To CSA or not to CSA?
Mr travelmad478 and I finally have an opportunity to join a conveniently located CSA--one is starting up near us that offers a half-share for $400. The season is 22 weeks, and they list examples of crops as follows:
Sample Early Season: Spring Greens, Lettuce, Spinach, Radishes, Peas
Sample High Season: Cucumbers, Cauliflower, Carrots, Summer Squash, Tomatoes, Sweet Peppers, Potatoes, Beans, Melons, Eggplant, Herbs
Sample Late Season: Beets, Carrots, Spinach, Potatoes, Onions, Broccoli, Winter Squash, Pumpkins
I love to cook and buy huge amounts of vegetables, but I'm still wondering if the CSA would be worth it and/or feasible. I would have to supplement the CSA box with fruit, it seems, and I am in some terror of having to figure out what to do with 14 pounds of cauliflower in one week. Plus, I travel a lot and I am in even more terror of Mr travelmad478 having to deal with 14 pounds of cauliflower when I'm out of town.
If you have a CSA, do you find yourself giving stuff away that you can't use? (This would obviously offset some of the cost savings.) Do you find yourself having to buy a lot of other stuff anyway, because you want to make a certain dish that the CSA didn't provide you the ingredients for? Or do you adjust your cooking plans to use what the CSA box contains?
An update on my CSA experience: I finally got around to joining the CSA this year, and although I liked some aspects of it, I don't think I'll do it again next year. My reasons are as follows:
--massive quantities of things that we don't love or can grow ourselves (I'm looking at you, heirloom tomatoes!) but at the same time, zero or near zero of things that we do love, can't grow, and want to eat (like corn and asparagus). Because I do not like throwing away perfectly good food, and because there are only two of us, that means we've eaten almost no corn this year, because we just don't have room on our plates for it.
--WAY too much freaking lettuce in the spring. I really don't like lettuce. I do not like making salads with it. And we got two heads a week for probably 6 weeks in a row. It was excruciating.
--Oddly, some veggies came in quantities that were too small to even bother with: for instance, twice now we've gotten a single, tiny fennel bulb. This week we got one kohlrabi bulb, about baseball-sized, so not even possible to make two servings out of it. Kind of useless. The fennel bulbs in particular were so scrawny that I ended up throwing them in the compost; they were too small to slice up for the grill, and dried out quickly.
--No fruit that I liked, only watermelon. I love summer peaches but this year I didn't get any, because I was too worn out with trying to figure out what to do with the damn watermelons.
--Fairly monotonous fare week after week. It seems like they planted a preposterous quantity of a small number of things, and while those things are generally good, we are really sick of them after eating them for 5-6 weeks in a row. I want more variety.
I started gardening this year in our new house, and plan to double my garden space next year. I do want to grow and keep eating some of the things that the CSA gives us--swiss chard, for instance, different kinds of peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, etc. And I have appreciated being forced to be creative and find new recipes. But overall I miss the variety of doing my own shopping/growing. I applaud the CSA concept, but I don't think this one is really doing it for me.
I have both a small garden and a CSA, and really like both, even if I sometimes get the same items from both. Part of the key is that I am ready, willing and able to freeze what I don't use, which is also the key to addressing the monotamy issue. I mean, heirloom tomatoes: too many? Really? To me, there is never such a thing as too many tomatoes of any type. I make sauce and freeze what I don't use and it is lovely in the winter! As for corn, I get WAAYYY more than I can use and freeze about half (after blanching, and removing from the cob, which is easy.). Ditto squash: I grate it and freeze; terrific in stews, soups and even meatloaf!
I will agree on the too-much lettuce part: so I did end up giving some away. That said, given the price of lettuce in the stores around here and the inferior quality, I am thrilled to be in the position to need to give it away. And yes, the other thing we got too much of this year was watermelon: most of the summer we've been getting one watermelon a week. I love it, but hubby's idea of an appropriate amount to eat is one slice per summer. The solution is to serve it at potlucks and dinner parties or picnics, where it will always get eaten and where I can have some also, and one week I gave it to my grateful watermelon eating son. For that matter, my cat LOVES watermelon, and is always happy to steal leftovers! :-)
My CSA also has an add on option of pastuered eggs, which are worth the cost of the box by themselves. So delicious!
In my case, the CSA is one relatively small farm, so yes, you will get lots of the same items some weeks. If you think of it as a way to harvest bounty of one season for year round use, definitely worthwhile. If you think of it as the only source of your fruits and vegetables and want to build all of your meals around the box, it may not be for you.
