CSAs and Farmers' Markets

food5.jpgEver since I visited Hidden Villa, I've been thinking of CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). CSAs are programs where subscribers can receive a weekly box or basket of seasonal produce in exchange for either a share in a farm (usually paid upfront at the start of a season) or a weekly or monthly payment. These programs promote people building a relationship with a local farm so they can better understand where their food comes from and how it’s produced, while also getting the benefits of eating locally, seasonally, and organically. The box is pre-chosen by the farm and represents the most seasonally ripe produce of the week. You cannot choose what goes in it.

When we adopted a puppy last week, I decided it was time to try purchasing a CSA box. Before this week, I have always tried to visit our local farmers' market each Saturday. I love wandering through the market, seeing many of the same faces behind the stalls, and picking out what I want from the large selection we are so lucky to have in California. I love smelling the fruits, tasting the lettuces, and being part of the communal shopping effort. The problem was that sometimes I didn't quite make it there, and with a new puppy, I thought my chances of getting there any time soon were slim.

I chose to use Capay Organic as they offer a large box of fruits and vegetables that suited my needs to feed a family of four. They also deliver directly to homes so I don't have to go to a pick-up location, which some CSAs require. Although going to a pick-up location is a great way to get to know more about the farm you are supporting, I've felt strapped for time lately, so the home drop-off service was a huge selling point for me. Smaller boxes are also available, as are mostly fruit boxes. You can also sign up for anything from weekly to once-a-month deliveries. For a list of local CSAs and the services they provide see Jennifer Maiser’s excellent post previously published on BAB.

So, after a week with my box of veggies and fruits, I’ve come to realize that CSAs and Farmers' Markets offer different benefits and limitations. Following are three lists summing up my thoughts. These lists are in no way complete and I welcome any additions, disagreements, or thoughts you may have.

Why You Should Use Either a CSA or Buy at the Local Farmers' Market

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1. Small family farms are becoming scarcer each year and federal farm subsidies mostly help only large corporate farmers. I believe strongly in keeping local farms solvent, and being part of a CSA or buying regularly from a farmers' market seem the best ways to do this.

2. The farming of varied local organic produce helps the local environment. For instance, honey bees are dying in record numbers, most likely because of the use of pesticides, which causes a neurological disorder in the bees, and because of agricultural “monocultures of single crops that create ‘floral deserts’ when not in bloom.” Local organic farms therefore help keep the honey bees (and birds, insects, etc.) happier and healthier.

3. Produce from both Farmers' Markets and CSAs are grown closer to home, and therefore less oil is used to get them to your table.

4. The fruits and vegetables are freshly picked and organic, with the amazing flavors that only food in peak season can have.

Why Use a CSA?

1. Having a box delivered to your front porch is incredibly convenient.

2. If you pick up your CSA box, you have the opportunity to get to know the people from the farm you are supporting and to be part of a larger food community in your area.

3. The produce is organic, seasonal, and locally produced.

4. Being limited to what the CSA delivers each week forces you to fully accept the idea of cooking with only seasonal produce, which can be fun and help you stretch your cooking repertoire.

5. You are assured of shopping locally each week, regardless of how busy you are or how convenient or inconvenient it is to get to the market.

6. CSAs often include something unique or fun in their weekly box that you might not find or think to buy at a farmer’s market. For instance, last week we got a bag of some of the most delicious salted pistachios I’ve ever had.

7. Many CSAs provide newsletters with recipes to subscribers, which are informative and can help you figure out how to be a better seasonal cook.

8. You are often encouraged to visit the actual farm, which brings you closer to the food you eat and can help you educate your children about what they eat. The farms often also have events that you can participate in throughout the year.

Why Shop at a Farmers' Market?

1. Many people, like me, want to control the quality of the produce they buy. It’s wonderful to smell a tomato, snap a bean, and taste a piece of lettuce before you purchase it.

2. It’s nice to get to choose the fruits and vegetables you want. Although I appreciate the idea that CSA providers are knowledgeable about what is ripe at any given moment, I don’t like being confined to whatever is in season only at that specific farm. For instance, when my box arrived last Friday without any strawberries or fava beans, I was disappointed. As fava beans and strawberries are in season right now, I really wanted to receive them. And when I saw that subscribers to the “mostly fruit” box got strawberries, but that my fruit and veggie box didn’t, I was a little dissatisfied.

3. The farmers' market is a great place to get my children excited about healthy food. Our trip always starts with a visit to the bounce house, which makes them excited to go there in the first place. After they take a few turns on the bouncy, they are then in great moods and primed to pick out our vegetables for the week, which in turn makes them excited to eat those vegetables later. I also like teaching them that they are part of a larger food community, and going to the farmer’s market helps them experience that community in person.

4. Going to the farmers' market is a fun event. Mine always has wonderful smells permeating the air, music from local performers, people of every type wandering around, and samples of produce that are perfectly in season to taste. You can feel more connected with the food you purchase and eat by getting to know the local vendors (who are often farmers). It is closer to how people have shopped for millennia than any grocery store you could ever walk into.

5. My farmers' market has non-produce vendors that I like to patronize. I often get my beef from the Prather Ranch stand, some cheese from the local cheese ladies, and sometimes fresh fish from the fish stand in addition to my produce. There are also cooked food stands and a small flower mart.

6. Sometimes I need more of a specific vegetable than is provided in a CSA box. For instance, if chard bunches are smaller one week, I can choose to buy two to suit the needs of my family table. If I want to bake a large blueberry tart, I can purchase two pints instead of one.

One nice way to get the benefits of both a CSA and your local farmers' market is to simply do both. You can often purchase a smaller weekly box from a CSA, or get one only once or twice a month and then supplement from your local farmers' market. I plan on doing this myself.

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Btw: Interestingly, I see that there is currently a discussion about Farmers' Markets vs CSA on Chowhound.

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