Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My Last CSA

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.


Laura Paine Carr said...

Common sense asks, "Does it taste good?" not hedonism. Usually, fresh, good tasting, local, organic produce is also nutritionally superior. If you are paying $500 for your weekly box, of course you are expecting excellence. PC does not = not saying what you need to say! It occurs to me that your farmer needs to read your piece. It contains information they need to be aware of, and maybe they can address some of the issues... otherwise they will lose valuable (like you) customers.

Alex said...

In the UK there are a lot of box schemes running which eliminate some of this risk because you are buying from a cooperative of farms. Some of the better schemes allow you to indicate vegetables you dislike/love and build up a profile of what you like, so you can avoid masses of brussel sprouts around Christmas (if you wish).

Perhaps this is a fairer way of doing things, because the farmers can focus on what they do best, without having to worry about diversity, and the consumer doesn't have to worry about no vege turning up. In addition, if you feel you're not getting the service you're paying for then, because you're dealing with a coop, there's less emotional baggage with leaving!

davet said...

I buy a half-share. That means I don't feel bad supplementing it:) One thing I've learned is that the "global" or at least "national food system is important. There was lots of flooding in Wisconsin this year making it tough for our CSA. They were able to provide a good amount of food, but if we only ate "local" food we'd have been in trouble.

Joanna said...

Thanks for this post - I find myself on the opposite side, making a concerted effort to go to the farmer's market every week. I didn't have the chance to join a CSA this past summer (I moved around the time I would have had to sign up) but I've been considering it for next year. It seems like it would be easier in a lot of ways - no stressing about what to buy or how much to buy, no navigating through the crowds, no rushing to get there early before the good stuff is gone, etc. But I have some reservations about relinquishing control, and from reading this entry, it seems like my reservations aren't totally unfounded.

I'm still not sure what I'm going to do next year, but thanks for giving me some food for thought! (pun mostly intended)

adele said...

Great post. My co-op in college joined a CSA, and we ran into the "what do you do with two turnips and a rutabaga" problem all the time.

Rachel said...

This basically sums up my concerns too. That we would get vegetables we didn't like/were tired of week after week and that we'd end up buying additional vegetables each week negating the possible savings.

Anonymous said...

It is a shame that your CSA gives you a filled box. I belong to a CSA (Caretaker Farm in the Berkshire County town of Williamstown) that allows me to fill a large canvas bag with pretty much anything I want, weekly. Some weeks I mix it up and some weeks I take all tomatoes, or all potatoes, or all zucchini. You can also pick in some cases limitless greenbeans, brussel sprouts, herbs, flowers, and even raspberries. The cost is slightly higher at $615/yr/family, and each adult member of the family must work 2 hours on the farm/season. If you're ever in the Berkshires, give me a holler and I'll bring you there! It's a perfect place. Are there no CSAs like this in the Boston suburbs?

JessTrev said...

Love this post. Fully agreed - I have decided that my CSA is like tithing. Morally the right thing to do but perhaps not the most enjoyable. ;) I like to do a combo of the two but that's pretty cost-prohibitive here in DC even with our half-share. (Another con for me is that, in our area, it's pretty tough to grow organic fruit. I have little kids. I'd prefer no pesticides. Trumps local on my peaches.)

Stephani Williams said...


I enjoy your blog tremendously; I hate that the first comment I post has a question, but here is hoping you'll humor me!!

Bon Appeite this month featured a fish stick recipe I'd like to try, but it suggests halibut...which is running 22$/lb at the local grocer (I'm in MI) - Could you suggest some alternates that might be less expensive?


Tantra Flower said...

I was kind of bummed that I couldn't find a family farm offering a CSA program in my area, but after reading this post I'm thinking it's just as well. I'm fortunate enough to have a stand within walking distance of my house so stopping by a couple of times per week is easy and I do like the control I have over what (and how much of what) goes in my bag. I'd love it if they'd offer something along the lines of what Marianne described. That sounds like a real win win solution!

Anonymous said...

I agree. This is my second year doing a CSA and my last year. Next year I am SO looking forward to being able to choose my vegetables again. I can eat more of my favorite veggies. I won't have to deal with what to do with the veggies I don't like. No more tons of summer squash and fennel. I can eat cucumbers again in the summer! (This year one measly cucumber (2 inches) and tons of fennel.)

