Buried in Vegetables
I used to be a farmer, and managed a 32 member, 20-week CSA, in addition to selling retail at farmers markets, and wholesale to restaurants and grocers. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and is becoming a household acronym for how-you-get-your-local-food. The customer pays a local farmer up front for a “share” of the season’s vegetables. In return, the customer receives a box of fresh food weekly. It’s a great system, in that it allows the farmer to receive some operating capital up front, at the beginning of the season, and it propagates the idea that customers should be akin to investors in fresh, good food.
As a farmer, I generally felt like I had to sell the idea to customers, and recognize their sacrifice, acknowledging that buying into a CSA is kind of a big deal. It’s a decent chunk of change—usually $500-$700 for a full share (which, on average is billed as enough veggies to feed a family of four for twenty weeks in season). Practically, the CSA was designed to help farmers. That’s not a secret at all. Small-scale farmers, with tenuous land holdings (handshake leases at best), little capital, and scant infrastructure have to start somewhere. In this way, it is one of the champion industrious economic devices of local food. Given our current-day food system, which is designed to reward busy lifetsyles, and unhealthy eating habits, the CSA model requires farmers to ask more from customers. Change your way of eating. Eat things you may not have chosen. Eat more vegetables. Pay up front.
As a farmer, generating the food for CSA shares was extremely stressful. I depended on that early income in a huge way, and felt beholden to the shareholders as though they were kin. I felt super responsible if it rained too much, or if I gave them lettuce for four weeks straight, or if no one knew how to use okra. I knew full well that the customer thought of his or her CSA purchase as a gamble, or a fun adventure, and if it was too hard, or too weird, that customer could drop out and go back to cherry picking from twenty other vendors at the regular farmers market. So I had to bust out a shimmering performance of bounty, color, diversity, and nutrition. What with weather, kids, an off-farm job, equipment busting, insects eating leaves, and myriad other phenomena that make farming the hardest job I ever had, the duty I felt to CSA customers was huge. I did a newsletter every week, updating folks on the farm’s happenings, and commenting generally about food or culture along the way. It was mostly fun. But wow. Did I mention it was stressful?
I lost my farm due to a divorce, so now I’m on the other side. I miss growing food, and being on such a foundational rung of honest culture, but I don’t necessarily miss the stress, the struggle, or the gamble of farming. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that my life is exponentially easier now than it was then. I can finally admit this without being totally embarrassed. I do miss it, as a lifestyle. As a mission. As a way of waking up everyday and being truly alive, and aware, and alert. But I don’t miss the pressure.
I work on a farm part-time now, so I still get to commune with birds and worms, and flex my weeding muscles (yes, there are muscles to tone for this. They’re concentrated around the thumb and forefinger of each hand, although radiating to others as well.) But I’m not hanging from the fine thread of vibrant life that I was when I was a farmer, bona fide and bone-tired. It hurts. I admit that I don’t miss it thoroughly, and it may therefore be impossible to explain to anyone who has not farmed, but believe it or not, this is a grievous loss, however easier my life is now. I try to constantly keep this strange contradiction in plain view, as much as possible. I miss it but I don’t. I lost it, but I’m not sure I want it back.
So, I bought into a CSA this year. I won’t spend a lot of time explaining why I felt compelled to do this, especially when I have a garden, and I can harvest food for free from the farm where I work. Let’s say it had something to do with pride, something to do with loss, and something to do with a prodigious and life-long commitment to making community systems work. I. will. Contribute. Here I go.
In January or February or so, I sent a check for $520 to Paper Crane Farm, an operation I’ve admired from afar for a couple of seasons. I met Joe Evans when he was an intern on a local farm here in the Asheville area, when I was visioning and developing the CRAFT Farmer-Training program. I remember we used a really awesome picture of him for promotion of the program. He was dreadlocked and super young, and walking a dairy cow through a pasture. With these snapshots of Joe in my mind, and the wildly triumphant thought that he now has a farm of his very own, after starting as an intern, (yay—it’s maybe working. We think. We hope…) I sent in my check with a few exclamation points.
