Community-Supported Agriculture, Farm Markets, and Pick-Your-Own
By Nava Atlas
A growing movement in my region encourages people to use at least one locally grown food each day. At a time when small farmers are struggling to survive, this helps local economies and is a more sustainable practice than continually buying food trucked into supermarkets over thousands of miles.
The call to use one local food per day has gotten me to thinking about how drastically my own shopping habits have changed over the last few years. I pick up my family’s share of just-picked organic produce once a week from May through November at the CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) farm we belong to.
I shop at a local natural foods store once or twice a week for fruits and veggies I can’t get at the CSA, as well as other staples for my rapidly growing sons, and in season, I visit local farm markets on a regular basis.
My new food-gathering habits have become pleasant rituals. I enjoy chatting with the growers and fellow members at share pick-up at the CSA. Supporting local businesses like Mother Earth’s, the natural foods market, feels better than traipsing the aisles of impersonal supermarkets.
I always chat with the employees and often sip on organic coffee or freshly made juice while I shop. I don’t really need to shop at farm markets, but that too is a pleasant ritual and helps support the efforts of small, family-owned shops and businesses.
Using seasonal (and ideally, organic and local) produce and ingredients, you can create meals that dazzle the eyes and palate and are incredibly simple to prepare. Eating locally, organically, with the seasons not only helps foster rewarding food traditions but benefits the environment. Supporting sustainable agriculture reduces our dependence on imported produce and in effect, the energy required to transport it and the pesticides used to grow it.
It may not be practical to eliminate supermarket shopping (after all, we do need our tissues, paper towels and such), but think of ways in which you can localize at least some of your food shopping, especially during warmer months. Take full advantage of local foods by joining a CSA, shopping at farm markets and picking your own produce. All are superb experiences to share with children, allowing them to see the connection with their foods and their source.
Apart from the obvious benefits of getting freshly harvested organic produce and attending special events, it seems to me that CSA members most enjoy the ritual of the share pick-up -- chatting with the growers and fellow members, seeing what produce is new that week, enjoying the scents and colors, then taking it home to the kitchen.
CSAs foster a sense of community. The one I belong to holds regular potlucks on the farm to connect the members, honor the growers and interns and share food made from the produce. The farm also serves as a springboard for various outreach and charitable activities and a catalyst for further social bonds. I gleaned a few fellow members when I formed a book discussion group a few years ago.
Ask around out about CSAs in your area that you might join. CSA groups are available in urban areas, not just in the countryside. To find a CSA in your area, search the database at Alternative Farming Systems Information Center.
Hothouse tomatoes, waxed apples, rock-hard peaches, lettuces that get a shower every few minutes — welcome to the supermarket produce section. Though this venue for fresh food has improved over the last few years, primped, pre-packaged fruits and veggies still serve as reminders that mass-produced produce is bred to look good and last long, rather than taste good. Meant to withstand long rides on trucks and planes, “hard and sturdy,” not “lush and ripe,” are the watchwords.
While most supermarket produce sections are serviceable (where would we be without them in winter?), they can’t compare with the colorful, fragrant offerings from farm markets and roadside produce stands. Just-picked produce bursts with fragrance and invites touching and comparing. Here’s one instance where impulse buying and letting your senses rule is half the fun. After all, turban squash, fiddlehead ferns or a peck of habañero peppers may never appear on your shopping list.
Farm markets have proliferated in rural as well as urban areas everyone, so chances are there’s one near you. Their seasons run at least from June through November, even in colder climates. You’re not only buying produce that’s fresher and riper that anything mass-produced, but also casting a vote for small farms and sustainable agriculture.
Shopping at farm markets is a sure way wake up your senses, and is a wonderful outing to take with children, who enjoy meeting and talking to the people who produce their food.
Make it a practice to patronize farm markets once a week, in season. Once you develop a routine, find your favorite stands, and get to know the farmers, you’ll surely grow to regard these weekly excursions as a favorite food gathering ritual.
When my sons were young, they loved to pick berries. Filling wooden baskets with sugary strawberries and blackberries, they gobbled up small berries like candy; we used the larger berries to make toppings for yogurt or ice cream. After a day or two, any that we left would go into freshly baked muffins or cobbler.
If you live in an urban or suburban area, picking your own produce will take some doing, but even if you can manage it but once a year, an annual ritual of picking your own fruit is well worth the effort. Picking produce induces a dreamy alpha state, and the scents of vine-fresh fruits can be intoxicating.
From late May through July, look for opportunities to pick berries. If you live within driving distance of apple orchards, an annual apple-picking expedition is a delight. The Northwestern United States and New Zealand are among the few climates in which it is practical to grow entirely organic apples, so at least seek an orchard designated as low spray.
Some small farms offer pick-your-own tomatoes in late summer, so that you can make fresh sauces to use right away or can for future use. You might find venues to pick your own cucumbers, zucchini, green beans and other veggies to savor immediately or preserve. In October, fall harvest festivals at small farms offer opportunities for picking pumpkins, a great favorite among small children.
My friend Wendy and her husband began an annual apple-picking ritual when their first son was a Snugli™-wrapped infant. Twelve years and three additional children later, a year has not gone by with at least one and usually more fruit-picking outings. The family most often frequented a nearby apple farm, spending an entire day, complete with picnic and gorgeous views of a river valley.
Now that the family is concerned with the pesticide issue, they prefer to visit farms where they can pick organic berries. What is most appealing, she says, is reaping and gathering food directly from its source — a process we don’t get to experience at the supermarket. Wendy has often extended the pleasure of berry-picking outings by making and canning jam — one big batch per fruit picking, ensuring her family the enjoyment of delicious jam all winter.
© Nava Atlas
NFO contributing author Nava Atlas is the author and illustrator of many books on vegetarian cooking and other subjects. Read more about Nava.