So far, grocery shopping in the 21st century is a pretty shitty experience. Do you buy a conventional, locally grown Macintosh apple (save fuel!) or an organically grown Washington Braeburn (save the soil!)? But around this time of year, in-the-know food lovers are preparing to pony up for community-supported agriculture—which, like a glass of whiskey, won’t cure the Michael Pollan-mindfuck malaise completely, but it sure takes the sting off.
When you buy into a community-supported agriculture (CSA) system, you’re buying groceries before they’ve grown. In early spring, you hand over a chunk of change (usually between $400 and $600) to a local farm in exchange for a “share,” about six months’ worth of produce for four people. Many area farmers drive in and drop the produce off in a central Boston location, like a farmers’ market or a parking lot, while others require pickup at the farm (some even offer free or discounted produce in exchange for farm work). Your average CSA-supported farm sells about 100 shares, then settles down to seed, plant and harvest for just that many consumers. (Note: many CSA farm shares sell out by mid-March.)
Emilie Hardman, a vegan baker in Somerville, has a share with Parker Farms in Lunenburg, Mass. Like many CSA customers, she splits her share with friends. They take turns picking it up weekly in Davis Square. “Our farmer sends us weekly emails about how weather conditions or soil conditions are impacting all the different crops’ growth,” Hardman says. “I see all this produce in the stores and I don’t know anything about it. When I get my CSA share I know [that] these are the last of the potatoes; these greens are sweet because they are so new; the eggplant is small because it hasn’t been raining.”
While the quest for foodie status is key, Frank Albani, president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the Northeast Farming Association, says it’s also about simple self-preservation. “People are surprised to learn that over half of the food in the US is imported,” he says. “Massachusetts only produces about 13 percent of our food. If the oil ever shut off, one out of 10 of us would eat. So the big picture is about keeping the farms on the land.”
The downside of the CSA system is that neither the farmer nor the consumer has complete control of quantity or quality. A bad storm, blight or drought can mean less produce or substituted items. Hardman says she has ended up with 10 pounds of beets, or with things she would never buy in a grocery store. “We get things that are completely new to me—all sorts of greens, cranberry beans, parsley root,” she says. “[But] it’s really great to look them up, learn about them and figure out what I can do with them.”
The other possible con to CSA membership is that you may need to pick up your produce weekly, sometimes out in the country, and it certainly won’t be the only shopping trip you take. While many CSAs offer fruit, flowers, meat and even handmade goat-milk soap, it’s not a grocery-delivery service—you’ll still have to hit the corner store for a roll of toilet paper. But, as Albani points out, even if you drive to the co-op in a Hummer, you’re still saving your vegetables an oil-sucking refrigerated trip across the country in a semi and a sojourn in the cold cases of a supermarket; plus, you’re probably paying less for your greens in the process. We’ll drink (a glass of sulfite-free organic local wine) to that.