Now it’s June, and I’m buried in vegetables, in a different, cleaner, guilty sort of way than when I was buried in vegetables as a farmer. And I find that it is far, far too easy to be on this side of things. This sounds preposterous, I KNOW, since CSA is supposed to be such brave new territory for the eater. And such a big deal. Granted, I cook constantly. I cook to eat, I cook to unwind, I cook to impress my man, I cook for fun, and I cook as part of my job. So, I find it hugely rewarding and natural to actually use everything in the box, and not be scared, and not waste anything, and commit some time to eating CSA-style. I can see how this end of the transaction could seem stressful, for someone without my love of and need for cooking. But believe me, it is nowhere near as stressful as the farming end of the CSA transaction. And it is NOT expensive. Sure, it wasn’t easy for me to plunk down half a grand in January, but the food I am getting every week for the $26 equivalent is far more than I think I would come away with if I went and spent $26 on vegetables alone at the weekly market.
Furthermore, I live and breathe good, true, vital food, and tend to sprinkle an ethos of healthy food equaling a better world no matter where I go. So I believe that our pursuit of food should probably be a bit more of an investment than it currently is for the average American, and it should be work to cook it properly, and it should take more than five minutes, and it should not make us fat or make our hair fall out, or our nails split, or our blood sugar spike. It should bring communities together, necessitate help and learning, and it should not, by God, be easy all the time.
In response, I’ve set out to record everything that I’m doing with my CSA share, one week at a time. It’s a little ways into the season, so I’ve missed a couple of weeks, but it has taken time for the idea to germinate and catch the light right. What I can’t stop thinking, a mere four weeks in, is that I would pay double what I paid in January for what I am getting from this arrangement. Or I would gladly go out to Joe’s farm and get my hands dirty. Or something, other than the “Hey, man. Thanks so so so so much for the food,” that I lamely blurt across the beet and radicchio piles to Joe every week as he hands me my box.
Do I expect everyone to feel this way? Good heavens, no. I realize that I am a fanatic. My hope is that my obsession over noble food, and my utter awe and amazement at how easy it is to eat (as opposed to farm), can serve to move eaters even an inch along the path toward better food communities. Alright. Here’s some recipes, now.
WHAT I GOT IN THIS WEEK’S BOX:
1 bunch carrots
1 bunch green onion
1 green cabbage
1 bunch beets
couple broccoli florets
5 medium summer squash/zucchini
1 lb of green bush beans
WHAT I HAD LEFTOVER from last week:
1 big fennel, some green onions
a few turnips
WHAT I BOUGHT OR GREW TO SUPPLEMENT:
Heavy cream (for making crème fraiche)
Spices (actually I had these on hand, but you get the drift)
Lemon and lime
Flank steak (from the local butcher)
Pork tenderloin (this is left from a half pig I butchered in February)
Bacon (I made this)
Fresh herbs (from my garden, which is a container garden on my deck)
snacks and fruit for my boys
various cheeses, cause they're delicious
WHAT I MADE:
Whole Plant Garden Kraut
Fennel & Radish Pistou
Roasted Radicchio w Dates & Honey
Summer Squash "Noodles"
Roasted Pork Tenderloin w Caramelized Veggies
Leftovers Polenta Pizza w Goat Cheese & Salami
Flank Steak Taquitos w Carrot Top Chimichurri
TOTAL COST OF FOOD THIS WEEK: $106.38 (this doesn’t include my $26 to Joe, paid in January). For this amount, I ate well all week, went to two parties with food, fed my sweetheart and his two daughters on Thursday, myself and my two sons all week, and fermented and froze food for later use. I had plenty of leftovers to take to work for lunch, and to cook with eggs for breakfast. I also managed to keep my two jobs, and my friends, drink a few too many glasses of wine, parent my two children decently and patiently, and make a bunch of salami with friends. Oh, and I taught a cooking class, and got a relatively normal amount of sleep. And, I went swimming. #win!
I also made, and saved for later:
- Fresh sausages with some of the fennel radish pistou, which I stuffed into hog casings and froze for later
- some homemade bread stuffed with cheese and veggies
- blanched broccoli and summer squash, frozen for later eating
- vegetable broth from the trimmings and ends of all veggies, for use in cooking throughout the week