This summer for the first time my family joined a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture). We signed up to receive a weekly supply of vegetables from a local farm family, paying in advance to minimize their risk and ensure that we’d get an ample supply of fresh vegetables every week.
It was a little bit of a leap of faith. Friends have done it in the past, but this was our first time, and we weren’t quite sure what we’d get. We weren’t sure we’d like it, or that we’d be able to use it all up before the next week. We weren’t sure it would be worth the price.
We’ve now been members for just over two months. We initially signed up for a half share, which is supposed to be the amount two people can consume in a week. Though we are a family of four, we thought it would be better to have too little than too much, especially if we got unfamiliar vegetables, or didn’t care for what we got. Three weeks in, we upped our commitment to a full share, because I found I was picking up the produce on Saturday and then supplementing it with a farmer’s market trip by the middle of the following week; now, I hardly ever shop for vegetables.
We’re swimming in tomatoes, lately, and cucumbers; melons, basil, garlic, and onions have also been staples. Some weeks we’ve had potatoes or carrots; early in the season, we got a lot of beets and chard, both of which became family favorites in no time. Seriously. We roasted the beets and ate them cold, or at room temperature, in salads or on sandwiches; the chard ended up in a variety of pastas and stir-frys. I’m not a big melon fan, but both my husband and son are, and I’ve enjoyed my share of the watermelons that we’ve gotten. I’ve put more pesto into the freezer than I’ve probably ever made in a summer, and I’m profligate with the fresh tomatoes, eating them two or three times a day in as many different guises as I can come up with.
Yesterday we got a tour of the farm. It was hot and bright when we started out, and I envied the folks who’d been smart enough to wear straw hats. Ali, who with his wife Lisa owns the farm, showed us the four fields they’ve cultivated, the cold room, the greenhouse. We saw the weeds that threaten our (our!) crops, the eggplant that isn’t thriving, the labor-intensive stake-and-weave support system for the tomatoes. We heard how he plans the crops to ensure a continuous supply of fresh vegetables for us and all the other farm share families over the course of almost 6 months.
Ali and Lisa have to guess a lot in their job: what we’ll want to eat, when will be the best time to plant, how many pounds of tomatoes to give us each this week and still have enough for next. These are educated guesses, of course, but there’s still a lot of the process that’s out of their control. Lisa mentioned that the year they got married they went into business together, bought a farm, and bought 400 laying hens. “After that, having a baby didn’t seem like all that big a deal,” she said, jiggling her 9-month-old son on her hip. When you farm, you have to be willing to give up a good deal of control in your life.
We gave up some control ourselves, of course, in agreeing to buy into the CSA. Rather than pick out our own vegetables weekly — or more often — we take what we’re offered. If Ali doesn’t have zucchini for us, then we either buy it from another farmer or, more often, eat tomatoes instead. (The one zucchini plant in our backyard isn’t doing too well, either.) When the beets started coming in thick and fast in June, we learned quickly what to do with them. I found a recipe for quick cucumber pickles when we got more cucumbers than we thought we could handle. My daughter, a vegetarian home from college for the summer, has learned lots more kitchen skills this year than ever before, and looks forward to each new share as an opportunity to come up with another new thing. (We won’t talk about my son right now, the self-confessed “meatatarian” who prefers his vegetables raw, preferably as garnishes.) This is, of course, how farm families have always lived, eating in season and making do (or doing without) depending on what’s available. We’re getting what we haven’t asked for, rather than choosing for ourselves, but it feels good. It requires some improvisation, and some flexibility — the same qualities, in fact, that both good parenting and good teaching require.
The CSA keeps going into the fall, and I’m looking forward to continuing to improvise as the fall crops come in. Fall semester will bring its own challenges — I’m teaching a new course, in a new program — and I’m hoping the lessons of flexibility and improvisation will hold.