CSA 101: Learning to Eat Local

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Chelsea Community Kitchen features blog posts about local food topics featuring local sources for those in Western Washtenaw County.  Guest writers are encourage to contact us at chelseacommunitykitchen@gmail.com for info about submitting a potential post.

Wonderful presentation on the what, why, and how of a CSA was offered by representatives of Chrysalis Biodynamic Agricultural Center (educational arm of the Community Farm of Ann Arbor) last Saturday afternoon, March 12.  While dozens of people were strolling the streets of Ann Arbor in their shorts, I ventured into the Ann Arbor Public Library to check out what I could learn to share with CCK followers.  Despite my own familiarity with CSAs (a member of one for 19 years), I learned a few things.

WHAT:  Many people have heard of CSAs and know it’s about getting a regular produce share from a farm.  CSA actually stands for “community supported agriculture” and is about creating a direct partnership between the consumer and who grows their food.  Usually this requires an up-front investment from the consumer, who then is taking on some of the risk of producing food.  This shared risk is critical to helping the farmer have funds early in the season (when seeds and supplies need to be purchased).  The consumer will receive the bounty of the season, but without guarantee of what that might be.

The history of CSA growth shows movements in Europe and in Japan in the 1960’s when people, often mothers, wanted their food to come from closer to home and not be so processed.  The idea came to the United States with two farms in the east forming in 1986 (Michigan saw it’s first CSA the next year right here in Washtenaw—Community Farm of Ann Arbor.)  Today, the USDA shows 12,617 of the 2.1 million farms in America offer a CSA of some type.  Many are in Washtenaw today and the presenters showed a list and discussed many of them.

NOTE:  4th Annual CSA Fair on Sunday, March 20, 2016, 1-4 pm at Cultivate Coffee and Tap House, 307 North River St, Ypsilanti will showcase many in this area.

WHY: The benefits to shareholders, farmers, farms and the greater community are many and the options offered by various CSAs are numerous.  Key for many shareholders is the fresher and tastier food they receive, but the educational experiences and close relationships that form in CSAs are often the great benefit.  Sustainability is a major benefit for both the individuals and the community, as food doesn’t travel so far to get to its destination, the land is better cared for with this close connection between the consumer and farm, and the long-term security of farms and farmers is better managed.

CSAs offer many options in how you select your food (some pre-packed, while others allow you to choose along designated guidelines), the type and duration (full/half, every week or alternating weeks, Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter share or full season, and other variations), pickup location (farm, markets, other locations).  CSAs may offer other add-ons like meat, dairy, eggs, fruit, honey, and flowers and most offer a variety of payment options.  Some allow work for farm as payment or require a number of hours as part of the investment.

HOW: Deciding what works for you is critical in choosing.  The many possibilities available in our area can be overwhelming.  The presenters suggested a number of points to consider in making your choice:

  • Agricultural practices or farm values: really talk with the farmer and ask questions.  Are they pesticide-free or no spray, do they receive organic certification (why or why not, this is an often long and expensive process, so farmers may not opt for the outside verification), what other practices they use (biodynamic, free-range, etc)
  • Selection: what produce is offered by the farm (look for what you’ll enjoy eating or learning about)
  • Convenience: pickup days/times and locations, packaging
  • Duration: length of season (how many weeks will you get produce), commitment you have to make
  • Cost: how much and how you pay (making relative comparisons can be difficult, but to compare will need to use the practices, selection, convenience, and duration factors)

Your decision has to be made on what matters to you.  Do you want to experience and see where your food comes from—you may want a farm pickup so you can take your kids for picnics or see the animals (every farm has some animals!).  Do you want to have more done for you, so pickup is quicker—you may want a pre-packed box someplace close to where you live.  Talk to the farmers, talk to people who have been members previously, and ask a lot of questions.  The CSA Fair is a great time to do all of this.

Once you join, then give yourself time to learn and grow.  The first year may seem to be overwhelming and too many veggies may wilt as you learn how to store and preserve them.  It is a big transition to learn to eat locally, and the presenters emphasize you need to be gentle with yourself in making the transition.  Getting a box of what is in season and figuring out how to prepare those items instead of going to the grocery store and picking out the items you want at the moment is a big change.  They offered suggestions (and a lot of detailed tips I can’t repeat in full here):

  • Get in the habit or preparing space in your pantry and refrigerator BEFORE you pickup
  • Choose a pickup time when you can allow time that day or the next day to do some food prep
  • Learn how to store and preserve food to keep it fresh (current members and farmers are great sources of info, as well as the internet)—the presenters gave some geenral food storage tips for different types of produce
  • Keep some food pre-washed and cut for easy use or incorporation into your daily needs

I can’t even begin to convey all the information and resources the group of presenters from Chrysalis gave.  But here’s a few of the links they offered.  Check out the CCK website for additional resources.

CSA Coalition

The Farmers Market CSA Booklet (2012 edition still has relevant info)

University of Nebraska-Lincoln (food canning, freezing, and drying)

NOTE:  Chrysalis Biodynamic Agricultural Learning Center sponsored this presentation.  This group offers workshops and events to the general public like school field trips, a summer farm camp, internships, classes like composting and fermentation, and similar offerings.  The presenters were all current members of the Community Farm of Ann Arbor (CFAA) and during the presentation described the CSA model there, while still offering a wealth of info about other CSA farms in the area.  Here’s synopsis of CFAA as they presented it:  Member-owned, so not based around a specific farmer.  Members make decisions about produce grown, farm issues, set prices, etc using a consensus decision making process. Farm practices biodynamic agriculture, focused on nurturing the soil.   Current farmers have been working for over 20 years (this is the third set of farmers the CSA has had).  Pickups are available on farm Wed and Sat, full and half shares available (partners can be found for you).  Select produce from a list of what is available per share.   Volunteer commitment of 15 hours over the growing season can be filled with field work, outreach/communication tasks, event planning/assistance, meeting attendance.  Price is a sliding scale with payments due at intervals between March and August. Several member events held during the season (typically May, Sept, and November), plus monthly meetings.

Written by Kathy Carter

CCK publishes blogs on local food issues and events, in season produce tips, cooking techniques, and local farms and vendors.  Contact us to submit ideas or writing.

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