gardening: Eat Your Homegrown Veggies

by Beth D'Addono

You may be well-traveled, but do you really want your vegetables to be?

If you buy from a grocery store, chances are your produce has racked up nearly 1,500 miles between the farm where it was grown and your refrigerator.

But if you belong to a CSA, most of the produce you eat comes from much closer to home.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and the premise is simple: A group of consumers commit to pay a small farm in advance to purchase a season of sustainably grown fruit and vegetables. This gives the farmers seed money up front, ensuring them that their growing season will pay for itself, and hopefully earn a profit.

The idea is not new. CSAs first appeared in the U.S. in 1986, a concept borrowed from the biodynamic farming movement in Switzerland and Germany. And what started as two CSA farms is now estimated at more than 2,200.

For the consumer, the lure of clean, local food, often organically grown, is powerful. Today, the idea of eating local and seasonal food isn't just for the gastronomic elite. Once you have Wal-Mart promising to support local farms, you know the movement has reached a mainstream tipping point. And there's a benefit beyond CSA's promotion of eating more healthful fruits and vegetables.

The notion that your dollars are directly supporting small farms, and the network of families who are cultivating them, is green at its finest, a palpable connection to the earth that you just can't get walking down the produce aisle of the local supermarket chain.

For Joanne Shu of Hoboken, the buck stopped with her own dinner plate. Shu, who with her husband, Scott Hofsess, has two sons, Bram, 3, and Evan, 6 months, knew that eating local produce was a good thing. But with the kids in the picture, she decided that the only way to get them to develop good eating habits was to lead by example.

A neighbor recruited her into Purple Dragon, a Glen Ridge-based operation that is a bit of an anomaly in the CSA world. Unlike most CSAs, Purple Dragon, which currently has more than 1,000 New Jersey and New York members, deals with multiple small farms beyond the local region, as well as with wholesalers.

It's also year-round, yet doesn't require a year-round commitment. Members can opt in or out on a weekly or monthly basis. Founded in 1987 by Janit London, who was involved in food co-ops in California and Texas back in the '70s, Purple Dragon commands an exuberant and loyal following.

Shu pays $88 a month for two substantial deliveries of produce, coordinated at a central drop-off point -- in her case, the Community Church in Hoboken. She and neighbor Carter Craft share the responsibility of "hosting" each delivery, assuring it's picked up and parceled out.

"I think the biggest complaint I hear is that it's too much food," she said. "I really feel it's a good value, if you think about the price per pound. It's so expensive to buy organic at Whole Foods."

And while Bram still doesn't gobble his vegetables, he sees Mom and Dad doing just that, and he's a dynamo when it comes to eating fruit. "He helps when we split up the deliveries. It's fun, and it gets us talking about where food comes from, which is good."

Shu's neighbor Carter Craft has been with Purple Dragon for about three years. "I wanted clean food, healthier food," he said.

"I was tired of wax on my apples and chemically sprayed, unnatural-looking vegetables. The whole industrialization of agriculture looks good in print ads, but it's not good for your body."

Although he and his wife signed up before they had kids, when daughter Nella came along, their choice was underscored. "We're definitely more aware of antibiotics and pesticides than we were before. But we also find it a good value."

From a farmer's point of view, a CSA can be the difference between failure and success.

John Krueger of Starbrite Farms in Sussex County specializes in growing unusual and heirloom varieties of vegetables. He says that having CSA working capital at the beginning of the growing season is indispensable for getting started in farming.

For Smadar English, a farmer and CSA membership coordinator at Genesis Farm in Blairstown, the CSA is his whole business. English cultivates about 30 acres and has 300 members in towns like Montclair, Warren and Teaneck. Genesis offers more than 100 kinds of vegetables, fruits and herbs, along with products like freshly ground cornmeal, year-round.

Consumers can opt for a year-round half (biweekly) or full share (weekly), or just a seasonal share. "Some of our members have their own gardens in the summer," said English.

Costs range from $657 for every other week from May through Thanksgiving to $1,239 for weekly delivery. Year round costs are $933 and $1,794, respectively. Families can pay for their share in three increments to make it easier to budget.

