Thursday, October 9, 2008

Why We Chose a CSA

It's good for our budget. We elected both summer and winter CSAs; the summer season goes from June through October, while winter spreads from November to May. When we signed up last spring, then, we essentially pre-purchased a year's worth of vegetables. The total for both seasons came to about $500 -- this breaks down to less than $10 a week. A look at any of our weekly portions shows that we are getting a good deal here; the equivalent amount of fresh produce from our local Price Chopper would unquestionably cost quite a bit more, even if we bought the less-expensive non-organic vegetables.

It's good for our health. We selected an organic farm for our CSA; many, though not all, farms that offer CSAs follow organic practices. Among other things, organic means they don't use any chemical pesticides, so we don't have to worry about ingesting them. Also, because they don't travel as far, we receive the veggies much sooner after they are harvested. Typical grocery-store produce travels an average of two to three weeks before it is even sold. Since the nutritional value starts to decline immediately upon harvest, the sooner the produce is eaten, the better it is for your body.

Our CSA also offers a third health benefit: because we receive such a bounty each week, our vegetable consumption has gone up. While I would always buy vegetables when I went to the grocery store before, I rarely bought enough. It's too easy to get distracted by things like cereal or boxed mac and cheese. Now, every Friday, there's a boxful of veggies in our kitchen, and we are forced to consume them - or deal with the guilt of letting good veggies go to waste. Most of the time, we successfully consume (or preserve) the whole load.

It's good for our taste buds. Because these vegetables have a shorter and quicker trip from farm to table, they are fresher and more flavorful when we consume them. Also, much of the produce available in grocery stores is of varieties that are bred for durability and uniformity rather than taste. Because the veggies don't have to travel so far, our farmer can grow heirloom varieties that offer richer and more complex flavors.

It's good for our community. CSAs help farmers because they get some guaranteed income early in the year during a period when most aren't able to sell much produce. By signing up during the off-season, we provide farmers with a much-needed cash-flow injection at the hardest time of the year. They can then use the money from CSA subscriptions to buy seeds for the new crops. It also helps them judge how much to plant, because they know how much they need to produce to satisfy the CSA subscriptions.

Keeping small, family-run farms going is important to me because I appreciate the rural qualities of the area I live in. I like driving by farmland, seeing productive fields, and knowing that there are lots of places very nearby where I can go to pick berries or apples. I also like that most of my food is coming from fellow community members rather than from an enormous, impersonal, factory-style organization thousands of miles away. CSAs help farmers, but as I made clear above, CSA subscribers also benefit enormously from the relationship. This is not charity; it's good old-fashioned commerce, working in such a way that it benefits all parties involved - just as it should.

It's good for the environment. Organic farms don't use synthetic pesticides, which run off in to our rivers and seep in to our groundwater. Most small farms also rely on old-fashioned practices to keep soil productive. Rather than planting the same crop over and over on the same space, which can leech the soil of its nutrients, small farmers, who have to make the most of their limited land to survive, often practice crop rotation that allows the soil to stay productive. This means they are getting the best use out of the land.

Also, because CSAs are local in nature, they help to conserve our energy resources. Much of the produce in grocery stores has been transported thousands of miles, either by boat or truck. That requires vast amounts of oil and gasoline. Buying locally ensures that these limited resources aren't wasted. When we went to North Carolina this summer, I was flabbergasted to see only California peaches for sale. Why would you ship something from three thousand miles away when the same product was growing all around? A few days later, we made it to a nearby farmers' market, where to my delight, we found fresh North Carolina peaches. They were twice the size of the grocery-store peaches, packed with twenty times the flavor, and hadn't wasted valuable resources in getting to us.

So there you have it: my many reasons for CSA participation. There are a few downsides, which I will address in another post, but they are far, far outweighed by the benefits.

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