In addition to the problems you mentioned - it was hard for me to deal with a huge influx of vegetables midweek. I didn't always have time to process/store them properly. The amount of food wastage was definitely much higher with a CSA than with buying what I need when I need it.

The only plus is that it does save time with shopping although I probably lost more time trying to cook vegetables I didn't need so they wouldn't go bad. I did feel good supporting a local farm. But at $450/half share I'd like to be able to choose the vegetables I like to eat and avoid the ones I don't and have my vegetable influx when I know I will have time to use them properly not on someone elses schedule.

Helen said...

Wow -- so many thoughtful comments! Thank you for sharing your experiences with CSA and farmers' markets :)

Let me try to reply to your ideas and suggestions:

1) swallowtail suggested that I give my farmer the feedback. This way they can improve.

I will give them the feedback if they send me a survey, but I don't think it can do much. A box that will make me happy will probably make another share-holder unhappy. It's like saying that we should have a town uniform, but take comments from people to see how we can improve it. Can you imagine everyone being happy in the same exact clothes? The same with vegetables.

2) Alex describes a cooperative of farms. This idea sounds very appealing to me. I am hoping that it would allow farms to concentrate on growing what they are good at. Still not sure how they can keep track of your likes and dislikes. Does the box get labeled with your name so that you know it's yours when you come to pick it up? Or do they deliver directly to your door?

3) Joanna: I agree with you about the hustle of the farmers' markets. I couldn't believe that my town moved our market to 1pm-5:30pm. Who gets out of work this early? That's ridiculous. CSA does save the time of making a shopping list and looking around to see who has the best radishes and who has the best chard.

4) Marianne: my farm is actually in Western Mass too. It's Brookfield Farm. My experience might be different because I don't get to pick my own veggies or pick up directly at the farm. That's why last year, I tried a different farm -- Waltham Fields Community Farm. They tried to give you choices on some things, like: 1/2 Lb of spinach or 1/2 Lb of kale. The problem was that they were still limited choices. I also was frustrated with the lack of vegetable protection. For example, groundhogs ate all the zucchini and fennel twice! Maybe I was just unlucky that year. The pick your own wasn't all that fabulous. If you got there a bit late, everything was picked over. I've heard good things about other farms in the area, but they'll require a serious commute. I also don't want to take this risk next year. I've heard great things about the farms that I've tried too. It's a big commitment and I can't sacrifice another year to this experiment.

5)MamaBird: I have a toddler too and all of a sudden I started caring about organic. But, our local peaches are only hear for a few weeks. I buy them whether or not I can get organic because they taste so good. I doubt that a few weeks out of the year will make a difference. The rest of the year, I try to give my kiddo organic fruit/veggies whenever possible.

6) Anonymous: we should trade CSAs :) We got a ton of cucumber this year, but only 1 little fennel.

7) Stephani Williams: this is totally off topic, but you can use any mild white fish instead of halibut. Try hake, haddock, or cod. Hake will be the cheapest and tastiest substitute.


Alex said...

Helen - the cooperative I describe delivers straight to your door (or workplace). Check out Abel and Cole for a better idea how it works. If you click on their 'weekly box' page you'll probably see the full picture!

I think you need to subscribe to a minimum size box to incorporate your personal preferences, but the only sizes that are excluded are the smallest ones (that is, if you're feeding a family you'll be fine!).

If you're disgruntled it's likely that your neighbours are also, so it might be worth trying to 'sell' this idea to CSAs in your area. I doubt the farmers enjoy putting together boxes when they know (or have a hunch) that everyone is going to be ditching the fennel/cucumber!

Stephani Williams said...

Thanks for the response; sorry about the extreme off topic!

Erica N. said...

I also have a Boston-area CSA, and while I've had some of the issues you talk about (I do NOT need a giant celeriac every week of October!), I've been really happy with the quality of the vegetables. They are definitely as good as anything I can find elsewhere, and I can honestly say I haven't received any duds. I do usually fill in the gaps at the farmers' market in between CSA pickups, for recipes and because we simply eat that much produce.

For me, it also beats the alternatives - I don't have time for a second or third weekly farmers' market trip, and I used Boston Organics for a while and found it to be pretty terrible. But maybe we've just had good luck!

