I don’t have to tell most of you, it’s still freezing in most parts of the country (here in Atlanta we got an unprecedented snowstorm last weekend!) but believe it or not, now is the time to start thinking about where your summer produce will come from.
If you don’t plant a vegetable garden, joining a CSA (which stands for Community Supported Agriculture) is one of the best ways to enjoy fresh, seasonal, local produce all summer long. A CSA is basically a way to support a local farm, and to share in its harvest. You become a member or a subscriber by paying money to the farm (typically at the beginning of the season, or on a periodic basis throughout the season), and then the farm will give you weekly boxes of the produce that’s currently being harvested.
You can find a CSA by either talking to the farmers at your local farmers’ market, or by looking online. For instance, Local Harvest has a database of CSAs that can be searched by zip code. The individual farms will be able to tell you their payment policy and whether they require their members to pick up their weekly boxes of produce, or whether the farm delivers the boxes to your house or to a meeting point within your neighborhood. In some cases, you can even get a discount on membership by agreeing to work a certain number of hours on the farm or helping with the CSA.
One caution about being part of a CSA: You might get more of certain types of vegetables than you know what to do with, just like when you’re harvesting the bounty from your own garden. Or, it’s possible that you’ll open your box and be greeted with veggies that you have never tried, or even something you don’t like. But that’s part of the fun and challenge of a CSA. When you’ve gotten an armload of zucchini for 3 weeks in a row, or you’re not sure how to cook a rutabaga, it’s time to get creative. Subscribing to a food webzine like Harvest Eating or Vegan Yum Yum (also has an iphone app) can help. Or, you can arm yourself with a really good vegetable cookbook. One to try is “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets” by Deborah Madison, which is arranged by seasonality and type of produce. Of course, don’t forget that you can always preserve an abundance from your CSA box by freezing, canning or drying, so that you can enjoy those goodies well into the winter.
Because most CSAs have a limited number of shares available, it’s best to find one that you’re interested in joining and contact them now to find out when in the season they start accepting members. Many of them accept members and payments as early as March, so that they’ll be able to use the membership money towards seeds and other necessities needed to plant their crops for the year. If you wait to join a CSA until you’re tempted by the first produce of Spring at your local farmers’ market, you might be too late, as I was last year. This year, I’ll be signing up early … and I’ll look forward to that bumper crop of zucchini come August.
Image courtesy Waldo Jaquith.