Csa small We just completed our second year participating in a CSA (community supported agriculture). Most people have heard of these, but in case this is new to some of you, here is a quick description. CSAs typically work by having members sign-up for weekly shares of produce from a specific farm or group of farms over a growing season. The price is set before the growing season. This way the farmers are assured a certain income, no matter what happens during the growing season – sometimes this is described as members “taking the risk” with the farmer.

Our first year represented a big change in how we shopped for and used produce, and I learned a ton. It can be a bit intimidating, so I wanted to write a series of CSA posts to share our experience with those just considering participating in a CSA (and to provide encouragement and tips for those who already are participating). If you’d like to just jump to the “Tips for Your First CSA Year”, scroll on down to the bottom and skip the witty, fun details of our first season.

  First, some history…. Three years ago, a friend let us “test drive” a CSA by having us pick up her shares while she and her husband went on a trip to China. I wrote about that experience here. It’s too bad more people don’t get to test drive a CSA because I’m not sure if we would have jumped in with our own CSA share (well, half share) two years after that if we hadn’t had that little introduction to how a CSA worked.

The next year, we weren’t quite ready, so we tried an organic produce home delivery service. We had to subscribe at a certain “basket size” level and each week, we had a variety of produce choices and could fill our basket with them. Purchasing additional produce (and other products) was a possibility, and it was easy to put the delivery service on hold if we were going to be away. This was fairly convenient, but after doing the math, we were paying ALOT for the produce we got, and not all of it was local or even close to local (which was okay and completely disclosed…but we really wanted to be supporting Colorado farmers). I took a trip down to my favorite natural food store and found I could be purchasing the same produce for approximately half the cost. I think the appeal of these delivery services is for those who feel they are too busy to get to the grocery stores that carry a decent selection of organic produce.

The next year I picked up a brochure for a CSA, Greenhorn Acres and signed us up. They offered half as well as full shares, and for my husband and I, a half share seemed a good option. (Lots of other CSAs don’t offer half shares, so we would’ve had to have found someone to share a full share with. Just having a half share available was much more convenient.) An additional attraction was being able to pick up our share at Ranch Foods Direct AND have them store our share in the fridge if we could not pick up on the designated delivery day. Other CSAs often have a member host the CSA pick-ups at their homes, and any unpicked up produce needs to be dealt with by the hosting member.

Greenhorn Acres CSA is run by Marcy and her four sons. She sent out an email each week letting us know what to expect (and not to expect) each delivery day. They’d planned to start deliveries in May, but the 2013 spring weather didn’t allow for that. (Not only was the spring weather an issue, but many farmers in southern Colorado received the news that their usual irrigation allotment would not be happening and they had to quickly come up with “Plan B’s.”) So the adventure began in early June.

2013 Wrap-Up: I think we’ll always remember 2013 as “The Year of the Summer Squash.” But I’m getting ahead of myself. In those early deliveries, we received late spring crops like radishes, spinach, lettuce, and snow peas. But it wasn’t long until the summer squash started rolling in. And the cucumbers. Lots of cucumbers. Peppers came in earlier than I ever would have expected from my home garden. Oh, and I can’t forget the okra (I’d never EVER had okra in my fridge before). But, oh my, the squash. Rather than having baskets ready for pick-up, Marcy had boxes of each item out with notes on how many to take if you had a half or full share. I remember once late in the season a “20 for full shares” note on the summer squash box.

I was trying my best to take everything our half share was allotted, and I was really trying to not waste anything. I learned to make gumbo (had to use that okra!) and how to roast okra (yum!). But I started to panic just a bit, waking up wondering how I could use up those last five squash in the fridge before I was due to pick up another batch. Marcy was helpful in distributing lots of recipes with each week’s email update. I latched on to a few that we really liked and kept falling back on them. I even bought a zucchini cookbook, “The Zucchini Houdini,” which I highly recommend. We had zucchini-pizza casserole (and several variations), zucchini pancakes, sauteed zucchini/summer squash, and stuffed zucchini many times. At some point I took a little pressure off myself and took some of the excess to a group I volunteer with. I’ve learned to freeze many veggies, but summer squash isn’t one that I really like to freeze. It can be grated and frozen, but when you thaw it later for use, you’ll find most of the water separates out and you’re left with nothing much to work with. (Although this year I’ve learned to use many of my frozen veggies by tossing them in the pot while still frozen. Maybe that would make the frozen summer squash more useful?)

Later in the summer, we had a bit of corn, a few tomatoes, lots more mustard greens (LOTS), beets, winter squash, etc. (And, oh yes, more okra and summer squash!) I learned so much that year, eating vegetables that I’d either never eaten or had never been familiar with (including spinach…we just didn’t grow or eat it growing up and so it didn’t make it into my cooking repertoire).

At some point near the end of the season, it occurred to me that it might have been a good idea to keep some sort of journal of what we received each week and, more importantly, how I used it. (I actually did that for our second year and will write a wrap-up of it soon.) It had taken me a season to really get a feel for working with a CSA, and I wanted to make use of what I learned the next season.

Another super important lesson I learned was that I needed to make time to take care of and deal with our produce. This was not the same as dashing to the grocery store and picking up the two or three things I needed for tonight’s dinner and the next. Produce came in and sometimes it came in fast once it was in season. And if I didn’t make time for deciding how I was going to use it each week, it was going to accumulate in my fridge and eventually go to waste. Once I realized that freezing some for over winter was a great way to deal with some of it, I had a few days where I spent a few hours getting produce prepped and into freezer bags. (I have a small second freezer in the basement and this really came in handy! I used a dry erase white board on the upstairs fridge to tally what was down in the freezer and updated it each time I brought something up. This way we were able to use and not waste any of the frozen produce.) By early spring 2014, I felt super confident I could do a great job with our second season of produce deliveries. I knew what to expect (more on that in another post!).

TIPS for your first CSA year:

– In order to make the best use of your delicious local produce, you will need to make time to give it some attention. Some weeks will require more time than others. Early in the season this may mean time to rinse and bag your greens; later it may mean time for chopping and freezing peppers or making tomato sauce to can or freeze.
– Take some time to research or ask others about the best way to store produce. Some day you may even want to get into canning! But until then, the freezer is your friend. Some sources say you need to blanch everything before freezing, but I’ve had great luck just chopping and freezing many vegetables. A few, like eggplant and winter squash, require some more preparation (such as roasting) before heading to the freezer. Label it all well and keep track of what you’ve stashed in the freezer to help make sure you use it over the winter.
– There is no shame in giving away some of your produce. In fact, if you are really buried by something, you can usually even leave it at the CSA pick-up for someone else. Some CSAs even have a basket or table set up for food pantry donations. Any unwanted produce can be placed there and someone volunteers to take it to the pantry.
– Print yourself a chart of table of how certain produce types need to be stored – in the fridge or at room temp (a good example is here). Fridge space can start to get cramped, and it can be nice to know that you don’t need to cram your peppers in there right away.
– I strongly recommend picking up cookbooks that have detailed vegetable sections. That way if you are suddenly inundated with a “new to you” vegetable, you can quickly get some info and ideas. (I highly recommend “Simply in Season” which is organized by season and has terrific indexes listing specific veggies. “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” is another good one.)
– Finally, give yourself this first season to get used to the rhythm of what comes in when AND to be introduced to new-to-you veggies. This can be a real eye-opener if you’ve only ever gotten produce from the grocery store where we can now purchase nearly anything at any time of year (at a cost of bringing it over very long distances!)