March Menu Madness—CSA Style

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The late March sun has had its way with our snow; now it’s going for the frost itself—slowing drawing it out of the ground like a tapeworm offered a cracker. Step off the sidewalk or take a hike in the backyard these days and you might even get some mud on your shoes. Such intimate, messy contact with soil reminds some Minnesotans that once that ground really warms up in a few months, it can produce some fresh, tasty vegetables. That’s why during the next several weeks Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in the Upper Midwest will be getting frantic calls from people pining for fresh vegetables—and perhaps a fresh perspective on their role in the food chain. This year the buzz around this innovative food and farming model is even greater than usual, thanks to a recent Time cover story called, “Eating Better Than Organic.” Once that story hit the newstands, calls to the Land Stewardship Project looking for information on joining a CSA farm started rolling in. Fortunately, LSP has just the ticket to relieve that March menu madness: the 2007 Edition of the Twin Cities Region Community Supported Agriculture Farm Directory. This year’s directory lists 33 farms—the most since we began publishing the annual directory more than a decade ago. CSA farming has carved out a solid niche in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and that’s good news. At a time when conscientious eaters face so many confusing choices, CSA farming provides the kind of rock-solid assurances that no label or government regulation can.

As the Time magazine article points out, shoppers who up until now happily consumed certified organic food from all over the world are finding a few flies in their chemical-free ointment, thanks in part to Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The Time writer, John Cloud, lays out his own grocery shopping dilemma this way: should he choose the organic apples grown in California and shipped to his local store in New York, or the locally-grown apples that were raised with chemicals? Cloud, who appears to be more chemical-phobic than the typical consumer, chooses to buy both, and finds later that the California apples may have been organic, but the long ride from the West Coast has taken a slight toll on the taste. The energy required to send those applies cross-country also removes a little bit of their chemical-free sheen.

This sends Cloud on a journalistic (and personal) journey to figure out what’s better: organic or local? It’s unfortunate that he feels the need to play these two parts of the new food system against each other to make a point. The Time cover art, which features the giant-sized label, “FORGET ORGANIC. EAT LOCAL” stuck to an apple, must have sent some blood pressures boiling amongst all those people who have worked so hard for so long to develop organic certification and who are working even harder to make sure it still means something. In addition, the positive economic impacts of local foods don’t seem to be on Cloud’s radar.

Organic and local do not need to be mutually exclusive by any means, as Cloud eventually discovers himself when be buys a subscription in a CSA farm that delivers to New York City. The basic CSA model is this: Before the growing season, a consumer buys a “subscription” or “share” in a farm. In return, that farm provides a weekly batch of organically grown food. Most CSA operations focus on fruits and vegetables, although some have expanded into products such as eggs, meat and cut flowers. And some CSA farmers also offer “winter shares”—a periodic delivery of such hardy storage vegetables as onions and potatoes.

But CSA consumers don’t so much “buy” food from particular farms as become “members” of those farms. CSA operations provide more than just food; they offer ways for eaters to become involved in the ecological and human community that supports the farm.

Membership arrangements vary among CSA farms. For instance, some CSA operations deliver their food to the neighborhoods where members live, while others arrange for members to come to the farm and help make deliveries. Some CSA farms expect members to work on the farm at least once during the season while others only expect members to support the farm with their membership.

Although each CSA farm makes its own arrangements with its members and has its own expectations of them, being involved with a CSA operation always means sharing the rewards as well as the risks of farming. The rewards include: enjoying the freshest produce available, often harvested the same day you receive it; knowing where, how and by whom your food is being produced; having a direct connection with the people who produce your food; and supporting the kind of stewardship that is good for the land as well as its people.

Relationships formed over the production and consumption of food can be quite rewarding, as the Ear to the Ground (show no. 16) podcast featuring an interview with two CSA farmers shows.

The risks include weather and pests. Though formidable for small, self-sustaining farmers, these risks are bearable when shared by a group of subscribers.
Cloud becomes enamored of his CSA farm, but he says one “lefty” aspect he doesn’t like is the idea that he may not get lettuce for a few weeks because a hailstorm wiped out a crop. I’m not sure what’s “lefty” or “righty” about a farming system that follows the dictates of nature, rather than those of government policy or multinational trade channels. As ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan once wrote: “Should I assume I have a God-given right to access the entire earth’s bounty, however far away some of its produce is grown?”

Notice that I said CSA food is “organically grown.” That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily “certified organic.” Some CSA farms do go through the USDA certification process, but many do not, including the one my family belongs to. The idea is that USDA organic seal serves as a sort of proxy for being able to actually visit a farm and learn how those tomatoes were grown. It’s a third-party assurance that the farm in question is not using certain chemicals and practices. CSA farms, on the other hand, cut out the regulatory middleman. My family and I can go out and see how our food is produced, and we often do.

Not everyone can belong to a CSA or participate in other systems that allow them to meet the faces behind their foods. That’s why third-party certification systems such as certified organic or Food Alliance Midwest will probably always be needed. But for those consumers who are lucky enough to have a direct relationship with the producer of their food, labels and certifiers aren’t a crtitical part of their eating life.

Time‘s Cloud, who admits he has no qualms about organic Fruit Loops or mass-produced organic snack bars, at first has a bit of a problem that his CSA farm is not certified organic. But then he visits the gardens, meets the family and sees how things are done. At one point he watches one of the farmers’ sons go into the henhouse to collect the same eggs he had been eating for breakfast. “Seeing Nate carry that bucket into the smelly humidity of the chicken coop, I realized I had never before felt so connected to my food,” writes Cloud. “I had not only seen the chickens that produced my eggs but had also met the person who gathered them.”

Well now, if a CSA farm can melt the heart of a cynical Manhattan magazine writer like it was so much March snow, then the possibilities are endless.

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