what’s a csa?

Interested in joining the CSA conversation?  But maybe not exactly sure what that even is?  CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture—a stuffy mouthful of a name for an exceptionally simple and brilliant concept.  Members purchase a share in a local farm, essentially entering into a partnership where the risks and rewards are a shared venture.   “Shareholders” pay up front, covering anticipated costs of the farm operation, for produce to be grown, harvested, and delivered throughout the season.

As a result of this relationship, your local farmers are treated fairly; they gain some reliable cash flow, receive better prices for their crops, and are relieved of much administrative burden and cost.  Money ends up in the hands for which it was intended, the farmers.  Immense costs of transportation, packaging, and marketing associated with the traditional industrial farming/supermarket model are simply eliminated.

And, as a result of this relationship, you the consumer receive a product you are connected to; produce that has been grown with care by farmers in your own community, harvested and delivered at the absolute peak of ripeness and flavor, and enjoyed as it was intended, in the spirit of each season.

CSAs vary a bit with regard to their specifics.  Generally, you receive produce on a weekly basis— by retrieving it directly from the farm, at a designated pick-up location, or possibly even by delivery right to your doorstep.  Farm offerings will be somewhat different (many offer fruits, dairy, eggs, even meat) as will share size options (family share, half share, etc.).

Which CSA do you join? This evaluation process will be unique for everyone.  For me, it centered around the vital question: “What’s for dinner?”  I was jumping in whole hog, and therefore sought out the CSA with the longest growing season.  I was also seeking a farm that focused mainly on vegetables, so that those would become the obvious centerpiece of my family’s dinner plate.

My answer was found with Sauvie Island Organics (SIO), nestled beautifully among farmland and wildlife refuges, incredibly just a few miles from downtown Portland.  We pick up our share from one of the many designated locations throughout the metro area.  Ours is a hospital; other options include markets, businesses, and seemingly random personal homes.  Whatever the arrangement, various community members have come together in a common, purposeful mission.  We show up, gather our veggies from the bins (dirt, the occasional garden critter, and all!) and determinedly squeeze every last baby carrot, kale leaf, and kabocha squash into our take-home bags.  It’s really quite a sight.

The situation worked out magnificently, until my first CSA season ended.  I truly felt a loss when that first December came, and I was faced with that looming blank dinner slate.  I flubbed and floundered around the grocery store, trying to re-create my farm experience.  I soon realized that belonging to a CSA had become about much more than simply shopping for food;  it had taken on the feel of perusing the garden to see what was ripe. It had become part of my lifestyle, and I discovered how I relished in the surprise and challenge of assembling the week’s dinners “from the box” (or bin, or bag, or basket…).

I stumbled upon Hood River Organic (HRO), a year-round farm in our own spectacular Columbia Gorge area.  They maintain a local network of farm friends whom they co-op with to create customizable boxes; you can pick and choose the produce you want, as well as add products such as farm fresh eggs, local creamery cheese, and specialty fruit preserves and honey.  The share always includes a bit of gorgeous gorge-grown fruit, scrumptious freshly baked bread, and the occasional delightful surprise such as pear butter or farm honey.  The box arrives on my doorstep each Friday, the veggies already grouped nicely together with very little accompanying dirt or critters.  A little different bent from SIO, the same amazingly fresh, varied, local, organic mix of veggies I had come to rely on.  And the same wonderful feeling of anticipation as I open each week’s box—what will this week’s harvest bring?  What will be on our plates for dinner this week?

In what I deem to be a true miracle of nature and testament to our rich surrounding farmland, I am able to answer that question each week, throughout the entire year, by belonging to two CSAs–SIO for my summer and fall veggies, and HRO for winter and spring.

Is it every week that I peek in the box, and know exactly what each vegetable is, and what the perfect preparation is?  No way—I have learned along the way.  I learned that the not-so-attractive, hairy, knobby bulb is celeriac, which is wonderfully crunchy and fresh julienned, or mild, creamy and luxurious cooked and pureed.  I learned of the many enviable virtues of fennel, feathery fronds and all.  It’s an ongoing process of personal education and culinary adventure!

The CSA concept, although tempting to label a crazy, utopian fad ripe for Portlandia, is one that makes solid sense and is here to stay.  Here’s why:

  • Taste.  Nothing speaks more loudly or clearly than produce at its seasonal peak:  tender, young, pencil-thin spring asparagus spears; fresh, crunchy, sweet summer ears of corn; warm, intense, decadent autumn squash flesh; earthy, minerally, richly textured winter kale leaves.  CSAs deliver flawless full flavor, in every box, in every season.
  • Diversity.  Opportunities to explore the unfamiliar and underestimated abound.  Tasty adventure in the kitchen and at the table awaits you each week, compliments of the CSA box!  Unconscious consumption of sweet peppers in January or tomatoes in April will seem asynchronous, and you’ll delight in the wait!
  • Connection.  A CSA will connect you immediately to your own time, place and season.  It will also connect you to humans in unexpected places within your own community, including the family farmer toiling in the field for a better world.  Perfect harmony within the shortest possible food chain—the very opposite of industrial eating.

Our great Pacific Northwest has achieved national acclaim for its pinot noir, beer, and berries.  The lush and verdant farmland provides the perfect backdrop and impetus to forge ahead in a love affair with the stunning bounty that already surrounds us.  Celebrate Oregon’s growing farm-to-table culture—check out how you might embrace the adventure, responsibility, and joy of a CSA into the folds of your own life.  Here are some great places to begin:

Local Harvest
Oregonian Guide to CSAs
Portland Area CSA Coalition

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