That spring a couple of years ago when we got all the rain, I was worried about the strawberry crop. Not strawberries I was growing myself, but the ones a particular farm was growing for my family and all the other part-owners in that farm’s harvest. Back in March, we had put down money for a share of the farm’s annual harvest of fruit and vegetables, and rain or shine, we were in it along with our CSA farmer for the rest of the growing season. That’s the way it is in a CSA.
Consumer Supported Agriculture is a system in which buyers give a farmer cash at the beginning of the growing season, and then for the rest of the season, they each get a share of the farm’s harvest. There are over 4,000 farms in the U.S. that operate CSAs. Jamaica Plain is at the forefront of this movement; more than a half dozen farms deliver their fresh local produce to CSA members at designated pick-up points in JP (see table for several examples).
People usually join a CSA because they want the benefits of eating ultra-fresh food (with all the accompanying flavor and nutritional benefits) and they want the security of knowing who is growing their food. In the process, CSA shareholders develop a sense of the rhythm of the growing season, from scant beginnings in the spring -- perhaps four pounds of lettuce and peas and strawberries -- increasing to a climax of groaning boxes filled with 18 to 20 pounds of all kinds of produce at the end of the summer. So it’s fresh, it’s local, and in the case of the CSAs that serve Jamaica Plain, it’s grown using organic farming practices, reducing the risk of unwanted pesticides or herbicides.
We did get strawberries in our share that year of the rainy spring, and also got to go pick-our-own extra quarts of berries at the farm at no additional cost. And we got all the vegetables that we had expected – crisp fresh peppers and tomatoes and corn and carrots and beans and cucumbers.
We also got more greens, eggplant, and squash than we had ever imagined. Greens by the armload, ranging from smooth, buttery Bibb lettuce to biting HOT mustard greens. Long, thin, light purple eggplants, then plump white eggplants with lavender streaks, finally shiny, bulgy purple-black eggplants. (I came close to having had enough of ratatouille, that hot, humid summer.) Summer squashes in green and gold, straight or crookneck or shaped like a child’s drawing of a flying saucer.
Along with the food came recipes for things I wasn’t used to cooking: turnips, Asian greens, blue-skinned (but sweet-fleshed) hubbard squash. I found out that almost any leafy green is tasty if you cook it up with garlic and raisins and pine nuts, and that lots of things that grow underground get incredibly sweet and delicious if you roast them in the oven long enough. I became a better cook that summer and fall, trying new foods and new recipes, in order to use up all that food!
The hardest thing for me when we had a CSA share was that we always had a load of fresh produce ready to be prepared. I felt guilty going out to eat anywhere. Felt bad going away for the weekend. What about all that food? Some people feel okay just kind of composting food in the back of their refrigerators if they don’t get around to preparing or eating it, but my long-deceased grandmother always seems to be a brooding, judgmental presence in my kitchen when I have food that might go bad. I tend to wake up in the night thinking about ways of using the cauliflower or those last two squash.
That’s why there are half shares available, and why some people buy a share with neighbors. A share is usually described as enough produce for two adults and two to three children, or two to three serious vegetarians, and a half is – well, half as much. The advantage of buying a share with neighbors is that people can take turns doing the pick-up, and most people feel fine sharing all those healthy greens. The difficulty with buying a share with neighbors comes when the sexier summer produce comes in – the tomatoes and corn – and nobody really wants to share. Then it’s just better to order extra (many CSAs offer the possibility of ordering extras of specific produce). In fact, just because you are a CSA member doesn’t mean you won’t be buying any other vegetables; there are times when recipes or seasonal urges cause one to get extra stuff.
That’s what JP video artist Molly Allis has found. Molly and her household are doing a winter CSA share right now. The share includes not only the root vegetables and cabbage-related foods (crisp heads of broccoli, creamy cauliflowers, big purple cabbages) and the hot-house grown greens one expects in New England in winter, but also great produce from small organic farms down the Eastern seaboard – even tomatoes and citrus from Florida. So far there’s been plenty of produce for five healthy eaters. Allis says the biggest benefit is that the focus of meals has taken a healthy shift to vegetables, and has sparked creativity in the kitchen (so how do we use the dandelion greens?). She also feels that even though she sometimes supplements the share with store purchases, it has really cut down on the grocery bill.
Allis works at home, so she is able to arrange her schedule to pick up her share weekly. For many, the most difficult part of membership in a CSA is getting to the pick-up point at the appointed time each week. Somebody has to be able to pick up all that good food that is brought to JP from the country farm within a specific 3-4 hour window. For an extra charge, Metro Pedal Power will deliver your CSA share to your home, working with several CSAs that bring farm shares to JP.
