“Who is our farmer?" my daughter asks me.
We are at the farm, picking up our weekly farm share.
“Let me introduce you to Anne," I tell her.
I lead her by the hand toward our ponytailed farmer.
“Mama, I thought farmers were boys," my daughter whispers.
“Well, this one is a lady," I whisper back.
When I met my husband, a bona fide sustainable food systems geek, I'd never heard of a farm share. I bought all my food at the grocery store. I had a dim awareness that cantaloupe isn't in season during the winter, if only because it's not available from October through April. It never occurred to me to be grateful that for an avocado that traveled all the way from Mexico in December. I found it annoying that beets were so hard to clean, never considering the fact that they'd grown in the soil before being picked. As if by magic – a brand of magic I lacked the awareness to even appreciate – nearly any food I wanted was available to me virtually whenever I wanted it. I had no idea how amazing this was until I developed a different relationship with food through our farm share.
What is a farm share?
A farm share, also known as Community Supported Agriculture – or CSA – allows farmers to sell directly to the consumer. When you purchase a farm share, you pay for a share of produce up front, usually in the winter, despite the fact that in most climates, you won't receive any produce until late spring or early summer. This is mutually beneficial to you and the farmer, as the farmer wouldn't normally have any revenue coming in until harvest time (e.g., spring), while you are guaranteed a share of the bounty. By buying a share, you are taking on some risk, just as you would if you were buying stock in a publicly held company. A late frost or an unexpected storm could mean a smaller share. By the same token, your share of the harvest will be generous if the farm has a good growing season.
Is a farm share for me?
Being directly connected with the farm that produces your food gives you a chance to see the place where your food is grown. Like most parents of small children, I approach grocery shopping with dread when I have to bring my kids along, or with resentment on those occasions when I am trading precious free time for the chance to hit the supermarket solo. Taking my kids to the farm, however, is another story. Now that they are old enough (at ages three and five) to actually help, I look forward to our weekly visit to the farm. The kids help me weigh apricots and choose bunches of kale. If there's time, they like to look at the pigs and feed carrot tops to the ducks.
Even if you don't pick your food up at the farm, many farms host a party to kick off the season and/or at the season's end. No matter where you pick up your food, in most cases you'll meet the people who pick, wash, and bundle it, if not the farmer herself.
Food not only tastes different (read: better) when you get it fresh and straight from the source, but it looks different, too. The other night, my daughter pretended to blow dry her hair with a carrot. I stopped short of reminding her not to play with her food as I realized she couldn't help it. Shaped like an uppercase “L," the carrot bore an uncanny resemblance to a hairdryer.
A non-exhaustive list of delightful, quirky items that have turned up in our farm share include a head of lettuce larger as big as a volleyball, two-headed cherries, a double-yolk egg, and a carrot that missed its calling as a human anatomy model. I constantly have to squelch my impulse to say, “Look at this weird vegetable!" when I see these anomalies. The truth is, these “weird" vegetables are healthy and totally normal. (It is my belief that veggies are like people: The more perfect they appear, the more damaged they are inside.)
When you sign up for a farm share, you're not just admiring and Instagramming your oddly shaped goodies – you're eating them. While there are endless debates on what constitutes the “best" or “healthiest" diet, it's hard to find anyone who would recommend decreasing your consumption of fresh veggies.
While it can be annoying to come up with a way to prepare a food you've never heard of before (daikon radish, anyone?), letting veggies rot while you eat take-out is a certain recipe for guilt. Meanwhile, it's easy to find ways to prepare your bounty. Many farm shares offer recipes in their newsletters and/or on their websites. Plus, there's always Pinterest. Experimenting with new recipes or combinations of ingredients you might not normally combine forces a degree of creativity. Thanks to my farm share, I now know a dozen ways to eat fava beans, and how to shell them. (See also: the garlic scape-shallot-fava bean hummus I recently invented, based on the contents of our share.)
Farm shares aren't for everyone. If you go out to eat often, travel frequently, or do not enjoy cooking, your wilting, uneaten produce will probably provide more sadness than joy. At a minimum, you need to commit to the weekly pickup, storage, and preparation of your food. Depending how much you get, it can make sense to wash, slice, and store your produce right away to preserve freshness if you won't use all of it in the first half of the week. If this feels too overwhelming, a farm share might not be a fit for you. If you like to map out a strict menu on a weekly or monthly basis, not knowing exactly which or how much food you're getting will not mesh with your system.
Of course, the price is another consideration. The cost is comparable to organic produce at the grocery store. However, with a farm share you don't get to choose which fruits and vegetables you buy. Budget constraints might make a farm share impossible, not only due to the expense but also because of the required upfront financial commitment.
Which farm share should I choose?
One of the most important factors to consider is whether the farm offers the types of items you're interested in. While the staples of most farm shares are vegetables, many offer a variety of other products, such as:
Another consideration is what options the farm offers, as far as quantity goes. You'll want to consider your budget and the amount of food you expect to use. Most farms offer small, medium, or large shares, but some only offer one or two size options. Most require weekly pickup, but some may offer a bi-weekly option. Meanwhile, if you're buying meat, the pickup is likely to be on a monthly basis.
The pickup situation is another important factor. The perfect farm share is not perfect if the pickup time and place do not fit your schedule. The pickup location is, in fact, much more important than the location of the farm itself, as most farms offer pickups throughout the region where they're located.
I've been part of farm shares with pickups at a variety of locations, including:
- the local farmer's market
- a neighborhood park
- a fellow CSA member's garage
- at the farm itself
If you're lucky enough to work for an organization that has a corporate partnership with a farm, you can grab your veggies right at your office. For example, Colorado's Grant Family Farms will designate your work place a pickup location (and offer a group discount) as long as a minimum of 10 employees purchases a farm share.
The reasons for buying a farm share (or not) are as personal as your opinion on Brussel sprouts. For me, a farm share means being invested in my local food system, eating delicious food, trying new recipes, and storing extra kale and rainbow chard in the freezer for the green smoothies my kids refuse to eat. It means treating my summer menu planning like I treat the rest of my summer – with less structure and more fun. It's the smiles on my kids' faces when they help me fill a bag with two pounds worth of black cherries on a Wednesday afternoon at the farm. It's searching for new turnip recipes and eating fresh salad greens for breakfast. It's running into our farmer and her family at the pool on a Saturday morning. And it's thanking the people who feed my family, face to face.