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

  1. JenT says:

    I’m in a local CSA as well, but not the same one as Kristin. We are in for the small share, and we are having the same problem:) The past 2 weeks I have given away alot of veggies to neighbors or co-workers because I don’t want to see them go to waste.
    Now that I have more time on my hands for meal planning, I feel like I have more of a chance of using most of the veggies.
    I might still join next year because our share was only $10 a week and it’s nice to be able to give some fresh veggies to the neighbors when we are in surplus. And even though I have been giving 1/3 away, I still feel like it’s a great value.

  2. Jessica Bennett says:

    That’s the main reason I’ve never done a CSA (and I’m only 1 person, although Andy’s oldest daughter eats veggies too, so I guess now there would be 2 of us, if she’s in the mood to eat what I make). I could never get through all the food. I find farmers markets are the best way to get local produce (and meat and eggs and some dairy)- you can get the amount you want, eat seasonally, and support your local farmers. I supplement that by going to the International market to get other interesting produce and fish and spices. Then I go to Kroger to get cereal and a few other things, and I go to a natural market for a few other things (one of the natural markets near me has some specialty cheeses, which is nice).

  3. Kristin says:

    One of my problems with the farmers markets in the Boston area is that they’re either not that conveniently located, or they take place on a weekday afternoon or early Saturday morning. Now that I don’t have a day job, the Arlington farmers market from 12-6 isn’t such bad timing, but I just can’t reliably get anywhere by 8 am on a Saturday morning, not if I want to enjoy the rest of the day and not be sleep-deprived. Also, I’ve heard rumors that some of the people showing up at farmers markets aren’t actually real farmers, let alone local; that they buy produce and meat and re-sell it (what I’ve heard is that they don’t lie if you ask them where the stuff comes from and whether they grew it themselves, but they’re not a hurry to advertise the provenance, either). Presumably it wouldn’t be too hard to tell, if you’re careful (as the farmer who does our meat CSA says, “If you see a tomato at a farmers market in June, it didn’t grow in Massachusetts.”)

    Wilson Farm is actually a good place to get seasonal vegetables; you don’t have to be in the CSA to shop at their store, and they’re very clear about where everything was grown, whether it’s their own, or they bought it out-of-state. And their own produce is wonderful, whether it’s in the store or in a CSA. It’s just that the other stuff they offer, for the convenience of their customers, is basically the same California produce you’ll see at Whole Foods, at Whole Foods prices (sometimes higher). I’m sure California fruits and vegetables are lovely if you buy them in California, but by the time they make it out here, they’re looking a little sad. Or else they were picked green (despite that “tree-ripe” label you see on all the peaches–I’m thinking it’s a trademark, not a description of the peach). And will never ripen. Russo’s is nice because their prices are usually better than Whole Foods, and the quality is usually better, too. It’s a 20-minute drive from my house though, whereas Wilson Farm is 5 minutes (and Whole Foods is 10).

  4. Pamela says:

    This is one of the skills that I am constantly seeking to develop (with minimal success) is being able to look at what I have on hand and throwing together a meal with it. I can sometimes improvise if I have a recipe. And I have a few templates — but I also tend to be a boring inventor. Also depends on my time and energy. If I’ve been at the office all day or writing all day, my brain is finished and doesn’t want any more work. I’m still working on it.

  5. Jessica Bennett says:

    I’ve heard that about some farmers markets too (that people are selling produce not from local farms)- especially the ones set up in grocery store parking lots (they’re just bringing the stuff from inside the store and setting it up to sell outside).

    I’m lucky to live in a small town surrounded by rural areas with farms. I’ve heard of the farms (and been to a couple of them) that sell at the market in my town, and now I’ve gotten to know many of the farmers who sell there. They also have convenient hours. In the summer, it’s 8-2 on Saturday and 2-7 on Wednesday (winter it’s 10-2 on Saturday and 4-7 on Wednesday). It does help to get there early on Saturday to get your pick of good things, but even if I get there at 10:00, there is still plenty. There’s also a diverse selection. Not only is there everything that can be grown in this climate, there is every cut of meat and poultry (including ground beef), raw honey, a few cheeses, eggs, a man who has raw milk for which he accepts donations (since you can’t sell raw milk in Virginia), baked goods, hummus, and dips. There are probably about 10-15 farms (about 8-10 in the winter months) represented. And musicians come during market days to play (not a concert- just a casual, whoever shows up kind of thing), so there’s entertainment while you shop. It’s a nice scene. And several times a year they have events: there’s art at the market where artists come to sell their work, breakfast at the market, apple tasting. . .

  6. Kristin says:

    I’m kind of like this, too. I’ve definitely been doing a lot of improvising from recipes, to use what I’m getting in my CSA. For instance, I made a potato florentine soup from one of the Moosewood cookbooks, and used the tops from the bunch of beets I’d gotten instead of spinach. One recipe I made from the back of a box of pizzoccheri (an Italian wheat-buckwheat pasta) that I picked up in Italy called for spinach or cabbage, but it called for boiling longer than I thought spinach ought to be boiled, so I used a mixture of kale, kohlrabi greens, and radish leaves, with a bit of raw arugula mixed in at the end. But yeah, although I do have the energy to cook at the end of the day, sometimes quite elaborately, if I know what I’m planning to make, I don’t have the emotional energy to figure out how to throw something together. And since my tastebuds are more sophisticated than my recipe-inventing skills, I’m usually much happier eating what I cooked from a recipe.

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