CSAs, and how to use up your bounty.
Adapted from: the biodynamic agricultural tradition.
Having grown up in cities my whole life, I still routinely marvel at fruits and vegetables like they are evidence of a higher power. I coo when I see a new blossom appear on my tomato plant. I gasp when I cut open candy cane beets. I gawk at the blushing hues of muscat grapes and hold them up to the light, like jewels. It feels as though I’ve yet to become accustomed to the basic functions of plant life, so everything still feels like a sparkly discovery; maybe that’s the way things should be. In the words of poet Richard Siken, Tell me we’ll never get used to it.
Getting a produce box from a local farm feels like an intense, concentrated dose of this feeling, an exercise in serotonin-making. When I look down at a basket of vegetables, I feel the adoration of a new parent and the pride of an artisan, although I contributed, of course, absolutely nothing to their existence beyond financial support at the start of the season. I feel very lucky to be on this end of the bargain, both in terms of access and the means to afford it. Is this *tucks hair behind ear TikTok style* what it feels like to be a patron?
What is a CSA?
CSA (community-supported agriculture) is a farming model built on a direct relationship between producers and consumers in an effort to create a more profitable and sustainable local food system. You buy a share of a farm upfront before the growing season starts; that contribution gives farmers the immediate income and financial security they need for the season. In return, you get access to the farm’s produce, as it’s harvested.
The origins of CSAs in North America are contested, but the ideas at work are the same. Some journalists and historians point to teikei, a form of community-supported agriculture in Japan that started in the 1960s. Others credit the contributions of philosopher Rudolf Steiner to the biodynamic agricultural movement in Europe, the principles of which were then brought to North America by two farmers in the 1980s.
This year, my vegetable basket share comes from Wheelbarrow Farm, an organic farm near Uxbridge, Ontario. The upfront cost for a full season was $440 (with the option to pay in installments through the season). In exchange, I receive 12 boxes—one every other week—of freshly harvested produce from May until October. In their words:
CSA is a system that benefits everyone: The farmer gains a healthy, economically viable farm business; the consumer receives affordable, fresh, healthy organic food, the local economy is strengthened; and the local environment becomes healthier as CSAs cut down on transportation and packaging.
I’m in it for a few reasons: The taste difference, for one, between just-harvested vegetables and those I find in the grocery store. The surprise, and creative challenge, in never knowing quite what you’ll get. (For example, the snow day we got in May disrupted a mizuna harvest, and I got some turnips instead. Nature keeps you on your toes.) And then there’s the whole idea of eating seasonally from the land you inhabit, which feels like one of life’s simplest and biggest privileges.
I also keep thinking about this stat from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma:
A one-pound box of prewashed lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy. According to Cornell ecologist David Pimentel, growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that box of organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy, or 57 calories of fossil fuel for every calorie of food.
So, that too. For every bundle of spinach I get from the farm, I’m not buying a container of baby greens flown here from California. It’s armchair activism at its best, but what if it does make a difference?
What to do with your vegetables
Many people consider and decide against CSAs because they are worried about food going to waste, or not knowing exactly what they’ll get and not being able to plan for it. Fair—surprise vegetables aren’t for everyone. Because I love the task, and because this is a home cooking newsletter after all, here are some recipe ideas for items that might be showing up in your local CSAs and farmers markets now:
• Throw a bunch of swiss chard in this excellent Provençal Greens Soup.
• Braise your turnips in a bath of butter.
• Use some of your bok choy in this comforting vegetarian udon soup.
• Steam some white fish on a bed of ginger-garlic mustard greens.
• Watch your spinach disappear in this palak paneer.
Until next time! 🥬