our self-CSA

CSA:Community-supported agriculture (CSA; sometimes known as community-shared agriculture) is an alternative, locally-based economic model of agriculture and food distribution. A CSA also refers to a particular network or association of individuals who have pledged to support one or more local farms, with growers and consumers sharing the risks and benefits of food production. CSA members or subscribers pay at the onset of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest; once harvesting begins, they receive weekly shares of vegetables and fruit, in a vegetable box scheme. Often, CSAs also include herbs, honey, eggs, dairy products and meat, in addition to conventional produce offerings.In theory a CSA can provide any product to its members, although the majority of CSA operations tend to provide produce, fruits, and various edibles. Some CSA programs also include cut flowers and various ornamental plants as part of their weekly pickup arrangement. Some CSAs provide for contributions of labor in lieu of a portion of subscription costs. (copy/pasted from wikipedia)

our family was part of a local CSA last year.  each CSA runs and operates a little differently than others, depending on the preferences of the grower/providers.

the way our CSA operated last year was more or less like this:
at the beginning of the growing season, we subscribed to the 20-week program (yes, very short growing season here in Illinois) and paid a flat $595 fee up-front for the entire 20-week program (equalled out to approx. $30 weekly).  i've heard of CSA's that cost more, i've heard of some that cost less.  we were happy with the price and the value that we received for that amount.  we knew that if a storm or flood or some other unforeseen natural disaster came along and destroyed all the crops, we would be out that money...just like the growers would be out the money that they'd invested.  that's how CSA's work, and we were willing to take that risk.

each week, we drove to a flower farm nearby (15 minutes away) to pick up our pre-packed veggie box (no flowers, they cost extra).  for the first many weeks of the growing season, our boxes were heavy with greens, as they are the first crops ready in this late-frost region.  as the growing season continued, we regularly received a wide variety of veggies each week in our box...cabbage, swiss chard, spinach, tomatoes, kale, kohlrabi, eggplant, celery, onions, parsnips, turnips and greens, carrots, leeks, green beans, and really that's just the tip of the iceberg.  there was NO lack of variety.

to be honest with you, that's kind of what leads me to our reason for NOT subscribing again this year.
you see, i am a very basic cook...especially in the summer time.  we eat very, very simply in the summer...LOTS of salads...LOTS of meals consisting of bratwurst or Italian sausage atop a large bed of fresh greens with steaming sautéed onions and red peppers alongside a mound of grilled zucchini.  or mixed garden greens topped with strips of grilled chicken breast, chopped scallions, diced avocado, sliced strawberries, and a basic balsamic dressing. 

summer food is in a category all its own.  
to me, summer food needs no dressing up.  it speaks for itself.  
it's the classic little black dress and iconic bright red lipstick of the culinary world.  
less is better and simple is best.

i don't spend a lot of time in the kitchen in the summer.  every possible sunshiny day is spent at the beach...and rainy days are spent getting the house cleaned and laundry folded...you know, catching up on all those things i should have been doing the days we were at the beach. 
in theory, the variety of the produce boxes was to push us out of our "cooking comfort zone" into discovering new and exciting dishes with veggies and herbs we'd never used before.  
in reality, it didn't work that way for us.  as much as it pained me, i found myself, more times than not, tossing those less-familiar ingredients into the compost bin or the chicken bucket, after they'd sat in the fridge several days past their prime, waiting for me to use them in some exotic stir fry or decadent sauce.  that's just not how i cook.  
don't get me wrong...i'm a good cook.  i'm no gourmet chef, but i can't remember the last time my husband looked cross-eyed at anything i've made.  i bake even better than i cook...but i'm definitely still a passable cook.
but my priority in the summer time is not time in the kitchen.  we have such a short "sun & sand season" up here...i have 250+ days out of the year to spend hours in the kitchen.  it's not going to happen on a 90º day in July.  not even if i have fresh shallots and fennel and rutabaga and bok choy in the fridge. 

what i loved about the CSA experience was that 
it taught me to plan my meals around my veggies
 rather than planning my veggies around my meals.  
the vegetables are the main dish...everything else works around them.  
they are the stars of the summer show. the table is their theatre...the plate their stage.
this lesson, for me, was worth every penny we spent on that CSA.

instead of joining the CSA again this year, here's what we're doing:
toward the end of last summer, after taking note of how much of the CSA produce i actually used--as opposed to how much ended up being wasted--i proposed to my hubby that we use our local farm stand as our "surrogate CSA."
we are fortunate enough to have an incredible farm stand less than three miles from our house.  they sell everything from hanging flower planters, garden plants, and asparagus in the spring, to strawberries, veggies of all sorts, preserves, and even pumpkins in the fall.
we decided to take the money that we used for the CSA (approx. $30 weekly) and choose our own fruits and veggies at the nearby stand.
thus far, we have not been disappointed.  we bought nearly ten pounds of asparagus from them (grilled most of it) during its late spring season.  then, their greens, onions, beets, and strawberries started coming in.  i had to use up the store-bought produce that i already had in my fridge; but was silly-giddy to go down there and load up on my first batch of fresh goodies.  i got a rather large bag of spinach, same size bag of assorted lettuces, a huge bundle of romaine, a knot of 5 golf-ball-size onions with greens, and 2 quarts of the sweetest strawberries...and spent $18 on all of it.  

more recently, we've also had their sugar snap peas and zucchini...
and this weekend i plan to grab some of their raspberries,too.
i'm most excited that the majority of our meals are planned around using up all of that glorious 
garden-fresh goodness.

for me, the best part of this plan is that i will be able to choose all of our produce.  i know that very little, if any, will go to waste this way.
i still maintain that the CSA was an incredibly valuable tool for us last year--the veggies were worth every penny we spent on them, but the lesson of planning our meals around in-season produce was priceless.
if you don't have a bountiful farm stand near you, you may want to google and see if there are any CSA's in your area.  ours only offered pre-packed boxes, which may work well for you more adventurous cooks.
then again, i know that there are also plenty of CSA's that allow you to go to the actual farm and choose your own veggies, or even to call in your order with your veggie choices.
explore your options, friends!

i'd really like to know what farm-fresh veggie/fruit prices are near you.  the $18 i paid for all i listed above seemed more than reasonable to me, but i'm always curious to see what prices are like in different areas.
i'd love it if you'd chime in down in the comments.

happy veggie eating!

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