Twenty-plus years ago, few of us could have answered, “What’s community supported agriculture?” Today the question more likely would be, “Where do we find a CSA farm?”
The now-familiar exchange between consumer and farmer takes place this time of year as cooks buy shares in a farm’s harvest and anticipate the bounty to come. Tomatoes! Lettuce! Potatoes! And much more.
With CSAs, consumers pay upfront and receive regular deliveries, for many weeks, of whatever that farmer produces. In return, the grower receives a cash infusion as the planting begins.
It’s a way to share the risk of growing our food — if the cucumber field is flooded out, you might not get any cucumbers — and a way to know where our food comes from.
This year, consumers have the option of 95 farms statewide that offer CSAs; about a third of them will be represented at the Seward Co-op’s CSA Fair on Saturday.
CSAs are not one-size-fits-all. You can buy whole shares or halves, to suit the number of those eating with you. Want fruit, eggs, meat, cheese or even flowers? Each farm offers its own range of items, as well as days of delivery, drop-off points and length of season.
Clearly, however, vegetables are the mainstay of most CSAs, though many farmers add fruit (such as berries, melons or apples) and others offer honey or jam to the medley of produce. What works for you? Consider these details to see if a CSA match is a good one for you.
• Start small if you haven’t been a member of a CSA before. Some farms offer partial shares or short-season shares. Or you might split a full share with someone to make sure you can handle the overflowing containers of produce, which can be daunting to the newbie.
“If one family doesn’t enjoy radishes so much, you can pass it along to a neighbor when you’re splitting the share,” says Allison Meyer of the marketing staff at Seward Co-op. “You need to figure out what’s too much, too little, or just the right amount.”
• Prices for a full share range from $400 to $700, and include food for four to six people throughout the growing season (generally June through September). Yes, it’s a leap of faith to plunk down those dollars early in the season in expectation of the peppers, Brussels sprouts and squash to come. “Consider this as an investment. It may be a big price tag upfront, but it will be providing meals for your family or friends for the summer. And think of it as a community investment,” says Meyer.
• You need to sign up soon. CSAs have been taking new members since the beginning of the year and will continue to do so until all their shares are sold or until the delivery season begins. To sign up, contact individual farms (check out the CSA catalogs or visit the CSA fair).
• Convenience is important to cooks, and this is true for CSA deliveries, where produce is left at centralized spots for pickup by members. The Minnesota Grown website lists farms by their drop-off points (you simply type in your ZIP code) to help you find nearby delivery spots. New this year, Untiedt’s Vegetable Farms will offer its CSA produce — more than 50 items — with drop-offs at each of the nine Kowalski’s Markets.
CSAs have evolved since 1990, when the first two in Minnesota offered vegetables to members. In the early years, many farms offered opportunities to help out in the growing or harvesting process. That happens less often these days, as most farms prefer to rely on their own crews in the field.
Today, however, you’re likely to hear often from the CSAs via social media with crop updates, photos and recipes.
The Minnesota Grown office of the state Department of Agriculture has been listing CSAs in its directory since 1996. The increase reflects the growing interest by consumers in how their food is grown.
“Part of this is the hunger for connecting to our food supply in a personal way. Consumers say ‘I want to know my farmer. I want to know how my food was grown and what variety I’m eating,’ ” said Paul Hugunin of Minnesota Grown.
“A CSA farm share delivers this in a way that virtually no one else does. You are literally invested in food, from when it is planted to when it is delivered.”
Our attention to preventive health has helped with the growth of CSAs, which in effect broaden our palates. “We hear constantly that we need to eat more vegetables and eat more colors. But when we go to the grocery store and farmers’ market, we don’t stray too far from what we usually buy,” Hugunin said.
When the CSA box or basket of vegetables lands on the kitchen table, however, the cook has to stretch a bit, and so do those at the dinner table.
“Even if it’s a new vegetable to you, odds are that you’re going to prepare it and eat it because you’ve paid for it,” said Hugunin. “It’s one thing to say you’ll try something new the next time you’re at the store; it’s another when it lands on your doorstep.”
For many cooks, CSAs offer the biggest opportunity to influence change.
“This is grass-roots at its most grass-roots. Consumers can say, ‘I wish you had more of this. Have you tried this variety before? I don’t like this,’ ” said Hugunin. And the farmer pays attention.
That’s a harvest to savor.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste