sites in various towns as well as the option to pick up your share directly from the farm. You can usually either split your share with someone else or just purchase a half- or quarter-share individually that you pick up every other week or once a month. This is a great option for an individual, a couple or a small family. If you’re going to be away on pick-up day, some CSAs make it easy to put your share on hold. If not, you can always try to find someone to switch weeks with or gift your share to a friend or family member. I’ve never had any trouble finding someone who wants a week’s worth of gorgeous, fresh vegetables…
As for how to make use of the bounty your CSA provides, I’ve found that the joys far outweigh the challenges. There is something exciting about having to figure out a good way to make use of four butternut squash at once. Or to suddenly have the task of finding out what a watermelon radish is and how to make use of it (hint: it’s great raw in salads and also pickled). The Internet is your friend!
Here are some tips I’ve come up with in my years of participating in a CSA to help make the most of your share.
- Plan ahead and look for inspiration
When you find out what you’ll be getting that week (most CSAs email you this info in advance), take a few minutes to think about meals you might like to make that week. Search out a few recipes and bookmark them. I find that this planning helps get me excited about the possibilities and increases the likelihood that I will actually use everything and cook some really good meals in the process.
If your usual go-to cookbooks and blogs don’t yield much, you can always google things like “asparagus and green garlic recipes” or “what can you do with two bunches of parsley?”You’d be surprised what you find.
- Only take what you will actually use.
If your heart sinks when you see that big bag of summer squash or that umpteenth bunch of collard greens, I give you permission not to take them! Some farms have a box where you can leave anything you’re not interested in so that someone who is interested can take it. And all CSAs have a plan for the food that goes unclaimed. Many deliver to local soup kitchens and shelters as well as sharing leftovers amongst their volunteers. Rest assured that anything you reject will go to hungry mouths that appreciate it instead of slowly rotting in your refrigerator and making you feel guilty.
- Wash the greens when you get home
I’ve found that I am about ten times more likely to actually make use of, say, spinach if I take a few minutes to wash and dry it right when I get it home. That way, rather than throw up my hands and order a pizza when I haven’t started dinner yet at 6:30, I just grab the bag of pre-washed spinach out of the crisper, quickly sauté it with minced garlic, and then toss in some currants and pine nuts while I make a pot of couscous. This also holds true for arugula, kale, chard, herbs, lettuce and more. If you don’t have the time to wash them, make sure to at least remove any rubber bands or ties around the bunches, since they bruise the stems and leaves, making them rot more quickly.
- Don’t forget freezing and canning
If you’ve got too much of something, it’s a great idea to make pickles or jam or just freeze a big bunch of chopped fresh greens or herbs for easy use later. Not only do you keep good food from going to waste, but you’ll thank yourself later when you’re munching on spicy pickled carrots or grabbing a bag of chopped kale out of the freezer to add to a stew.
- Consider signing up for just a half-share
While I like the way the CSA forces me to explore new foods and plays a role in what I end up cooking, I don’t enjoy being a complete slave to what I get from the farm. I like having the flexibility to make something that’s not in the box or to pick something up at the farmers’ market just because it looks great without having to feel guilty about it. So every other week works perfectly for me.
- Clear the decks before CSA pick-up day.
I use the fact that I know another big load of great, fresh stuff is coming soon to motivate me to use up the last of the veggies in our fridge. Plan a big salad as one of your meals, whip up a stir fry, make a big pot of soup, or start a batch of refrigerator pickles. It will taste good and you’ll be thankful for the space in your crispers when the new load of produce arrives.
Ready, set, find your CSA!
Location. Since you’ll be visiting the pick-up site regularly, make sure it’s a reasonable distance from your home or work.
Types of products. Although most CSAs provide vegetables and some fruits, some also offer milk and cheese, eggs, meat, baked goods, fermented foods, cut flowers and things like dried herbs, tinctures and salves.
Price. Although there is not typically a huge disparity in price between different farms, it does vary somewhat, especially if you end up tacking on things like pasture-raised eggs, freshly baked bread, etc.
Check out the resources below
to find the CSA that’s best for you.
- Hudson Valley Bounty lets you search by county and type of product you’re looking for – anything from a CSA to a farmers’ market to a caterer: https://www.hudsonvalleybounty.com/
- Valley Table has a listing of CSAs by county (but keep in mind that most if not all CSAs deliver to other counties): https://www.valleytable.com/csas.php?csa=ALL
- Local Harvest is a national search engine: https://www.localharvest.org/csa/
- The Eatwell Guide is a national resource that allows you to search by keyword and location: https://www.eatwellguide.org