From Farm to Table

When searching for an area’s freshest, local produce, farmers’ markets are likely the first places that come to mind. And why not? A congregation of local and regional farmers who harvest their produce at dawn, load it up in a pick-up, drive into town, and set up shop in a vacant parking lot or community space, creating a makeshift open-air market. Sounds just about perfect.

And they are. Farmers’ markets have had a large hand in bringing around the local, organic revolution, and allow farmers to put more of their hard-earned living directly into their pockets by cutting out the costs of third-party distributors — a necessary, but often short-shrifting result of the modern, industrial-scale food industry.

By the same token, there is comfort and exhilaration in a customer being able to shake the very hand that plucked their food from the ground earlier that morning. There is a sense of ownership that comes with fresh produce, a shared intimacy in knowing that your food has been cared for from seedling to the harvest. The experience of eating a fresh beefsteak tomato becomes more than the entitled consumption, but a considerable gift, a sensory delight in the richness of your bounty.

However, living in a city as bustling and frenetic as D.C. often creates elephantine obstacles of mere daily routines. Farmer’s markets often come around at odd times of day, and weekends can find many of us booked full with the chores and leisure unafforded by the work week, leaving little time to focus on fresh produce on top of our regular shopping needs. It is easy to overlook the value of fresh produce when it’s not in plain sight.

CSAs — Community Supported Agriculture — are a form-fitted solution to the busy metropolitan who still craves the flavor, community and health benefits of local, organic produce.

The idea of a CSA is simple and efficient: Instead of the buyer coming every week to a farmer’s market to pick and choose among all the local harvest, they sign up to receive a weekly package from a farm, consisting of a wealth of the freshest and best produce from that week, selected by the farmers themselves.

CSAs were developed in Europe back in the 1960s as a way for people to be more involved with the foods they to eat. As Alan Alliett of Fresh and Local CSA explains, “It allows people to join in a partnership with the farmer and his farm — to produce food of higher quality that can’t be found elsewhere in the marketplace.” The customer is guaranteed to get a box of fresh, tasty fruits and vegetables each week, and all they need to worry about is cooking and eating it.

Beyond a greater convenience, the advantages still abound. CSAs were created so people could work cooperatively outside the American economic model, which doesn’t allow farmers to produce quality produce under the strain of such tremendous quantity requirements. CSAs aim to keep good farmers on the land to pass on their skills to the next generation, while allowing farmers the space to produce food naturally and of a higher quality.

For the farmers, there is the comfort in a guaranteed sale. They already know when they plant the seed that their produce is sold, which gives them more time to focus on tending the harvest. As almost every CSA is certified organic, this means a lot for quality assurance. It also gives them personal contact to their customers and to the community. Louise Keckler, who owns and operates Orchard Country Produce with her husband and children, even sends out weekly emails to keep her customers in touch with farm news and the harvest updates.

There are also many benefits for the buyer. “They are guaranteed to get certain produce,” says Keckler. “Some stuff there wouldn’t be enough of for us to sell it at the farmer’s market. So getting the CSA, you can show up and pick up your cooler and you’re guaranteed to get a delivery.” Farmer’s markets often give farms visibility, functioning as a platform to show customers what they can get through CSA shares.

While most CSA distributors also have stands at the local farmer’s market, the CSA packages open the doors to a greater variety than a customer might know to choose without the help of the farmers, who are naturally more tuned in to the ebb and flow of the growing season. “People like the idea of local fresh produce,” says Keckler, “and [the CSA shares] offer a variety of things that they probably wouldn’t have bought if they just came to the farmer’s market.”

For instance, according to farmers, most customers that show up to a farmer’s market buy fruit instead of vegetables. Fruit is more visually appealing, and it’s much easier to eat. If you buy an apricot, you can just eat it right where you stand. It’s easy to overlook the lush mounds of kale and blossoming clouds of cauliflower if you don’t already have a recipe in mind. But the vast majority of farms’ harvests are veggies. When you receive a box of summer squash, mesclun, zucchini, corn and gooseberries from your weekly CSA share, you may find yourself planning a loose meal schedule for the week, or perusing a cookbook to find new recipes that use an uncommon ingredient. It allows your diet to be more experiential, more interactive.

There is also a lesson to be learned in the CSA experience about the pace of agriculture. “It makes people realize that even if you take a vacation, vegetables don’t,” says Keckler. If you’re out of town, “you have a friend pick it up, or donate it to a soup kitchen. You can’t stop the vegetables.”

As a result, many CSA farms work closely with area homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Unused shares are regularly donated. CSA farmers don’t want to see their produce go to waste, and the leftover vegetables aren’t ever of enough abundance to be sold. They take the time to pick it, and it would be a shame to see it discarded or unappreciated. There’s only so much they can eat, so they give back to the community, knowing that it is being put to good use.

But with every successful, honest business model, there are bound to be a few dime store rip-offs. Middleman CSAs, or “fake CSAs,” as Alliett calls them, are merely in the business of selling produce, not growing it. Underneath the fine print, the careful shopper will see that a good number of self-proclaimed CSA farms don’t have farms or farmers at all.

“They’re just pushing produce,” says Alliett. “Buying and reselling, instead of producing.”

Since the idea of a CSA is to be getting quality local goods, it doesn’t seem logical that a customer in Washington would want tomatoes and corn imported in bulk from the Carolinas that could just be gotten from the grocery store for less.

So, when picking a CSA, be sure to do a bit of research. Talk to the farmer, figure out where the farm is, even take a weekend drive to visit. Here’s a list of A-grade CSAs that distribute around the D.C. and Downtown area. Some only have a few shares left for the 2010 season, so it’s best to act fast.

CSAs Around Washington:

Bull Run Mountain Vegetable Farm
The Plains, VA

Clagett Farm
Upper Marlboro, MD

Fresh and Local CSA
Shepherdstown, WV

Orchard Country Produce
Gardners, PA

Potomac Vegetable Farms
Vienna, VA

Radix Farm
Upper Marlboro, MD

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