Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Keeping up with your CSA

FIFTY SHADES of green sprawl seductively across my kitchen counter. Each Wednesday we have a date, my CSA and I. In exchange for $350 paid in March, I receive a portion of a local farm’s seasonal produce. Last week it was escarole, bok choi, kohlrabi, beets, spring onions, radishes, dill, and paddy pan squashes. I’m sure I’m forgetting something — a bunch of scallions or a batch of leaves that farmer Ethan had to pre-identify in his whimsical weekly e-mail. My olfactories stir at a whiff of the Thai basil. My tongue starts to wag at the poetry of the sugar snap peas.

But while I’m in a confessional mode: I said “no mas” to a second week of bok choy. And having passed off a bag of fresh spinach and summer squash to a neighbor, last night under cover of darkness I pitched a head of wilted romaine. I just can’t keep up.

Small farms in Massachusetts are making a comeback as viable enterprises, due in large part to early spring investors like me. Community Supported Agriculture got its national start in Massachusetts in 1984, at the Indian Line Farm in South Egremont. Since 2008, the number of CSAs in the state has tripled, to 150. We now rank third in the country in the number of farmers’ markets overall, after California and New York. Local organic farms not only bring healthy, clean food to our tables. They protect arable land, sustain wildlife populations, and stanch McMansion sprawl. Bakers, butchers, equipment suppliers, and small-scale food companies of all stripes have sprung up alongside the kale. And these in turn are greatly enhancing the quality of life in communities from Wayland to the Berkshires.

So, what’s not to love? Maybe I’m being prudish, but it’s the orgy of excess I experience each time I open the fridge. And, to be honest, it’s the forced match-making with veggies I don’t love and wouldn’t choose for my dance card. Finally, it’s the pressure to process all that greenery in a 24-hour freshness window. Though I’ve developed a reasonably effective management system — tubs of gazpacho, ratatouille, and frozen pesto — it is a weekly battle. Three summers into this experiment, I wonder: Is my guilt over small-scale waste the price I pay to support an essential common good? Is it right to balk at subsidizing a great idea, just because I’m occasionally compelled to treat my cilantro like a common weed?

It’s impossible to mount an argument against the gospel of local and organic. I honor advocates like Edible Boston’s Ilene Bezahler and farm guru John Lee. The movement has grown like the proverbial mustard seed. It reaches into the inner city and up to the corridors of power. Last year, Project Bread contributed $30,000 to area farms through its Food to Table program, supplying 100 families with CSA shares through community health centers. Haley House teaches healthy cooking classes to kids near its Roxbury bakery. At the other end of the food chain, small farmers are cutting our dependence on environmentally disastrous food transportation costs and exploitative labor practices.

But like all gospels, the devil is in the details. And the detail here is a family of goodwill that has limited time to hunt down recipes for unfamiliar veggies, chop, steam, freeze, preserve, or otherwise distribute the bounty. I know that I’m not alone; furtive comments among friends surface mid-July with the burgeoning zucchinis. There must be a solution that doesn’t demand that I opt out of a worthy cause.

One Massachusetts farm has come up with a better way. Atlas Farms offers shares — at a discount off retail prices — like a traditional CSA. But unlike a regular CSA, where you take what you get from the week’s harvest, Atlas allows customers to choose the produce they want on a first-come first-served basis, spending down their investment over the course of the season. Twice a week it sets up at the Copley Square Farmers’ Market. What doesn’t sell is donated to local nonprofits.

By providing more choice and a more viable supply schedule, this approach fills the gap between good will and conventional market dynamics. It eliminates individual boxes and the hours spent putting them together. It encourages “non-CSA” purchases on the same visit, and provides the farm with more than anecdotal data on buyer preferences.

CSAs are the best thing since artisanal beer. I’d like to have my celeriac and eat it too, just not all at once.

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