What’s a CSA, why join?

July 7, 2010

By Randall Smith
Executive Chef/Director of Food and Beverage Clock Tower Resort and CoCo Key Waterpark

One of the best ways to take more control of what you eat is to join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group. The Clock Tower has. The week  of June 16 was my first week delivery from my CSA, and it marks the beginning of a season-long adventure with food.

A CSA works by offering a share in the produce of a farm or collection of farms for the season. You pay a fixed amount at the beginning of the season and receive weekly shares of what has become available that week.

In late spring, you may receive asparagus, fresh greens, baby beets and small tart strawberries. In mid-summer, green beans, baby carrots and the first of the tomatoes may be in your box; by late summer, your share is bursting at the seams with summer squash, beautiful large tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbages, and crisp head lettuces. The share money allows the farmer a cash infusion early in the season when cash is tight that will carry him through to the point where he can cash crop his goods in markets and restaurants. It truly allows the farm to be “sustainable”; able to stand on its own without hidden environmental costs or public subsidies. It is an eminently sane and earth-friendly arrangement.

I think the name CSA is unfortunate. It stands for Community Supported Agriculture, which is fine, but the term does not communicate any of the import and romance of what a CSA is—a community of people that includes producers and consumers in a synergy that cultivates each individual and the land. A group of people freely coming together to share the rewards of a specific patch of ground crafted by God and nurtured by man. The consumers acquire enough value from this arrangement to pay the farmer an amount that sustains him. There is a certain amount of humanity that is natural to that type of arrangement that is not expressed in an acronym. I don’t know what a better phrase may be, but encourage anybody interested to come up with one.

CSAs come in all shapes and sizes and most CSA farm’s also sell in farmers’ markets and to restaurants. They can focus primarily on identifiable familiar produce, or they may focus on unusual varieties and heirloom treats. Some work off rented land, some off very old, family farms. Some are proudly certified organic, and many don’t feel the need to be certified. Some raise meat and eggs, some raise only vegetables, and in many cases, several farms will combine to allow for a broader selection. They are all a running commentary on seasonality, and as such bring a beautiful natural synergy to our lives.

Our area is blessed with several very good CSAs, and it is not too late to join many of them. Some great resources to research and choose are Localharvest.com and the UI extension—call 815-986-4357, and they can help to guide you toward a CSA that might fit your needs. You might also ask around your favorite farmers’ market.

In the Midwest, a share is typically $400 to $600 a season, and in many cases, is broken into two payments. Over the course of a season, this is truly a bargain for the freshest, most flavorful and healthful food available. This week’s box had spinach, peas, swiss chard, arugula, turnip geens, radishes, mixed lettuce, salad turnips and oregano.

While you search for your best choice, I will leave you with a recipe for the perfect and most traditional way to prepare fresh early peas.

Peas with mint

Fresh peas have a longstanding and venerable relationship with mint. You can replace the mint with tarragon, chervil, lemon thyme, or chives, if you like. Serves: 4

Ingredients:
1 pound fresh shelled peas
5 to 6 fresh whole mint leaves
4 tablespoons butter
Pinch of sugar
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Directions: Bring enough lightly-salted water to cover the peas to a boil over medium-high heat. Add peas, whole mint leaves and cook until the peas are just tender, but not mushy or discolored, 10 to 20 minutes depending on the size of the peas. Drain off the water through a colander, pick out the mint leaves and return to the pan. Place pan back onto medium-high heat and add butter and sugar. Stir gently until butter has melted. Add chopped fresh mint and stir gently. Serve immediately.

Randall Smith has been a working chef for more than 20 years. He is currently executive chef at the iconic Clock Tower Resort in Rockford and was formerly the executive chef at Hotel Mead, the finest hotel in central Wisconsin. He is 1999 Middle Wisconsin Chefs Association Chef of the Year nominee. He has written about using local produce for Farmers’ Markets Today and has been a tireless advocate for farmers’ markets, CSAs and local sustainable farms in Wisconsin and Illinois. He has traveled in Ireland, studying the integration of local foodways into food service, and has worked closely with the Central Rivers Farmshed, The Wisconsin Local Food Summit, and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association. He is working on a cookbook geared toward cooking with ingredients from CSAs and farmers’ markets, Farm Fresh Flavors.

From the July 7-13, 2010 issue

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