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Monitor Board of Contributors: In praise of the CSA (with one caveat)

Mmmm ... eggplant.

Mmmm ... eggplant.

I am heartily in favor of Community Supported Agriculture. If you’ve never belonged to a CSA, it’s basically making a commitment to your local farmer to buy what she or he grows, so the farmer has a dependable income. It helps the farm’s cash flow at the time of year it’s most needed. You buy a “share,” which gets divvied out over the course of the growing season. Once a week you take a trip to the farm and pick up a box of fresh, locally grown produce. In the spring you get radishes and spinach, lettuce and other tender, tasty greens. Often you’ll get bags of sprouts to supplement until the next round comes in. Some of the bigger farms offer shares that include eggs, dairy products, even meat. All locally produced, often organically. Someone else does the work, and you get to share the bounty.

It’s great for the farmer, who doesn’t have to depend on the vagaries of the market. They get the money up front, with an idea of just how much they need to grow to fulfill their obligations to their shareholders. Now, granted, there is still a certain amount of uncertainty. This is agriculture; they aren’t cranking widgets off an assembly line. If the spring is too wet or the summer too dry, if the sun doesn’t cooperate or the pests swarm too thickly, there might not be as many green peppers or melons as one would hope. But in general there’s always something that does well, so you get your money’s worth. Delicious cucumbers, tomatoes, summer squash and carrots, then pumpkins, winter squash, parsnips and cabbage. The best of the harvest. What could be bad?

Eggplant, that’s what. Now, I know there are folks out there who probably just love eggplant. Can’t get enough of them. Fry them and bake them and serve them up with pasta and rice. Good for them. They can have my eggplant. And sometimes you can work out such arrangements with other people in the CSA. But if not, you get your box, pull out the lettuce and tomatoes eagerly, then sigh. Another eggplant. Who can you give it to this week?

Or you’ve had a long day at the office. You’re running late, but you manage to make it to the CSA to pick up your share. You get home, and there it is, a big box of stuff that has to be dealt with. This is the real thing, fresh out of the garden. Most of the soil has been hosed off, but that good black stuff can be clingy. Okay, so at least you don’t feel like you need to scrub it down or risk goodness only knows what sort of pesticide, herbicide, or other commercial contaminant, like you do with store-bought produce. You know where that spinach came from, not some mystery farm in the hazy distance possibly processed with an e. coli spritzer. It’s good, clean dirt.

But it’s dirt, and it needs to be rinsed off. And the greens cut off the beets, and the roots trimmed and the skins peeled. And the kale needs to be sorted out, the wilted bits discarded and the bug-nibbles removed, and whoops, a little green hitchhiker who needs to be properly disposed of (“Extra protein!” jokes my husband; “Don’t kill him! I’ll put him outside!” cries my son). Yes, the bug nibbles and the hitchhiker are testimony to the organic wholesomeness of the food. This is a good thing. But you can’t just dump it all in the steamer like you can the neatly bagged, unnaturally perfect produce from the store.

It can be daunting, being confronted with this box of needy deliciousness. Sometimes, after a long day, the temptation is damn near irresistible to just grab a plastic bag of something out of the freezer, pop it in the microwave, and call it dinner.

For a time we had the good fortune of belonging to a CSA that offered winter shares. We got meat, dairy and bread, and would have gotten eggs, had that not been a case of coals to Newcastle (we have chickens).

For veggies, we got root cellar crops: Potatoes, onions, beets, parsnips, cabbages and carrots. It was great at first. But evidently it was a good year for cabbages. We were getting at least one, often two cabbages a week. Now, I do enjoy an occasional soup or boiled dinner. But there is a limit to my creativity when it comes to cabbage. One can only eat so much cole slaw and borscht. Chickens love fresh greens and miss them in the winter, so they did not object when I gave up and started hauling the excess heads out to the coop. But it made me weep to think how much we’d paid for our share, and here we were feeding dollar bills to the birds.

I still support the idea of a CSA, despite excess eggplant, cabbage overload, Swiss cheese Swiss chard, and little green hitchhikers. So we are signing up again this spring. It’s a new outfit, a fellow who lives just up the road from us. Can’t get much more convenient than that. It’s just for the growing season, no dairy or meat, no winter veggies. But he’s offering us a deal we can’t refuse: We buy a share, but it’s essentially a line of credit. Once a week we go and choose what we want. We don’t just get handed a box full of fresh wonders, but with four eggplants and a cabbage lurking at the bottom.

It’s really quite brilliant. Sort of combining all the best features of a CSA and the farmers market. I hope it catches on. Because as enthusiastic as I am in my support for Community Supported Agriculture, I’m really done with borscht.

(Justine “Mel” Graykin lives and writes in Deerfield, and practices freelance philosophy on her website at justinegraykin.com.)

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