Charlotte Lee of Westfield has been a supporter of Purple Dragon for 11 years, subscribing at a time when herawareness of organic foods and growing practices was deepening.

"I found that it really opened up my repertoire of vegetables," she said. "I'm Chinese -- we didn't eat collard greens or winter squash. Now, when those vegetables are in season, that's what we get. So I've learned to make soups, use squash instead of pumpkin in muffins -- a little spice and the kids don't know the difference. It's like somebody else is doing the shopping for you. It takes getting used to, but once you do, you're hooked."

However, if you don't have the time or inclination to cook, a CSA would be a waste of your money.

"You have to commit to cook," said English. "If you don't like to cook, you'll end up wasting food. And that's not good for anybody."

"We use probably 95 percent of what we get," said Craft. "A CSA is best for people who do their own cooking. For singles or apartment dwellers, they'll end up opening a drawer full of rotten vegetables."

Then there's the finicky-eater issue. If you turn your nose up at all but the most pedestrian vegetables, a CSA is not your cup of parsnips. Because when cabbage is in season, you get cabbage -- three weeks in a row. Or potatoes, or collards.

"I learned to like and cook vegetables I'd never heard of before," said Shu. "Okra? Okay, I'll give it a try. Last year we got an abundance of potatoes, which drove me crazy -- how many ways can you cook a potato? And something like collard greens -- I was using it in lasagna, soup, freezing it, all kinds of things. You get creative."

But if you're open to trying new flavors and game to experiment, a CSA can be really fun.

"It's a different way to eat, to think about food," said Shu. "Instead of getting a recipe and going shopping for an ingredient list, you get what's in season and develop your menu around that."

"I find that people's initial connection to a CSA is to the food, but it becomes so much bigger than that," said Genesis' English. "It becomes a vehicle to open your life up to the whole world of farming and the seasons of nature. And it extends to the people who grow the food.

"There's a sense of commitment on all levels. "You commit to the farmer, the farmer commits to taking care of the land and growing food in the most responsible way and building community through food," said English.

Knowing that Genesis treats its workers fairly, paying for health insurance and pension benefits, is another boon.

"It's not anonymous like at a big-box store where you don't have any idea where things come from," said English.

"With CSAs, everybody takes responsibility every step of the way to try and do the right thing. And the real bonus is that the product of all that effort tastes great."

Remember the scene from the movie Forrest Gump when Bubba tells Forrest about how many ways there are to cook shrimp?

"Shrimp with grits, fried shrimp, shrimp fricassee, boiled shrimp," and on he goes.

Toward the end of October, that's how I felt about my CSA, except it was cabbage, not shrimp, I was dealing with.

This was my first season as a member of a CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture.

Belonging to a CSA provided my family with fresh vegetables, in a greater variety than we usually ate. And the quality was divine -- carrots more carroty, onions sweeter. I loved washing off real, honest-to-goodness earth from my veggies before I prepared them.

It was the same connection I felt when I picked a ripe tomato from our little garden, warmed by the sun, and ate it for lunch with fresh basil -- a treat I indulged in every day they were on the vine.

Supporting local farms and trying to feel a stronger connection to where food comes from was something I had been working on since reading Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma."

His treatise on agribusiness and the way animals are raised for meat in America spurred me to serve only humanely raised meats at our dinner table. Joining a CSA was a natural part of the equation, a way to walk the walk.

Now, I'm hooked. I loved being surprised every other week when it was time to fill up my two shopping bags. From baby arugula to rainbow carrots (with the tops still on!) to purple potatoes and sugar-sweet watermelons.

Some squashes were new to me (How should I cook that?) and some vegetables were not my favorite (okra I probably could live without). But we ate 99 percent of what we paid for, wasting little. Since I work from home and love to cook, a CSA makes sense for us.

Now, besides looking forward to the first daffodils of the season, I'm anxious for the start of my CSA, eager to cook the earliest tender peas and baby spinach of spring.

Eat Your Homegrown Veggies
The Star-Ledger -, NJ

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