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Welcome back to the LocalHarvest newsletter.
I like to wring every drop of goodness out of summer’s abundance. Last month I wrote about making the most of your summer produce in the kitchen, and this month I ‘m thinking about how to get the most out of your CSA. My notes for this article originally approached the subject from a different angle, “how to be a good CSA member.” When I started digging in, though, I realized that they amount to the same thing. At its best, a CSA creates a mutually beneficial relationship between you and your farmer. Cooperation, connection, and full bellies all around.
Like any relationship, a CSA takes some work. Here are a few things you can do to have an excellent experience as a CSA member, now or in the future.
Familiarize yourself with what grows when.
Many of us have gotten so used to grocery store shopping that we don’t know what month the local tomatoes get ripe. This lack of knowledge can lead to disappointment and unfounded criticism of the farmer. If you’re new to seasonal eating, it’s a good idea to ask your farmer for a list of what kinds of foods to expect when, so you can pace your anticipation.
Make peace with visits to the produce aisle.
Most CSA members supplement their CSA box with a few items from the produce aisle, as many families want to eat more fruit than is provided in their box, or find they need more staples like onions and garlic. CSA manager JoanE Marrero from J.R. Organics in Escondido, CA, finds that some people get frustrated because they do not get the same array of produce available at a grocery store. Most people find themselves eating a wider variety of vegetables with a CSA, but if you find yourself missing some of what you’re used to getting at the supermarket, by all means supplement.
Read the policies.
Each CSA operates a little bit differently when it comes to refunds, vacation policies, pick-up procedures, and the like. Part of being happy with your CSA and being a good CSA member is knowing and respecting the way things are run.
Get to know your farmer and the farm.
Farmer John Peterson of Angelic Organics in Caledonia, IL, appreciates CSA members who look beyond the food and become interested in the farm itself. “The food is just the result of the farm; it’s the overflow from the farm. The most important thing is the farm itself,” he says. He recommends that CSA members allow themselves to be curious about the people who live and work on the farm, the culture of the farm, how the work is done there, and what it’s like for those who do it.
Talk to your farmer.
After enjoying the great food, this is probably the most important aspect of getting the most out of your CSA experience. Talking with the people who run your CSA is what takes the experience beyond the transactional and creates that sense of belonging to the farm that so many CSA members value. It also offers the opportunity for mutual understanding and that can nip any potential frustrations in the bud. JoanE Marrero emphasizes the importance of communication: “The contents of our boxes are guaranteed. If for any reason, someone is unhappy with an item, we happily offer replacements. Since we are dealing with highly perishable items, there is bound to be spoilage at one time or another. When this happens, some subscribers who are not aware of our guarantee are disappointed and decide to discontinue with the program without sending any feedback. Those who do communicate are given replacements, and as they continue with the program, realize that the majority of the time the box contents are in excellent condition.” Talking helps.
But not an hour before the delivery.
Kerry Glendening, LocalHarvest’s site coordinator, has noticed that many of people’s complaints about CSAs result from members trying to make last minute changes to their delivery and being disappointed when farmers can’t honor them. In the hours before a CSA delivery, farmers feel a lot like you do in the hours before your entire extended family arrives for Thanksgiving dinner. Imagine Aunt Ethel calling while you’re stirring the gravy to say that Cousin Yvette needs a special meal, please. Timing is everything. Many farmers may not be able to respond to last minute requests, but are often able to be flexible with more notice.
Getting the most out of your CSA and being a good CSA member comes down to having realistic expectations, getting to know your farmers, and talking with them right away if something is amiss. We encourage you to utilize the farm review feature on LocalHarvest.org to let others know about your experience with your CSA and other local farms.
The ideas are geared toward current CSA members. If you’re considering of signing up for a CSA we have an article with some suggestions about how to choose one. And if you get your produce at a farmers market rather than through a CSA, I’ll be writing about farmers markets next month!
Until next time, take good care and eat well.