Criticizing a farm-share is like criticizing a Thanksgiving dinner. It's the ultimate faux pas. It's not about whether the turkey is dry and the gravy is lumpy. It's about the love and care that went into cooking them. It's about sharing the bounty. It's about being a family. But today, I'll do the politically incorrect thing and go beyond the warm and cozy concepts of love, family, and knowing where your lettuce comes from. I'll try to answer the question of whether a farm-share provides you with the best tasting produce you could get in your area during the growing season. After all, it is a service that costs me $500 a year. So I think it's only fair to give it an honest evaluation.
What is a farm-share? A farm-share (a.k.a. Community supported agriculture or CSA for short) is a contract between you and the farmer. You pay her a yearly fee, usually in the winter when she needs the money the most. In exchange, the farmer supplies you with a weekly box of produce during the growing season. In Boston, where I live, the growing season is June through the end of October. I heard about this concept 5 years ago and it seemed very appealing. It reminded me of getting a tasting menu at an upscale restaurant and surrendering to the chef's imagination and skill. I imagined that what I'd get in my weekly mystery box of veggies would be way better than what I could possibly choose myself. I was also hoping that a farm-share would encourage me to use excellent produce not only occasionally, but constantly during the growing season. Even with the best intentions, I didn't get to the farmers' markets every single week. The hours weren't convenient and the prices were often higher than even at Whole Foods. Farm-share seemed to solve all these problems. When divided by the number of boxes, it seemed cheaper than the farmers' market (about $25/box), and the distribution site stayed opened till 7pm. In the past three years, I've tried two different farms, have written about the highlights extensively on my blog, even taught a class on how to cook from a farm-share.
You can discuss the farm-share concept from many points of view. The ones represented well in the food media are those of the small farmers, "eat local" activists, parents who want to educate their children about vegetables, home cooks who want the challenge of cooking what's in the mystery box, and urban dwellers who yearn for the countryside. I'd like to bring to it a different perspective -- that of a cook who is in search of the best tasting produce available.
Let me start with the pros. Farm-share has provided me with plenty of inspiration. For example, last night it was the peppers. They ended up in a roasted pepper risotto, which was lovely. Farm-share also encouraged me to try vegetables that I didn't notice before. Even experienced cooks usually stick to tried and true veggies. Sometimes it's good to get a nudge to try collard greens or mezuna. Those weekly boxes also taught me what vegetables can be grown in our area, and the best times for them. For example, the lettuce is much better in June than in October if you are in New England. On occasion, I've gotten a tomato, a fennel, or a watermelon that just knocked my socks off. It didn't happen often, but when it did, it felt like winning the lottery.
Now the cons. Buying a farm-share brings with it a significant risk. If the farm got flooded, or the groundhogs ate all the fennel, tough luck. Another problem is inconsistency. Some farms are better at growing corn and others are better at growing beets depending on their soil and farmer's skill. For example, the tomatoes from our farm have been outstanding, but the corn is not even competitive with what's available at our generic grocery store. Now the question of quantity and variety. Most of the time, we get tiny quantities of tons of different vegetables. This works well for the most typical dish Americans cook with vegetables: stir-fry. You cut up and cook all sorts of veggies and the picky eaters can choose to eat the peppers, but not the broccoli. Consider though, what happens if you want to make stuffed zucchini and you keep getting 1 or 2 of them per week. You got inspired to make ratatouille because you got zucchini and eggplants, but peppers and tomatoes were not in the box. If once in a while, you have a craving for a dish that's not a stir-fry, you'll end up at the farmers' market to supplement what's in your farm-share box. While you are there, you start looking around and realizing all the awesome stuff you've been missing out. While you've been getting kale for the fifth week in a row, farmers' markets have been offering gorgeous eggplants, zucchini, Swiss chard, tomatoes, carrots, and bok choi. And you don't have to buy just 1 zucchini, you can buy as many as you want.
We take food very seriously in the US these days. We want to know if the beef is grass-fed, if the vegetables are organic and local, if the cod is "day-boat," if the salmon is "wild," if the chicken is "free-range," and if the duck hasn't suffered in the production of foie gras. There is only one question we forget to ask. It's the question Julia Child's instructor asked her in Le Cordon Bleu, the question French obsess over: "How does it taste?" I guess I joined the CSA for the wrong reason. I joined it for the hedonistic reason of finding the tastiest vegetables New England can grow. For some reason, hedonist's approach to food makes us uncomfortable in the US. It seems unethical and devoted more to earthy pleasure than to moral ideals. I don't view hedonism as something to be ashamed of. It's what elevates the act of eating into an art form. It's humanity's quest for perfection applied to food. From my experience, CSA is not the Holy Grail of this quest for taste.