Choosing a CSA is very individual. For some folks it’s all about having the children visit the farm, know the farmer and see their food growing. Powisset Farm, a Trustees of Reservation property which grows the food for the ReVision House CSA, is open for visitors year round. Allandale Farm plans to offer crop walks and hayrides that will bring people out into the fields.
Some shareholders want to get their hands dirty and really be part of their farm’s life; the Food Project welcomes volunteer workers. And other folks like to celebrate the produce with the farmers; for those willing to make the drive west, Red Fire Farm offers festive events throughout the season, from the Wild Edibles Tour, the Strawberry Soiree, and the Tomato Festival, to the Cider Pressing and Harvest Potluck.
For many, the choice of CSA is determined by the foods offered – some CSAs are strictly vegetables and others include fruit, eggs, flowers, dairy or meat products. Most CSA websites include a calendar of the expected produce.
Some people choose to buy shares in farms that are dedicated to a social purpose as well as food production. For ReVision House and the Food Project, the social mission is paramount. Other farms build activism into their plans. Red Fire Farm offers shares on a sliding scale to make it possible for people who could not otherwise have access to fresh and local food, and Farmer Dave’s has a Share-A-Share program. Enterprise Farm is a strong supporter of food justice, accepting food stamps, sharing produce with food pantries, and partnering in low-cost Senior Shares for elders in Boston and Stillman’s Farm donates thousands of pounds of produce to area food banks and shelters each season.
JP musician Elizabeth Anker knows her priorities in choosing (and staying with) her CSA. She says right away that the very best thing about her CSA is the variety of foods that appear in her weekly box all season long. But it’s also important to her that her CSA farm, Brookfield, has a long history of training apprentices to become organic farmers. Those who were once apprentices at Brookfield are now mentoring their own apprentices. She also likes the recipes the CSA provides just when you want them. “When the escarole is ready to harvest,” she recounts, “we get the recipe for the escarole and white bean soup.” There is a special pleasure in eating foods at the natural time. (And that soup is so easy and good!) Anker sometimes even orders extra greens at wholesale prices through her CSA.
Tips for those whose families can take only so much kale in one week: it freezes well; for folks who can't figure out what to do when your share includes one sweet potato: almost any vegetable can be added to a salad. That's how we learned to love cubes of sweet potato in our salad!
There are other benefits to CSA membership; Allandale shareholders get a 10 percent discount on everything sold at the farmstand. Fresh food from any of these farms probably tastes better than supermarket food, and it certainly lasts longer.
And becoming a CSA share-holder is undeniably fashionable. JP social observer Ben Resner suspects that some join CSAs for the social cachet associated with the fresh and local movement. (His suspicion is only half joking -- he recently overhead a conversation in which a CSA-seeker implored a friend to use his old school connections to arrange for him to get a share in a particularly desirable CSA). Hey, it’s not a bad thing if healthy food and food justice are hip.
No matter what the reason, if you plan to join a CSA this year, do it soon, as many do sell out before the season begins. In fact, a few have sold out during the time it has taken me to write this article! The table shows some of the CSAs that deliver to JP (okay, Codman Square is not in JP, but it’s important to support that great new Farmer’s Market effort in Dorchester that is turning a fresh food desert into a food oasis!). Farmers to You, based out of Vermont, also has a JP pickup on Wednesdays at Boylston Congregational Church.
And for those of you with space in your yards and at least six hours of sunlight, the May column will include information from Yard Birds and Green City Growers about growing your own CSA.
What you will get
Season (how many weeks?)
Regular size share
Delivery location in JP
Jun-Oct (20 wk)
Tues, Wed, Thurs, 12-6:30
Veggies and Fruits and Flowers and Beef and Pork
64 Kenton RdBuckle Farm Veggies and Fruit Jun-Oct (20wk) $600 $325 Thurs 3-7 Loring Greenough House
(winter share includes produce from farms up and down the East Coast)
Veggies, fruits, flowers
Jun-Nov (29 wk)
all year (52 wk)
Jun-Oct (20 wk)
Aug-Oct (13 wk)
Jun-Oct (20 wk)
65 Cornwall St/ 35 Hampstead Rd.
Jun-Sept (15 wk)
Jun-Sept (15 wk)
Wed 2 -7
Plaza Meat Mrkt 207 Boyston
Jun-Oct (20 wk)
Jun-Dec (24 wk)
$545(or sliding scale)
$625 (or sliding scale)
(CSA sign-up info will be on website 3/20)
Jun-Oct (18 wk)
$550 (Dorchester low-income $200)
City Feed on Boylston
Veggies and fruit; eggs and cheese occasionally
Jun-Oct (20 wk)
Jun-Oct (16 wk)
B of A parking lot
Beef, pork, lamb, chicken
B of A parking lot