Know Your Farmer Through Community Supported Agriculture
Weekly farmers’ markets. Farm stands on country roads. Community supported agriculture (CSA). What these three things have in common is that they are methods of direct sales by farmers to consumers. Joining a farm’s CSA can be the most beneficial way of connecting to a farm.
In general, a CSA creates mutual support between a farm and the people who eat the food it produces. As a member, sometimes called a subscriber or shareholder, people provide the farm with money upfront, when it has pre-season expenses but little income, and its farm team plants, grows and harvests with the members in mind, and returns the favor by providing CSA members with a share of the harvest throughout the growing season.
This distribution is most often weekly and takes place at a home, café or other small business, church or workplace. The farms are further supported by those that host their pickup locations, both through delivery day logistics and outreach to their friends, customers or co-workers to become members.
A vegetable CSA box will typically include between six and 12 different vegetables and herbs—such as slicing tomatoes, a pint of cherry tomatoes, multi-colored sweet peppers, a few hot peppers, an eggplant, head lettuce, spicy lettuce mix, a large red cabbage and a bunch of parsley. While the majority of CSA offerings are vegetables, there are also those that offer meat and eggs, flowers, apples and other specialty items, often on schedules that are other than weekly.
The small-scale, diversified growers that undertake CSA farming pore over seed catalogs in winter and love to try out new items, things we’re not likely to see in a grocery store. So prepare to see carrots in several colors, candy-striped beets, heirloom tomatoes, purple cauliflower and more. In addition to receiving recipes and preparation tips for items we may not be familiar with, we can also expect to learn about the challenges and joys of farming.
Because we’re in a relationship with the farmer and not just buying a box of food, weekly newsletters provide the farm a chance to let us in on their daily tasks and the extra care they take—whether certified organic or not—to grow sustainably. Most farms welcome visits, often hosting a farm dinner or potluck, which helps to put the “c” in community supported agriculture.
A basic tenet of CSA is the acceptance by members of the inherent risks of farming. If the farmer communicates well throughout the season, we as members won’t be blindsided by crop losses from pests or weather events. Diversification of crops usually means that crops lost to unforeseen events can be replaced by others.
CSAs take many forms, and due to competition from their rapidly increasing numbers in the last few years (there are now more than 80 farms offering this program throughout Chicagoland), CSA farms are finding ways to make sure they stand out from the crowd. These may include multiple share sizes, including individual shares; direct home delivery; on-farm pickup, market-style selection, custom boxes; add-on options like eggs, honey, grains, beans, cheese; biweekly deliveries and vacation holds; and three or four-season growing with the use of low-tech hoop houses.
This variety offers a lot of choices, but a primary consideration in choosing a CSA will be location: members typically want the CSA drop-off location, and the day and time frame for produce pickup to be reasonably convenient. There are several guides and directories available to help find Chicagoland areas served by CSA farms. If there are no convenient options located near to home or office, consider offering to host a pickup site; most farmers are willing to add locations with a critical mass of member signups (usually between five and 20) and would welcome the opportunity to speak to a group of potential members.
Band of Farmers, BandOfFarmers.org
The Local Beet, TheLocalBeet.com
Local Harvest, LocalHarvest.org
With no middleman between us and our farm, joining a CSA guarantees that our farmer will receive the full price for the food he grows. That farmer’s family, in turn, buys goods and services—from haircuts to hardware to restaurant meals—in their own rural community, strengthening their local economy. The biggest winner is us—the CSA subscribers. We’ll be eating nutrient-dense foods grown or raised close to home and bred for flavor, rather than for weeks of travel before reaching our plate.
Robin Schirmer is the project coordinator for Band of Farmers: The Chicagoland CSA Coalition. For more information, call 708-370-8017 or email Info@BandOfFarmers.org.
Spinach and Chive Fritters
“These fritters are one of my favorite spring appetizers. I enjoy pairing my frozen winter spinach with a refreshing, early arrival at our farm—spring chives. Garlic chives can be substituted to add additional flavor. Enjoy!” says Peg Sheaffer, of Sandhill Family Farms.
Yield: six to eight servings.
8 oz spinach, washed and chopped
¼ cup chopped chives
4 Tbsp flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp (scant) baking powder
Salt and pepper to taste
Oil for frying
Wilt the spinach in a pan of shallow water. Continue to simmer until the water evaporates. Allow to cool.
Blend the other ingredients and stir into the spinach. Use 2 tablespoons to form a patty. Push it out of the spoon and flatten it a bit in the hot oil.
Pan-fry 1 to 2 minutes on each side until golden brown. Do not get the oil too hot or it will burn.
Drain on paper towels and serve.
For more recipes, visit SandhillFamilyFarms.com.