Why I probably won’t join a vegetable CSA next year

Although the title might suggest the opposite, I love the CSA I’m in.  CSA stands for community-supported agriculture; you pay the farm a set amount before the start of the harvest season, and each week you get vegetables.  You don’t get to pick which vegetables you receive.  I like all vegetables, so this is not a problem for me.  (My husband Donald, however, has been introduced to all sorts of new vegetables he hadn’t even known he disliked.)  And the vegetables are very good.  I won’t even buy fresh green beans except at Russo’s and occasionally Whole Foods, and even there I have to pick through the bin bean by bean to find ones that haven’t started to rot.  The green beans from my CSA share, on the other hand, are the freshest beans I’ve seen anywhere since my childhood, when we used to grow them ourselves.  Same for the beets, and Swiss chard, and zucchini, and lettuce, and corn, and pretty much everything else.  I like to support local businesses when I can (read:  when it’s not too inconvenient for me), and I don’t like how centralized all our agricultural production is becoming (it makes sense for some crops, like grain, and less for perishable vegetables), and I especially don’t like the crappy quality of the vegetables that I see at most supermarkets.  I feel that the value of what I’ve gotten each week is competitive with supermarket prices, and as an added bonus, the farm whose CSA I joined (Wilson Farm) has a store and they offer a 10% discount to CSA members on their pick-up day, on anything else in the store.

So what’s the problem?

Mainly, that Donald and I are having a hard time eating so many vegetables.  Here’s what I received last week.  This is a “half-share”, the smallest size offered, suggested as an appropriate amount for 2-3 people.

1 head red leaf lettuce
1 head romaine lettuce
2 large cucumbers
1 large bunch of scallions
1 bunch of salad onions (3 onions)
2 zucchini
3 yellow summer squash
1 enormous bunch of basil
6 ears of corn
1 pound wax beans
1 pound Romano beans
1 eggplant

Is that it? I think that’s it. Is it just me, or is this a lot for 2 non-vegetarian adults who don’t eat every meal at home to get through in a single week? Some weeks we get 3 heads of lettuce. We’re eating salad at every meal except breakfast (in addition to another vegetable side dish and sometimes a vegetable main dish), and we still end up with lettuce left over when it’s time for the next CSA pick-up.

I think part of the problem is me (I do almost all of the cooking in our household, because I like cooking and Donald doesn’t). I like to cook from cookbooks. I like to find an interesting recipe, then go out and buy the ingredients, and cook it. I’m not a spontaneous cook. I can’t say, well, I have beans and eggplant and zucchini, I’ll make a vegetable stew with them. Well, I guess I can say that. But I’d rather find a recipe for a bean/eggplant/zucchini stew, because experience has taught me that a reliable recipe is probably better than whatever I’m going to make up off the top of my head (I’m a pretty boring recipe-inventor, and also always add too much oil if I don’t have a recipe to keep me in check). Wilson Farm has recipe print-outs that you can pick up, and they included a free cookbook with the first CSA share pick-up, but a lot of the recipes they make available call for extra ingredients (including additional vegetables!) that weren’t actually in my share and that I probably don’t have at home, so they’re not that useful (at least not to me).

(Fortunately, Wilson Farm posts the week’s share contents on their website the day before you pick it up. It’s subject to change at the last minute, but it’s usually roughly accurate, and immensely helpful in menu planning, so that I don’t have to pick up my share on Tuesday and then go to another grocery store on Wednesday once I’ve seen what I’m getting, found some recipes, and figured out which additional ingredients I need.)

I have been making pesto with the massive amounts of basil we’re getting, and putting it in the freezer. But a CSA share isn’t really great for “putting up” food. For one thing, there’s all that lettuce. For another, although you get too much food each week, you don’t actually get enough for it to be practical to freeze, can or pickle it. I’m just not going to freeze two pounds of beans, or pickle 3 beets.

Oddly, if we were getting fewer vegetables for the price we paid, I wouldn’t feel like we were getting a very good deal. I wonder if it would make sense for farms to start offering quarter-shares. The most common complaint I hear from friends in CSAs is that they can’t manage to eat so many vegetables, so I think there would be a demand for it (assuming it was half the price of a half-share, and it wasn’t all lettuce). Or, if Donald and I could find another couple to split our weekly take with, or maybe even 1 other person … we are actually getting through everything in our share each week, except for the lettuce, but just barely.

So, I might just not be the best person for a vegetable CSA (the meat CSA is easier, because everything is frozen when you pick it up, and then you have plenty of time to figure out over the next several days what you’re going to do with it all). It’s been a really good experience, and has encouraged (nay, forced!) me to cook more seasonally. I still look to cookbooks for inspiration, but at least now I’m saying, “Okay, I need a recipe with beets or zucchini; butternut squash soup can wait until fall.” I’m sure I can continue to do this sort of thing even if I don’t also have beans, eggplant, cucumbers and basil to deal with.

A friend of mine said that she had tried a CSA in the past, but been similarly defeated. She started thinking how great it would be if she could just go each week and buy only the amount of vegetables that she actually needed … and then realized that she had just invented the grocery store.

But what am I saying: “It’s been a really good experience”? Ha! It’s Week 8 of 20. We’re not even halfway there.

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