Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): our experience

G&G client Tracy asked me to look into CSAs that served the LA area. This was something I had looked into a couple of years ago when I was considering subscribing to an organic produce delivery service. At the time there were no CSAs that served the LA area and I decided against the delivery services because none of them offered local produce only which was important to me both from a “supporting local business” point of view but also from a “don’t want to have organic bananas if they’ve been flown in from Chile” because that means a whole lot of CO2 has been released into the air, and lowering my carbon footprint is pretty much my #1 environmental goal right now given global warming. But I digress. Instead, we’ve been buying our vegetables at the local farmer’s market and at our local Trader Joe’s (not the greenest option though since most of their produce isn’t local and comes in those plastic box thingies.) By the way…not sure if you saw it but a March 2007 TIME magazine cover story was all about how local is better than organic of course, one of my favorite magazines Ode covered this story back in April 2005.

Anyway, our motto at G&G is that “you can always be greener!” and this completely applies to us as well so I was excited to find out that recently, a local farm, Tierra Miguel, began servicing the LA area. I found them through Local Harvest, which can help you find a CSA that serves your zip code no matter where you are. Just to back up a little bit, a short description of a CSA is that it is a farm that allows individuals to buy a “share” in the farm which guarantees you to a regular delivery of the farm’s harvest. This system helps the local farm by giving it guaranteed cash flow and distributing the inherent risks of farming (weather, etc.) on to a larger group of people. For a more comprehensive description visit this website…they have summed it up best.

So we signed-up with some neighbors of ours and here is how it works. Once a week we pick up a box of produce from a local volunteer. All of the produce is organic and local (how local isn’t clear, but it appears to all be from Southern California.) It’s enough produce for four adults, so splitting it with another couple is perfect, plus then we share the pick-up duties. It is completely cost effective too, since each week costs $33 (so $17 per couple) and we regularly spent $40-plus at the farmer’s market each week. Depending on what the box contains we sometimes supplement the box with other produce purchases, but I would estimate that the CSA produce comprises about 70% of the produce we eat in a given week. The box has been a bit leafy-green heavy during the spring, but every week is different so it is hard to know what summer and fall will be like (I’m excited though!) Tierra Miguel also hosts volunteer days that allow its members to get their hands dirty and learn about their farming methods. We haven’t goneyet, but my mom and dad, both of whom spent time working on farms as children, say that there is nothing like working on a farm to make one feel connected to the earth and develop respect for the hard work it is to put food on your table. Aside from the gardening I do around my own house, I have yet to have the full-on agricultural experience, but I’m looking forward to it and dream of some-day growing some of our own food.

One of the great, unexpected benefits of using the CSA has been the fact that it is really liberating to not have to think about what produce to buy each week. I am personally totally one of those people who can get caught up in all the choices (tyranny of choice man!) so it’s nice to have one less thing to think about. The CSA box has also exposed us to produce we’ve never eaten before. I’ve literally never had a turnip before in my life. Fortunately, the CSA includes a weekly newsletter with recipes for what to do with their organic cornucopia of produce so that makes it easy. They had a recipe for “turnip fries” that involved chopping them into french fry size slivers, and then coating them with olive oil, paprika and some parmesan cheese and baking them. We devoured them.

There is also something that feels really right about only eating food in season (a benefit of farmer’s market produce too)…maybe it’s a evolutionary thing, but now I get excited about the seasons because I can look forward to the produce that comes up at that time. I’m particularly partial to pomelo and cherimoya season (two fruits I fell in love with last year.)

One other thought before I end this posting. It’s about the question of “local.” How local should your food be? A lot of people have talked about a 100-mile diet, and that your food should come from within 100-miles of where you are. In fact, there is even a 100-mile diet organization! I think this is a great goal, although maybe not possible for everyone. Living on the a coast is a little problematic because you can really only go 100-miles in one direction. Tierra Miguel is about 125 miles from us and I’m comfortable with that. The 100-mile diet people list a host of good reasons to buy local including:

1.Taste, most local produce has been picked inside of 24 hours. It comes to you ripe, fresh, and with its full flavor, unlike supermarket food that may have been picked weeks or months before.

2. Conserve fuel: A study in Iowa found that a regional diet consumed 17 times less oil and gas than a typical diet and

3. Supporting Local Businesses: A British study tracked how much of the money spent at a local food business stayed in the local economy and the total value was almost twice the contribution of a dollar spent at a supermarket chain.

We do make it a priority to buy local produce, meat, wines and beers but we are definitely not perfect and I’m not so sure about where the packaged stuff we buy comes from. I would imagine that a good deal of our food still comes from 100+ miles away, although I’m happy to say that the two packaged items I happen to be eating right now are both from within 100-miles so maybe I’m not being ambitious enough. Maybe we should try a 100-mile diet? For now, I’m happy with the new step we’ve taken, after all a journey is only completed one step at a time!, and we are loving our CSA participation. To find a CSA near year, check out Local Harvest…a fantastic resource for buying agricultural products locally.

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