Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

I have been fascinated by CSAs for some time now, and have longed to join one. I first read about them a number of years ago, and then, around the time Odd Toddler was born, I found out that at least one of these Community Sponsored Agriculture farms existed here in my area. The concept is great. A specified number of members pay an up-front fee to essentially sponsor a farm. The farmers plant sustainable crops, often organic, and then prepare weekly bags of produce for the members during the growing season. The benefits for everyone are great. The farmers get some financing and have guaranteed “buyers” for their crops. The members receive local, seasonal vegetables, fruit, herbs and other treats (depending on the farm) that has been grown in a manner in which they approve.

The idea is extraordinarily appealing to me on a number of levels. Organic produce is usually prohibitively expensive in the grocery stores, and is rarely locally-grown. Most fruits in my local grocery store come from Central and South America, wasting enormous amounts of resources (such as gas) in their world-travels before they make it to me. Not to mention the US governmental oversight on these items appears to be lax, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern the amount of chemicals used in the growing and “preserving” process. And I’m loathe to eat a grape that frankly must have been picked at least a week or two before it gets into my hands.

Last week, while shopping at Publix with a painful hankering for some fresh fruit, I was stymied on all fronts. The strawberries were from California, the grapes were from Chile, something else – now forgotten - was from Ecuador, and the cantaloupes were from Honduras. Have we maybe gone too far in our desire to have what we want RIGHT WHEN WE WANT IT? Was it really so bad in the good old days (say only 10, 20 years ago) when you just couldn’t find blueberries in your grocery store except during the summer harvesting months? Were we such deprived consumers that it would kill us to go a couple of months without red bell peppers?

We’ve now gotten to the point that seemingly anything we want can be obtained not only any month out of the year, but at exceedingly low prices, at any grocery store in town. Of course, most of the produce is completely tasteless (come on – I know you’ve noticed that tomatoes no longer taste like, well, tomatoes), and surely it hasn’t escaped our notice that it just isn’t possible for fresh strawberries to STAY fresh for an entire week while they truck themselves cross-country to our table.

Though I hadn’t joined a CSA before now, I have tried to be more mindful about my produce purchases for the past year. While I haven’t completely denied myself every out-of-season item, I’ve been more careful to read the teeny-weeny little stickers to see where everything comes from, and when I plan our menus for the week, I have tried to include vegetables that are more or less in season locally (even though it has proved virtually impossible to FIND these items locally unless I were willing to do my shopping only during the summer months at the local farmers market). But this is no longer enough for me. I’m blessedly pregnant now, and am militantly hyper-vigilant about eating organically when pregnant or breastfeeding - caring for a miniature person is an awesome responsibility.
I’ve also been looking for a new cooking challenge.

The biggest complaint that I’ve read about CSAs is that, of course, you don’t get to give the farmer your grocery list and have them pick the items that you are craving at the moment. You get, obviously, what is growing at the moment, essentially only what is local and seasonal. To me, this is a minutely minor sacrifice. And a beautiful challenge for a cook. Look, if collards are all that’s growing for a month, I’m more than up to the challenge of searching far and wide for imaginative recipes in which to stave off any boredom after eating the same vegetable every day for weeks. And if I don’t find asparagus in my weekly pack from the farm, well, I doubt I’ll die of roasted-asparagus-deprivation.

So, over dinner last week, I broached the subject with The Carnivore that I married. I explained the CSA concept; I briefly enumerated the benefits to the environment, to the local economy, and to our health; and I, at length, detailed the creative cooking challenge that I craved. And of course I mentioned that everything was going to taste WAY better than the produce I’ve been buying at the supermarket. The Carnivore listened carefully, and then asked about the cost. I took a deep breath – I was prepared for this; I’m an accountant – and said, “Well, that’s the only drawback.” The up-front fee was a little disconcerting to him. After all, who wants to pre-pay their grocery bill for the next three or four months?

He asked for a few days to think it over, and I, well-versed in negotiation tactics, thanked him for his open-mindedness about the idea and especially expressed my appreciation that he didn’t just laugh and dismiss the whole thing as a little too hippie for his taste. He grinned at me over his plate and replied, “Well, you are a hippie, but I love you.” Hey, he’s voted Republican in more elections than I’ve even been eligible to vote in. I was proud of him for humoring me. And I also knew he was aware of the benefits. I love to cook; it wasn’t lost on him that any cooking challenge that I looked forward to this much was going to serve him well come dinnertime. But, for the record here, I am most assuredly NOT a hippie.

