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Fresh food from small farms: New guide helps consumers find a CSA

With as many as 18,000 households now signed up, our region has become a national leader in community-supported agriculture.

Table laden with farm produce

If you’ve ever considered getting a share in a CSA farm but didn’t know where to begin, here’s a useful new resource: the Land Stewardship Project’s annual CSA Farm Directory came out last week, featuring more than 80 producers and their wide variety of subscription plans, drop-off zones and participation policies.

(And if CSA is an abbreviation you associate with Jefferson Davis, let me pause to say it also stands for community-supported agriculture, an intensively local, partnership approach to raising high-quality produce and other food for direct, fresh-from-the-farm delivery to subscribers at specified drop-off locations.)

Judging from CSA’s explosive growth in the Twin Cities and surrounding areas, both producers and consumers are finding it a preferable alternative to regular retail channels.

But finding the right subscription plan requires newcomers to undertake some serious research and reflection, and LSP’s directory offers guidance on questions like these:

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What drop-off arrangements are workable?

Are you interested in going to farm to help out, if possible – or willing to do it anyway, if required?

Are you willing to share in the risk of a crop-destroying hailstorm?

Big question: How much produce can you reasonably use, without waste?

Even bigger, maybe: Are you really ready to give up cooking and eating by whim, and instead let a big part of your menu be driven for half a year by whatever happens to be harvested each week?

A system of mutual benefit

Consumers come to CSAs for many reasons, some culinary and some communitarian, for the system’s benefits flow in both directions between the rural places where food is grown and the (mostly) urban places where it’s eaten.

LSP’s Brian DeVore, who has been producing the directory for 17 years now, thinks the metro areas around Minneapolis-St. Paul and Madison, Wis., may now have the nation’s most extensive CSA networks outside New England, where the movement got its North American start in the mid-1980s.

While he credits the locavore trend for CSA’s surging popularity hereabouts, he stresses that it can’t be just another foodie fad.

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CSA subscribers must also be invested in sustaining small farms and rural communities, he told me, because “if all you’re interested in is fresh produce, well, there are lots of good grocery stores and lots of alternatives, too – you’ve got the farmers’ markets, the co-ops ….”

Moreover, “getting your produce this way really requires you to go above and beyond. It takes more work, and carries more risks.” Subscribing to a CSA differs from subscribing to a magazine because a frost or hailstorm won’t keep the September issue from coming out.

And you never really know what’s going to be in that box from week to week. The biggest reason people drop their CSA subscriptions, he said, is the challenge of cooking creatively with, say, many pounds of carrots.

New rules for eating

I’ve been thinking about, but putting off, CSA membership for several years now, but the deciding factors have finally aligned:

  • Informed by the common themes of such writings as Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, Mark Bittman’s Food Matters books and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, I’m determined to shift a much larger share of my food intake into the plant kingdom, for my personal health and the planet’s, too.
  • I work mostly from home now, and time once devoured by commuting can now be diverted to cooking.
  • Because that home is rural, I have practical as well as philosophical reasons for wanting nonindustrial agriculture to endure.
  • And I’m looking to recover the enthusiasm I had for cooking as a young man, when every recipe was new – and when nearly everything tasted better than it does now.

At first it was a delight, as agriculture globalized, to be able to buy a “fresh” apple, kiwi or bunch of broccoli from some other hemisphere whenever I wanted one.

Now I care more about the density of food value and intensity of flavor in stuff grown within a half-day’s drive of my door, and picked that very day.

I look forward to the return of seasonality to my table, and even – perhaps naively – to the creative challenge of matching my cooking to the contents of my weekly CSA box, even if it happens to be equal parts squash, string beans and carrots.  (Perhaps a Ciambotta, suggests, or maybe a nice pistou.).

A boom that won’t slow down

It took 10 years for LSP’s directory to grow from its first handful of farms to about 25, DeVore said. This year’s printed version lists 81 and the online version 83. DeVore said me he knows of a dozen more who no longer bother to buy a listing because their production is so fully and steadily subscribed that they’d only be recuiting customers to turn away.

 “When we hit 60 listings, three years ago, I thought that had to be the maximum – maybe even a bubble,” he said. “Now, I don’t know how far it can go – it just keeps growing and growing. And the numbers are going up, neck and neck, for both the consumers and the producers.”

Until the last few years, the shared assumption of small-scale farmers was that a CSA farm couldn’t make it without a customer base in the urban core. Now there are drop-off locations spread throughout the suburbs, and last year’s directory listed, for the first time, a dozen CSAs whose drop-offs were entirely outside the metro area, in places like Rochester, Willmar and western Wisconsin.

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Devore has calculated that the average CSA sells 125 shares. Because a standard CSA share is too much food for many households, we agreed that 1.5 might be a fair multiplier to account for shares split among two or more households. After adding in the dozen no-longer-listed CSAs, a reasonable estimate for CSA participation in this region might approach 18,000 households.

Staring at that number, I thought about another thing I’d read on the Land Stewardship website – a comment from an Iowa hog farmer named Tom Frantzen:

When people make a buying choice they are casting a ballot for the type of food system they want. That sends a tremendously powerful message back to rural America about what sort of farming is valued.

What an interesting way to reframe the issue of industrial agriculture’s indifference to consumer preference.

Having visited some of the country’s biggest produce growers, in California’s Central Valley, I’m sure they don’t notice the seasonal defection of 18,000 households in Minnesota. But a lot of our little valleys are surely feeling the embrace.

A new kind of networking

The proliferation of CSAs in our region is creating new opportunities for cooperation and stability, DeVore said – particularly in times of trouble:

 “I’ve noticed this over in western Wisconsin, especially, with that odd geography: There’ll be killing frost or hailstorm in one valley that hits a CSA farm really hard, and maybe they don’t have any produce for a while.

“But there’s a farm over in the next valley that didn’t get touched and they’ve got enough to share, so the farms can kind of join forces. It wasn’t like that in the early days – one killing frost in June, and everybody was out of luck.”

Another advantage from the consumer’s point of view, he said, is that producers are investing in new levels of customer service: tailoring their produce offerings to members’ interests, sending out newsletters about upcoming harvests – and coming up with helpful recipes for those really big loads of carrots.

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Please note that the Land Stewardship Project is not a certification agency for CSAs, and its directory is not a price guide, a rating service or a complete list. If anybody is publishing comprehensive reviews of CSA farms in the area, I haven’t found them.

Additional listings and CSA-related materials can be found on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Minnesota Grown pages and many other places. If you have a useful site to offer, please consider sharing it in the comments below.