The first two years I did a CSA, I felt the way you do. I supplemented with the things I missed and gave away stuff I hated or had too much of. Then last year, I joined a new CSA, all organic and 4 miles from my house. Their set-up was different from the previous one--lovely wooden bins full of lovely produce that you could touch and smell before deciding to take it, with some PYO. For some reason, this did it for me. It was as if a switch had flipped in my brain and I decided to only use what the CSA supplied (except for garlic, green onions and fruit, all staples in my house, and not supplied as often as the other things). So when I got that one lone fennel bulb, I diced it and mixed it with my store bought oranges and made a salad. When I got those two heads of lettuce (way too much for the three of us that eat it), I found that shredding it made it smaller and easier to use up. I also found unusual recipes (lettuce soup, chocolate beet cake) for the veggies I was tired of. For the melons (there are three on my counter now), I'm going to puree them and make agua fresca or sorbet.
I don't know if this happens to everyone who joins a CSA, but I find I'm in way less of a cooking rut in the summer now because I feel like I have to use everything up in a week. It's a weird mental challenge in a way. If I hadn't set this up, I don't think I'd have discovered that awesome arugula, radicchio and date salad from Epi, for example, because there was no way on earth I'd consider putting those things together until I had them in my fridge and googled that combo.
So yeah, I'm a CSA convert.
I had many of your hesitations and eventually found a CSA that had a menu option. Each week I received an email listing the options available and could choose from them, based on my share. Extra amounts were often available to purchase. They also raised meat and you could use your weekly allotment towards sausage, etc.
I liked being able to do a little advanced menu planning. I also liked that if I went out of town I could apply my allotment to the week prior or after.
Pluses were really superb products, supporting a local farmer and knowing how they raised my food, and the challenge of learning to use some new-to-me veggies.
Minuses were limited window of time to pick-up at a location that was not real convenient for me. I also found that I am just not into salad enough to really maximize the amount of spring greens. The summer offerings suited me better. I found having freezer space for excess, roasting and pickling more left me with very little unused produce.
Ultimately the pickup location made the CSA less viable for me.
Hi Tmad -
Q: "If you have a CSA, do you find yourself giving stuff away that you can't use? (This would obviously offset some of the cost savings.)"
Yes, but only if I'll be out of town on pickup day. I'll have someone else pick it up for me. Otherwise, I'll only give away stuff I really don't like, or have a huge overabundance of for whatever reason.
Q: Do you find yourself having to buy a lot of other stuff anyway, because you want to make a certain dish that the CSA didn't provide you the ingredients for?
If the csa does not provide ingredients for your dish, that is hardly their fault. They do not know what you plan on making. They deliver foods to you. They do not deliver specific ingredients for the dishes you plan to make.
Q: ...Or do you adjust your cooking plans to use what the CSA box contains?
I think if your CSA is fully organic, then that might be your yay or nay factor (or at least a big part.) I don't see what the point of joining a csa would be otherwise. A non organic csa could simply buy sale priced stuff off of your grocers' shelves, and mark it up for you after they put it in a fancy bag. I think if organic vegetables are important to you, then the csa would work out, as organics in grocery stores and fruit markets are pretty high priced.
I joined my csa more for the organics (for the new gordeaux jr) and to ensure that we ate more vegetables around here. Our grower also offers plenty of side deals, so when we pick up, there might be a few extra crates of things that we can take for no extra charge - maybe an extra few pounds of green beans, tomatoes, hot peppers, squashes, kale - whatever he might happen to have. he also sends out emails before he comes to ask anyone if they would like him to harvest anything extra that might be in high season. He will also take requests for items to grow. I've asked for and received bhut jolokia peppers, big jims, anaheims, sandias (I make VATS of NM style green chile and freeze it, and also giardiniera that the csa guy actually sells to his subscribers.)
You might want to ask them if there are any "perks?"
Most ppl think it's way too expensive, but the perks I get out of it are pretty darn cool, PLUS, gordeaux jr is not ingesting a bunch of foreign stuff. He was walking WELL at 9 mos, is a little bit on the small side, but his doctor cannot beleive how strong and smart he is. I won't say that's because of proper nutrition, but let's just say he probably didn't get any really good genetics from me. ;-)
Maybe do a little more research, and check out what others have to say. Try it for a year, maybe it works out well for you.
Clean the veggies as soon as you get them. Get a salad spinner if you don't have one. If I didn't clean and package them right away, well, sometimes, they would just sit there, and before you know it...it seems like too much work. but if you do it right away, then they are just ready to go when you want them. Hope it works out for you!
Thanks for your detailed response, gordeaux. I think this CSA would be fully organic. I don't really make a giant point of only buying organic, but it certainly would be nice, not to mention a lot cheaper than what organic veggies cost in my fancy-pants natural foods grocery store. I will ask about "side deals"--didn't think about this aspect.
As for my question 2 about particular ingredients, of course I realize that the CSA doesn't know what I feel like cooking that week--I'm just wondering if most people end up (a) adjusting what they're planning on cooking based on what comes in the box, vs (b) going out to the store to augment their pantry with things that the CSA didn't provide.