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In spring, an ex-gardener’s fancy turns to fresh produce from a CSA farm

csa box
The Land Stewardship Project’s “CSA Farm Directory” is the best single resource I know for seeking out CSAs in the Twin Cities region.

Back when I lived in the city, coaxing vegetables and greens out of a few raised beds, springtime was for dreamy ambling through the garden catalogs.

Pole beans or bush beans this year? Which new tomatoes to try? Is zucchini worth the room it takes up?

Now that I live on 10 woodsy acres surrounded by farms, with space for about as big a garden plot as I care to clear and cultivate, I’ve frankly lost interest.

The buckthorn keeps me plenty busy, and there’s always firewood to put up.  A gutter needs replacing. My kayak leaks and our little sailboat needs her hull repainted. …

But even absent competing chores, I guess I’ve come to a place where it’s far more interesting to spend this seasonal passage, between winter’s retreat and Mud Season’s arrival, daydreaming over the Land Stewardship Project’s annual “CSA Farm Directory.”

Especially with 5 inches of fresh white stuff on the ground, thanks to the midweek snowfalls that may or may not be the season’s last.

I suppose LSP’s downloadable guide to our region’s expanding network of community-supported agriculture is also a sort of catalog.

No photos of impossibly large, perfectly shaped, faintly moist eggplants and heirloom tomatoes, mind you. (No “produce porn,” as a gardener friend used to say.) Only a few rustic line drawings.

Tribal heirloom varieties

But some cravers of hyper-local, highly varietal, freshly harvested and darn near home-delivered foodstuffs may find a kind of textual erotica in passages like this one from the Mdewankaton Wozupi farm in Prior Lake, which offers certified organic and transitional produce that is

 open pollinated, heirloom and hybrid. We have a small strawberry and raspberry patch and are tending a young 3.5 acre orchard. In addition to producing fruits and vegetables, we also produce maple syrup and honey.

Mdewakanton Wozupi grows heritage varieties of corn, squash and beans in our 3 Sisters Garden. We are currently growing Oneida White corn, Dakota Black popcorn, Ho Chunk Red corn, Potawatomi lima beans, Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, Arikara Yellow beans, Hidatsa Shield Figure beans and bottleneck gourds.

The folks at Country Taste Farm in Cambridge, Minn., have a higher-tech story to share:

Our fresh produce is grown outside in fields and inside high tunnels. Most produce is grown using plastic mulch for weed protection and drip irrigation … high tunnels protect the plants from frost, hail and cool weather to give a longer growing season with a controlled environment. We use organic labeled insect and disease sprays to protect plants from bugs and disease. We are working to balance the biology in our soil with chemical free methods to produce our fruits and vegetables.

And from Will Heal Farm in Cedar comes an invitation to take part in it all:

Come visit our garden haven! You can smell the vegetable rows and witness  the  rich  earth  packed  with  compost,  worms  and  microorganisms. Ask your farmer about the use of cover crops, crop rotation, mulch and composting to develop the sandy soils into rich fertile  beds.  Take  the  farm  home  with  you,  assured  that  you  are feeding your family the best food this area has to offer.

Weather-delayed signups

The selection is wide. I count 80 farms in this year’s directory, of which 66 deliver to the metro area and 15 deliver to outstate cities and western Wisconsin (one farm is on both lists). If you’re CSA-shopping this spring, you have your browsing work cut for you.

And you have at least a little time to make your choice — more than in a typical year, in fact, thanks to our on-and-off-again spring weather.

That’s the word from LSP’s Brian DeVore, who produces the CSA Farm Directory and measures response by tracking CSA signups and directory downloads.

“It’s funny to watch, but weather really affects this,” he told me. “Signup has been really slow this year, except for a little surge a few weeks ago when we were up in the 70s. Last year all they all filled up early.

“Nobody has seen two years in a row like this.”

Quirky spring weather poses a different set of problems for CSA farms than for large producers of corn, soybeans and other row crops.

“All the greenhouses are backed up with plants that are ready to go in the ground, ” DeVore said. “I just visited an operation in Prior Lake [the Mdewankaton Wozupi farm, as it happens] where they were just wall to wall, there was hardly room to walk by. Even if you get a few 70 degree days the ground is still too cold to put them out without taking a huge risk.

Snow as an offset to drought

“The good news, though, is all the frost is out of the ground now so all the rain and snow we get will really soak in. That’s making up somewhat for drought last year.”

In general, DeVore said, the recent weather shifts probably won’t affect the farms’ output apart from delays of early-season offerings — although it’s possible that early, sustained hot weather could curtail the growing season for salad greens at the other end.

Two new trends for CSAs in our region:

  • “We’re seeing more value-added offerings, like honey, or eggs, that go beyond the traditional produce.”
  • “There’s been a real boom in hoop houses,” inexpensive quonset-like structures of tubing and clear polyethylene sheeting that function like a greenhouse but at a fraction of the cost, and can be moved around besides. “Last year some farms had late-season salad greens into December.”

* * *

Rather than repeat DeVore’s helpful advice to CSA newcomers, I’ll point you to our interview last year.

Also, you should know that LSP is not a certification agency for CSAs. The annual directory is not a price guide, nor a rating service, nor even a complete listing of CSA farms, which pay to be included in it.

But it’s the best single resource I know for seeking out CSAs in the Twin Cities region, and greatly simplifies the first steps toward forming your own consumer-producer locavore relationships.

Additional listings and related materials can be found on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Minnesota Grown pages. For a look at Wisconsin CSAs you might try the Madison-based FairShare CSA Coalition’s online guide.

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