Helen said...

Hi Erica,

What CSA do you use?


Pyewacket said...

Hmmm. A few thoughts.
1) I always split my share with someone else, which allowed more flexibility. Very helpful if you hate eggplant and your friend hates kale. (To use a real example.) Also increases the quantity of each item, so you don't have the "single zucchini" issue.
2) If someone is growing great corn in New England, they're probably spraying the heck out of it. But it is true that some farms are better at growing certain things than others, just because of soil, experience, etc.
3) I tend to freeze when I have too many choices, so I kind of loved having things limited for me by the box. I was forced to be creative, and that was great. When I can pick whatever I want, I often just revert to habit.
4) I'm not in the CSA market any more. My new husband (!) has all sorts of dietary restrictions (very depressing, really), so working out what he can eat is challenge enough.
5) It's worth paying attention to organic over local on certain items. Last month I had to look at some studies of pesticide residues for a class I'm taking, and the variation in residue levels is huge. Peaches are the worst. Really. It's bad. Onions are really clean. Weirdly, celery is pesticide-heavy. And it's probably worth considering that the whole oragnic-versus-local argument becomes particularly skewed toward organic when it comes to children, whose bodies are more affected by smaller levels of pesticides.
Anyway, just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

Hi Helen..
sorry to be so late with this comment...I too dropped out of the CSA thing, after two seasons of membership (and enthusiastic promotions on my blog)...the reason? We have a fabulous twice-a-week farmers' market in Portland, and, since my CSA didn't grow corn I went there every week as I am addicted to fresh corn...While there I saw produce I wanted to buy...but I couldn't because my money had already gone to the CSA, where they had decided to focus on kale and beets...I love kale and beets but I love many other things too...the nail in the coffin was when, at the height of the summer harvest, I did a cost comparison to determine what it would have cost to buy the stuff I got in my CSA box at the market..and the CSA came up the loser...I bailed, and I'm happily buying what I want every week at the market..these are local farms, with the same challenges my former CSA farm has, but they're producing better produce every week...I'm an old lefty but this is one situation where the free market is working: the purveyors at the market are delivering what the people want because that's how they earn their bread; the CSA already got their bread and don't have to compete in the market so they are (sorry to say) lazy and inattentive to my needs and preferences...(okay, I know that they work extremely hard, because if the farm is organic weeds happen bigtime -- I mean lazy in the sense that they don't take seriously and shape their business according to what the customers' needs are...) also, if you belong to a CSA that also sells retail at farmers' markets, it doesn't take too long before you start wondering why the stuff they're selling at the market isn't in your share box...this is a big conflict of interest for many CSA farms...

sorry to be so long-winded but it's a topic of importance...

congrats on your recent family expansion, BTW..hope you are doing well...

best, Stephen

Helen said...

Pyewacket, Stephen!

So great to hear from you guys :) I feel like I haven't talked to you in ages!

Pyewacket: First of all, congratulations on getting married! That's so wonderful. You intrigued me with the info on pesticides. All of a sudden, it's a bit of an issue for me since I have a kiddo. Would you happen to more data on which veggies/fruits have more or less residue? I would also be very interested in data on how bad are these small amounts of pesticides for us (particularly children). Is this one of those "mercury in fish" issues or are there some real observable health problems that small amounts of pesticides cause?

Stephen: I am with you on the economics concepts. This is a huge exaggeration, but the CSA concept reminds me a bit of the collective farms of the former soviet union. This idea that we can divide everything evenly instead of letting the laws of supply and demand govern the production doesn't work for me. But the beauty of a CSA vs. a collective farm is that I have a choice whether to participate or not :)


Anonymous said...

Fantastic post! Thanks.
Oh, and my son had a farm share produce subscription once. They created a meal they called the "F.You" rutabega, which means they were defiantly determined to use the HUGE rutabega they got in the box, with little else. Heh heh.

Anonymous said...

Hi Helen, I use Red Fire Farm.

Unknown said...

How funny--I just wrote a similar post about my box, and someone linked to you in my comments. I missed my box for about five minutes; now I feel liberated--I can buy what I want! If I lived somewhere without a farmers' market or good produce store, maybe I could feel different, but this is northern California. Stuff grows here. Anyway, my farmer told me there are many people on their waiting list anxious to take my spot.