I stared at the box brimming with vegetables, wondering what I'd gotten myself into. Unidentifiable greens, tiny round potatoes, a clutch of dirt-dusted, perfectly red radishes, a small container of wild strawberries — all this bounty was mine, if only I could figure out what to do with it.
Welcome to cooking from a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share. You might not always recognize every item in your weekly box, but it's almost certain to inspire.
I ventured into CSA subscription years ago when I lived on the East Coast, prompted by my brother who was working on an organic farm in Virginia (his farm didn't run a CSA, but others in the area did). I loved the idea of supporting a small, local farm, and I saw it as a complete win-win situation for both the farmer and myself: The farm received a reliable weekly income, and I received incredibly fresh, organic produce that cost less than a trip to the supermarket.
One bonus of CSA cooking is that I have learned to cook vegetables with which I was previously unfamiliar (chard, for example, and kabocha squash). A hearty dinner of "beans and greens" (shredded and sauteed kale paired with white beans and a lot of garlic or spring onions) has become a staple. Some farms also offer eggs or contract with local producers to include fresh cheese or even milk in the weekly share.
The concept of Community Supported Agriculture was introduced to the United States from Europe in the mid-1980s and has built in momentum and popularity especially during the past decade, particularly for those living in cities or suburbs without gardens. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, data collected in 2007 indicated that 12,549 farms in the United States reported marketing products through a CSA arrangement.
A CSA share typically is provided weekly, with pickups or deliveries on a designated day and place, or at the farm. One Bay Area farm used to arrange for the weekly pickup at a San Francisco restaurant. You could grab your box and have a cocktail and a chat with the farmer who had brought in that week's haul.
That spirit of community is what motivates Lisa Moussalli, who, along with husband Ali, owns Frog Bottom Farm in Pampin, Va. The Moussallis run a 200-share CSA and sell at two local farmers markets. She said Frog Bottom's aim is to grow "honest, delicious food" and provide families "with most of their staple vegetables, with enough diversity to keep things interesting."
What certainly keeps things interesting is that a CSA share involves a perpetual element of surprise. You don't always know exactly what you're going to get, because while the farm you've signed up with might email or post a potential weekly produce list online, the farmers themselves won't know what's perfect for picking until they're in the fields, which can leave you wondering what the heck you'll do with all those mystery greens. It's almost always an adventure.
Many farms include recipe suggestions for what to do with an abundance of herbs, lettuces, yams or those mysterious greens so you're not left bewildered by how to incorporate them into dinner. The Moussallis include recipes on their website to help customers plan meals around the weekly share. One, for "massaged kale salad," has me rethinking my own approach to the vegetable.
If you want to dip a toe in the CSA experience but worry that you won't use up your weekly vegetables, you could go in with a friend. It's easy to swap and mix and match so nothing gets wasted. Moussalli said a typical share, costing $25 per week, is enough to feed a family of four (Frog Bottom also offers half-shares, as do many farms).
What I love about getting the bulk of my fruits and vegetables through a CSA share is that it challenges me. OK, this week I have a lot of squash and chard, so how I can use them up in interesting ways? Should I bake with the peaches, or just eat them in long, juicy slices? I try to hold off a mad dash to the store to get mushrooms. Maybe I can just do without when I have so many other things from which to choose. Of course, everything tastes so much better when it's eaten within a few days of being picked.
Cooking from a CSA forces me to cook outside my comfort zone, to try new things, to experiment. It also saves me money, because I force myself to cook mainly from the weekly share — augmented with staples such as bread, cheese, beans and dried goods, and the occasional trip to the farmers market — until I use up everything.
Then there is the concept of investment that goes beyond the monetary. I truly care about the farm I've contracted with, and worry whether the spring rains will delay the tomato planting or how a particularly dry summer will affect the overall harvest. For an urbanite such as myself, being connected to a farm brings a bit of the country into the city. It reminds me that there's a vast acreage out there not bound by concrete and tall buildings, helps me to eat with the seasons, and brings home how important it is to know the source of my food.
"In a CSA, all our customers are regulars," Moussalli says. "We really love getting to know people over the course of one or more seasons. ... A strong local food culture, and especially a CSA, is a powerful tool for building strong and caring communities."
The trick to CSA-share cooking is to embrace what you get. Ingenuity is key, and imagination is necessary. Too many greens? Make soup or freeze for later consumption. An abundance of carrots? Pickle 'em. Fruit and tomatoes can be sauced, jarred, canned, turned into jam. And if you're blessed with a pint of just-picked blueberries, eat them slowly out of hand and wonder what will be in your box next week.
