The first time I heard of farm boxes was back in 2003, visiting relatives on Long Island. I was chilling in their kitchen when my aunt comes bursting into the door, cardboard box in tow, squealing, “The CSA is here!” My immediate thought: WTF is a CSA?
Turns out CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Members pay a fee each year and for X amount of weeks receive a box of fresh local produce. Judging by the way my aunt’s face lit up when this box appeared, I knew I had to check out what was inside. It was early summer so it was filled with squash, peas, and a crapload of Swiss chard.
“What are you going to do with all that chard?” I asked my aunt.
“I have no idea. But that’s the fun of the box!” she replied, pulling out her cookbooks.
I kind of forgot about the whole thing because I was a poor college student — and there weren’t many of them in North Carolina at the time. Now I’m a real live grown-up with an apartment and a husband and furbabies, so we decided to try our own subscription to farm boxes. I have to tell you, they ROCK!
We started out subscribing with a small organic farm in our area that has a very flexible plan. We paid $200 and each week went to their pick up station, chose the produce we want, and the choices were deducted from our $200 credit. While not as exciting as getting the random mystery box my aunt got, I still got ridiculously excited each week to see what they have to offer. And while I thought my aunt was crazy to be so excited for all her Swiss chard, I now find myself with armloads of mizuna, scouring the internet and my cookbooks for creative ways to use it.
With the growing popularity of food subscriptions, there’re all sorts of versions out there. We’re still members of our original farm, and now we’re also members of a seafood CSA! Each week we get all sorts of mysterious fish — and less-mysterious options like crab and shrimp — fresh from the Outer Banks. I’ve also heard of wine, grass-fed beef, and other food subscriptions. If you can think of it, it’s probably out there waiting for you!
Is a farm box right for you?
- If you’re thinking it will save you money, it probably won’t. Lettuce and asparagus are cheaper at the supermarket, but wouldn’t be nearly as fresh — or organic. Do it for the culinary adventure and to support your local farmers, not to save a buck!
- If you’re a picky eater, this won’t be your bag. Because farms deliver seasonal and local produce, you can’t expect a box of mangoes if you’re living in Ottawa. If you’re open to trying out all sorts of produce, game on!
- Mottainai! This Japanese word basically means to minimize waste and be mindful of your impact on your surroundings. If you’re the sort of person that doesn’t cook very often or the thought of having to peel, chop, and cook your meals on a regular basis gives you nightmares, you’ll probably find that you end up wasting a lot of the produce you receive. And that certainly wouldn’t jive with the mottainai philosophy.
- If you have food allergies/dietary restrictions, talk with the farmer before joining. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a lettuce allergy, but if you had one you’d be bummed when your box arrived stuffed with lettuce. Many farmers are happy to work with your needs, and some subscriptions allow you to choose each week’s produce, but it’s important to thoroughly research programs so you don’t waste your money!
- Know your source! I’ve noticed recently that there are some “national CSAs” cropping up that include things like bananas and other obviously not-local produce in their boxes. Look for a program that welcomes you onto their farm and is open about answering questions about its farming practices. This is your chance to have a direct connection to your food! Some subscriptions even have “working shares” where members pay less in exchange for coming out to the farm a couple of weekends a year to help out. Many state agricultural extensions have websites that will help point you in the direction of CSAs in your area. In NC we have ncfarmfresh.com as a great starting point.
- The most important thing is to HAVE FUN with your farm box! Each week my husband and I have a great adventure planning out our meals so we use up every bit of our boxes. I’ve tried recipes I’d never dreamed of using in the past and eaten plants and fish I’ve never heard of. And on those rare days when we discover something that we just can’t stomach, our dog usually picks up the slack for us.
Updated to add Offbeat Becca’s great tips for finding a CSA in your area: Try googling near by cities + “community supported agriculture” or “csa” or “farm box” or “farm share.”