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CSA Journal: What I learned from a summer in a CSA

I used to avoid okra like the plague, but after a summer in a CSA, I now know how to cook it into a dish that I enjoy.

Last Wednesday was the first Wednesday since the beginning of May that I didn’t load my kids into the car (one of them was still in utero back in May, but popped out halfway through the summer), drive 11 miles to Snead’s Farm in Caroline County, pick up a few boxes of farm-fresh fruits and vegetables and then start the mad dash to cook or preserve them all before they either went bad or got buried under the next week’s load.

My family joined a community-supported agriculture, or CSA, program for the first time this year.

As someone who reads and writes about food, I had always been aware of CSAs, and I’d always been a bit intimidated by them.

It would be too much food, I worried, or the boxes would include unfamiliar vegetables that my family wouldn’t eat. There’s no way I’d be able to make the pickup every single week, I fretted at other times.

But when my husband suggested we join Snead’s CSA while we were out at the farm’s fall festival last year, I decided that with him on board, it was something we could manage.

Our share with Snead’s cost $540 last year (we got a $60 discount for joining early), and included 18 weekly produce boxes, to be picked up at the farm every Wedesday from May through August. We will also be getting a box of fall produce in October, and a Christmas tree in December.

If you consider that a 2011 survey by Nielsen Research found that the average cost of a real Christmas tree in the U.S. was $46 (which sounds low to me), each box of produce we brought home cost $26.

So what was the value? There are several ways to look at that.

For one thing, I would say that on average, my weekly grocery bill (minus diapers and other non-food items) was about 25 percent lower than it is when I buy all of my family’s produce at the supermarket or farmer’s market.

I estimated the weekly savings to be somewhere in the $30 range; however, I kept largely to a no-produce-buying rule. We rarely bought items to supplement our box, I grew lettuce early in the season to avoid spending $3 or more on packaged lettuce, and we chose recipes based on what we had in our box–which was usually a lot.

Another way to measure it is by the market value of what’s in the box. Some weeks would bring an entire flat of peaches or berries, among several other items. Buying that quantity of those coveted summer fruits at a market would by itself exhaust the weekly cost of my CSA share.

There were other values, too, like having an activity to occupy my toddler every Wednesday (including July 4) for 18 weeks in a row, watching her chase chickens and play in the kid-friendly areas of Snead’s Farm, and listening to her say “night-night” to the horses, llama, cows, doggies and other creatures as we drove away each week.

There was also the value of putting more vegetables on my family’s plates, and getting us to try new foods (kohlrabi) or ones we had previously avoided (okra…turns out I like it).

I believe my grocery savings came not only from buying less produce, but also from buying less meat. Because we had so many top-quality vegetables, our menu-planning took a vegetables-first approach, and we ended up eating a lot more vegetarian dinners.

This is not a paid sales pitch, though, and there challenges. Because a CSA member is dependent on the weather and the seasons, you will have weeks where you get a LOT of one particular item.

For several weeks in a row toward the end of the summer, we brought home a bushel or two of corn each week. It was far more than my family could consume or stow away for later (my freezer is filled with corn we’ll be eating this winter) and we were able to share much of this with family and friends. However, I still feel like we were getting a good deal these weeks, because the corn was always accompanied by a large variety of other vegetables, berries and whole flats of juicy peaches and nectarines.

The share provides a lot of food for one family to eat, and I have to admit, particularly right after our second child was born in late June, there were weeks when we just couldn’t get to it all. A lot of families solve this problem by splitting their share with another family. Most of the time, however, we were able to eat or preserve everything we got, and what we couldn’t use we shared with others.

If I were working full-time right now, I am not sure this CSA would be the best choice for me. I made the weekly drive to the farm an activity to enjoy with my kids. It fits my current lifestyle perfectly.

The great thing about CSAs, however, is that there are different programs for different folks. You can pick up weekly veggie boxes from C&T Produce and the Fredericksburg Area CSA Project in downtown Fredericksburg. You can have local produce brought straight to your door through services like Dominion Harvest. I do know full-time workers who make the trip to Snead’s, however, and some solve this problem by teaming up with other members and taking turns picking up boxes.

Finally, if I didn’t truly enjoy cooking, I think I would have seen the weekly box as a burden. Of course, I don’t think most CSAs are full of people who hate cooking.

For me, that weekly box was an exercise in creative problem-solving. I loved the process of searching for new recipes, adapting them to include as many of my CSA items as possible and slowly emptying my bulging produce bin onto my family’s plates every week.

I now look at some of these vegetables (heads of cabbage, giant bunches of kale and chard, bags of okra) and know exactly what to do with them. I can cook seasonally without looking at recipes or cookbooks, though I still enjoy doing that.

We decided way back in the first month of our CSA, when we were getting boxes full of greens, green beans and asparagus, that we would definitely sign up for another year. That decision did not change as the summer went on. And maybe one of these days, as our family’s schedule changes, we’ll try some of the other CSAs in our area.

Spotsylvania’s Miller Farms, for example, followed up its first year running a summer CSA by starting a fall CSA, celebrating the fact that many of summer’s most popular vegetables (tomatoes, corn, peppers) continue into the fall months, easing us into colder-weather treats like butternut squash and sweet potatoes.

That’s my assessment of my first year as a CSA member. Stay tuned for a list of practical tips and tricks I picked up along the way.

Interested in learning about CSA programs in our area? Here is a list of some, but certainly not all, of the other local farms that offer them. 

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