For the next two days, I bit my tongue often in my barely-successful attempts to refrain from nagging The Carnivore about joining a CSA. I knew the deadline for membership had to be getting close, and I also knew that the local CSAs, especially the one I was most interested in, filled up quickly. Then, on Thursday, The Carnivore opened up the Atlanta newspaper and went to hand me the food section. He did a double-take when he saw the cover story, and then he scratched his goatee, sighing a little. “This is probably like singing to the choir,” he said, “but here’s a story on that thing you were talking about.”

Very cool. I hereby express my thanks to the entire feature-writing team at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

I grabbed for the paper, eager to read more, especially since this would be the first relatively-local article that I had seen on Community Sponsored Agriculture, but then I hesitated. “Wait,” I said, “would you like to read this first so you can maybe better understand what I’m saying about the whole thing?”

“No,” replied The Carnivore,” it’s not that important what it says. The only thing that matters to me is that this is something you want.”

I love this man.
But still he said nothing about being willing to make the financial commitment. And since I only contribute about 20% of the total household income, I felt pretty strongly that this wasn’t a decision I could just make on my own. And I’m not stupid. I needed total buy-in from him on this if it was going to work on an ongoing basis for our family.

A few more days passed, and I got more anxious with each passing hour. Then, yesterday, I got an email from the Full Moon Cooperative announcing the spring and summer CSA program along with the details and the costs. Ecstatic, I called The Carnivore. The price was only a little more than HALF what I had told him earlier, and the season was beginning this week. And, most importantly, there was no time to waste. The shares were limited to 15 for the spring 3-week program, and to 40 for the summer 10-or-so-week program. “I know what I want for Mother’s Day,” I practically shouted into the phone. I quickly explained the two seasonal options to him, sure he would at least agree to the short season, and giggled while I told him the lower-than-expected price.

“Sure,” he said easily, “go ahead and join.”

“Just the short spring option?” I asked nervously, “or can we afford the commitment to doing both spring and summer?”
"Both," he answered. And I swear I could hear the smile in his voice; he knew he was scoring major points with me. I would, without a doubt, marry this man again.

Our first weekly pickup is this Friday. I’m practically vibrating with anticipation. I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE WHAT IS IN OUR FIRST BAG.


Shari said...

Glad to see you back. I have always enjoyed your posts and when your mom mentioned you today in her blog I thought I would check in. Glad I did. I am sure whatever is in your bag this week will be good, at least it will have FLAVOUR.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I are going to share a share with a friend. I'm looking through cookbooks tonight for chard recipes. I'm so excited too. You have to share your recipes.

Emily C

amomteach said...

I read your blog yesterday and then last night I was at the library waiting for my daughter and picked up Redbook magazine. There was an article about food and it was very interesting. I've included the link and some key comments. There was a sidebar about a family who at only local vegetables for a year (I couldn't find the sidebar online) and the woman said giving up variety was very hard for her, but that now that she's done it for a year, it's not a big deal. Keep us informed about how it all goes, and include your great recipes.


“Organic isn’t automatically wholesome -- a lot of large organic farms are just as industrial as other farms,” says Guillermo Payet, founder of LocalHarvest, a clearinghouse for small growers. Organic means the food is grown without conventional pesticides, antibiotics, or fertilizers -- it doesn’t mean that Farmer Bob is lovingly tending your apples on a small farm. (The buzzword for that kind of farming, which emphasizes the long-term health of the environment and the local community, is “sustainable.”)

Most communities have public spaces where groups of farmers sell their products on designated days. To find a farmers’ market in your area, go to localharvest.org and type in your zip code.

Produce in your grocery store is less likely to have come from a long distance if it’s in season and can be obtained from farms in the region. Visit sustainabletable.org to learn what’s in season when in your state, and ask your store’s manager to specially label local produce.

That’s Community Supported Agriculture -- a subscription service in which you pay an up-front fee to a farmer and get a weekly basket of fresh crops. Food is often dropped at a convenient location for pickup, and some farms deliver to your door. Find a CSA operation in your area at localharvest.org.

Many farmers operate roadside stands or pick-your-own produce services. Either way, you can ask first how the food is grown.

Certified organic foods must meet USDA standards -- including no use of bioengineering, growth hormones, antibiotics, or irradiation.