Monday, January 5, 2009

CSA decision making

It's hard to believe, but it's that time of year to make a decision about joining a CSA for the summer season. At least in this area, the CSA shares sell out can't put off deciding until April.

We plan on rejoining our CSA again this year. For you faithful readers from last summer, I'm sure you're not surprised as my blog devolved into "local produce, all the time" for a month or so there as I got so overly excited about the whole thing. I'll try to have more balance this summer, though no promises!

Anyway, I thought I'd share my "pros and cons" list for anyone on the CSA fence. These are *my* pros and cons...some of you may think my pros are actually cons, or vice versa :) So take it for what it's worth.

Pros of a CSA:
  • Supporting local farming (and all that goes with it, such as more sustainable agriculture, green space in the area, ability of farmers to grow a diversity of vegetables, training new farmers, etc.)
  • Getting a lot of veggies, especially varieties I haven't tried before.
  • Potential environmental benefit (I'm not convinced about fuel savings for shipping, and on a totally personal level, we drive A LOT further to go to the CSA than to the supermarket. I know that's not the same as a truck driving from California to MA, or a plane flying from South America, but I do kind of feel like my own personal contribution to fuel savings is at least partially offset by the long distance we have to drive to the CSA).
  • Okay, here's a true environmental benefit: little to no packaging materials. Sometimes we'd pick things into a reusable pint container, or use a plastic veggie bag, but most of it goes directly into a reusable grocery bag with absolutely no packaging at all. There's also no food refrigeration storage costs as it goes right from the field to us!
  • Giving my kids a better understanding of where food comes from and how it is grown.
  • Getting organic (or in our case, organically grown but not certified organic) vegetables.
  • This is personal to our specific CSA, but I love that our CSA is big into hunger relief efforts on a local level.
  • Eating healthier. We ate a lot more veggies and vegetarian meals during the summer.
  • The fun of the you-pick component. I mean, there's one local farm that charges $8 a person just to get on their farm to pick strawberries (you have to pay for the strawberries on top of it!) We got to do the picking for free each week, which was the boys' favorite part. B-man especially loved picking basil (I think because he was totally entranced with the fact that there was PURPLE basil!), and N-man would sometimes be willing to try a bite of something in the field (husk cherries were a hit!). Going to the CSA pick up was an event each week...a fun activity for the boys that I felt really good about. We'd also sometime pack a picnic dinner, or bump into some friends with their twins. It wasn't just an errand to go to pickup, but something fun for the family each week.
Neutral facts about a CSA:
  • Expense: I was suprised to find there was little, if no, difference in cost. I thought we'd save money, and we certainly did on vegetables. But we made up for it in other weird ingredients I bought to try new recipes. I also became focused on sourcing many other local (or local-ish) ingredients, which became especially spendy for meat (which we cut way back on, so I probably didn't spend any extra on meat than before), and cheese (which I bought a TON of, and is probably responsible for a large portion of the additional food expenses ;)
  • Getting the boys to eat more vegetables/try new foods: Yeah, this didn't work at all. They loved to pick things like fava beans, or green beans, or edamame, but they still didn't want to eat it! Oh well, they were no worse off than before!
Cons of a CSA:
  • The long drive to the pick up
  • Having little control over what, how much, and when you'll get things. For example, I think over the whole summer, we got THREE zucchinis. Three, that's it! How is that possible, when zucchinis are the poster child for summer plenty? And we got pretty sick of the endless non-zucchini summer squash (though I'm missing it now!) Sometimes we got too much of something, sometimes not enough.
  • Food acquisition and preparation took a huge portion of my time during the CSA...there was little "convenience" food. By the time the CSA was over, I was a bit desperate for a frozen pizza. During the CSA, I never wanted to waste any of our food by using up a meal on something that didn't require me to use any CSA ingredients.
  • The inherent risk of a CSA, in that you pay a flat fee and then get a share of the harvest, which may be small if it's not a good year (this past year wasn't great here due to the excessive rain, though I still felt like we got a fair amount for the price).
  • Having to pay a lump sum up front before the growing season begins. Sure, it's nice in July, August, and September when you've already paid, but you still need to have the cash upfront.
  • Being tied to specific pick-up times. The CSA we joined is one of the more convenient in that you don't have to pick a specific pick up date/ can show up during any of the pick up times available during the week. But even with that allowance, it's still far less convenient than a supermarket where you can pop in at pretty much any time of the day or night! For example, morning pickups would have worked best for us, but our CSA only offered late afternoon/early evening pickups so I always had to fight the afternoon rush hour.
  • You pay for the whole season, even if you're going to be away on vacation and miss a week or two. Last year we were able to plan our travel around our CSA, but I doubt we'll be able to again this year (it's funny, since we don't even "vacation" officially, but we do take advantage of the summer to visit family).
  • Did I mention the phenomenal amount of cooking and prep work? I even had to spend a lot of time looking for recipes for vegetables I'd never tried before, or new ways of preparing familiar veggies.
  • The weather doesn't always cooperate...we picked up in extreme heat and extreme wet (including one insane day where we got COMPLETELY soaked just walking for the car to the pick up stand, so we decided to pick green beans despite the torrential downpour. We were, without exaggeration, as wet as we would have been if we had just jumped in a swimming pool!)
  • Sometimes, especially the weeks when TK didn't come with me, it was hard to corral the boys. I mean, the farm was safe and there were always kids running around, but some weeks I spent more time trying to keep the kids entertained/away from trampling the plants/in eyesight than I did picking up the veggies!
As I said at the beginning of this (LONG) post, I loved our CSA and we're almost sure to do it again this year (I have nightmares about getting fact, I have to call tomorrow if our sign up info isn't in today's mail). But I don't think a CSA is for everyone.

Who do I think would enjoy a CSA?
  • People who would view large (or small) amounts of different vegetables, which you may never have used before, as a fun challenge rather than a terrible burden.
  • People who are excited at the possibility of new and unusual varieties of vegetables. It's not just heirloom tomatoes you'll get, but odd varieties of squash, and different colored cauliflower, unusual cabbage, etc.
  • People who have the time and inclination to commit to a weekly supply of fresh veggies. It gets a bit overwhelming, let me tell you, when you're barely finishing up last week's pick up and it's already time to go get some new stuff!
  • People who don't have extensive vacations planned over the summer. If you're going to be away every other week, it's not worth it!
Going to farmers' markets are a great option, either as an alternative to a CSA, or in addition to the CSA. I still shopped at farmers' markets plenty this summer, though often for things like eggs and cheese, or to supplement our veggie pick ups (like if we only got one small eggplant, and I wanted to try a recipe that needed more eggplant). For people who don't want the commitment of time, money, or quantity that a CSA entails, shopping the farmers' markets is probably the better choice.

And for those of you still relying on the supermarket for veggies in the summer, I encourage you to check out your local farmers''ll be surprised at how much more delicious fresh vegetables can be!