Talking With The Farmers
Following are excerpts from an interview with Lisa Moussalli, who along with husband Ali Moussalli owns Frog Bottom Farm in Virginia. The Moussallis met while working on organic farms in the area and have been steering Frog Bottom for three seasons. Moussalli estimates the farm provides about 200 full CSA shares during a season that runs from June to Thanksgiving. The couple also sells produce at two local farmers markets that run from May to October.
How long have you been running your farm? Any specific main crops?
This is our third season here at Frog Bottom. We grow a wide variety of vegetables and a few small fruits, and this year we're adding eggs from pastured chickens, and also pastured pork. We planted a large blueberry patch this spring and hope to put in a small orchard this year as well, so, fingers crossed, in a few years we'll be selling those berries and some stone fruits as well. Our approach is to grow honest, delicious food — to provide families with most of their staple vegetables, with enough diversity to keep things interesting.
How do you sell/distribute your produce? How important is the CSA program to the overall business of the farm?
Our CSA is the heart of our farm. ... It's by far where most of our income comes from. The market scene within reasonable driving distance of our farm now is much younger and it's not producer-only. The markets are fun and lively with a really nice mix of vendors, but they're not yet strong enough to fully support our farm. We added the CSA to our business out of financial necessity, bearing in mind the lower population density here and the newness of the farmers market scene. I was also very, very eager to add the CSA — to have a part of the business where relationships were central. Market days are always a blast, full of energy and work and laughter. But with my education and nonprofit background, I was really missing the authentic relationships that were at the heart of my old work, so I was very ready for this new step.
How does the CSA share work?
Well, we look at what's ready out in the field (having done intensive crop planning over the winter, based on our projected CSA membership, our knowledge of how our land yields and what the weather is typically like throughout the growing season), and we put together the best share we can for the money people have paid. ... We run our pickups "market style" — all the food is in bins and bunches on a long table or two, with signs in front of each item telling members how much to take. We give some basic cooking suggestions on the signs right there at the pickup, and then offer more detailed recipes via our farm blog and our Facebook page. This year we'll also try ... more emails, perhaps some forums on the website and simple printed recipes at the CSA pickups and markets.
What goes on during the winter at a farm?
Our first season at Frog Bottom we offered a two-month winter CSA, and that was a real challenge. November was fairly mild, but in December things turned very cold very fast and we got two big snows. Root vegetables were frozen in the ground, the row cover over our greens was covered in a foot of snow — really exhausting. Our son was only a few weeks old so I couldn't help in the fields at all. Our second season, we decided to nix the winter CSA idea but extended our regular season by a month to go up to Thanksgiving. This worked well and we anticipate this is how we'll keep doing things. This year we're contemplating a winter CSA but it'll look a bit different, perhaps just three or four pickups, perhaps every other week. Or perhaps we'll sell through an online market in the winter. Real-time online sales are a logistical challenge for farmers, who often don't know how much is available until they're out there in the squash patch with bushel basket in hand.
Every winter we rectify our books and do our taxes, do major equipment repairs, work on farm infrastructure projects (irrigation, outbuildings, animal housing, roads, fencing), buy new equipment and supplies, and spend a lot of time doing crop planning and seed orders. We also take a few wonderful weeks to visit our families.
Why do you run a CSA and why do you think it's important?
Well, it's no understatement to say that without our CSA we couldn't make a living as farmers. But we've come to love much more than just the financial security it affords. One powerful thing about the CSA model is that there's very little waste. When you sell at market, it's always a gamble — you have to take more than you think you can sell, and variables like the weather or other events in town on the same day can change the day's earnings by 50 percent easily. But in the CSA, you know who you're growing for. We do intentionally overplant, expecting that we'll lose some of our crop to drought, disease, insects and other pests. But we have a pretty good idea of what to expect out of our land, and since CSA members make up such a high percentage of our total customers, we just know how much to plant. After working so hard to seed and tend and weed and harvest and sort and clean and pack all those vegetables, it feels good knowing almost all of that food is going into people's bellies. Also, in a CSA, all of our customers are regulars. We really love getting to know people over the course of one or more seasons. It's just really nice sharing recipe ideas, watching kids grow, eating food together at farm potlucks, catching up. A strong local food culture, and especially a CSA, is a powerful tool for building strong and caring communities.