For me, spring might beat Christmas. I love baking cookies and listening to Bing Crosby as much as anyone, but I could do without grumpy shoppers and the dwindling bank account.
During spring, I spend the best money of the year and receive a gift every Wednesday morning, without holiday traffic, until nearly Thanksgiving. That's when I pick up my box of fresh, organic vegetables prepared by Spiral Path Farm, a local community supported agriculture operation.
Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, is a form of agriculture that can be traced back more than 30 years to Japan, where a group of women collectively purchased fresh milk and produce from local sources to have more control over the food they consumed. Originally called teikei, the concept loosely translates to "food with a farmer's face."
Like teikei, CSAs connect local farmers with the surrounding community. They operate based on a shareholder system. For the price of a share, customers receive a weekly variety of in-season foods harvested at their peak of ripeness, flavor and vitamin and mineral content. Often the produce is organically grown without chemicals and with minimal energy inputs. Because these farms produce an array of crops, they maintain healthier soils and a more diverse landscape.
In return for these efforts, the customer commits to investing in the ups and downs of sustainable farming. Some years might yield abundance, while others may be scarce because of severe weather, pests or other challenges.
Most CSA arrangements continue for the entire growing season, which in the mid-Atlantic region lasts from mid-May until just before its time to trim the Thanksgiving turkey. Depending on the month, my boxes have been filled with salad mix, herbs, radishes, spinach, cabbage, garlic, watermelon and even fresh salsa. When I didn't know what to do with kale, the farm's website guided me to some great recipes. At certain times of the growing season, the farm invites members to pick berries and pumpkins, or help themselves to extras.
There are many reasons to join a CSA. For one thing, it saves money. Almost every day I read a news report about the rising cost of food. Broken down over a 26-week growing season, my CSA share costs $15 per week-the smallest and by far most important part of my weekly grocery bill. Sometimes families share a membership, bringing neighbors together in a new, and yet very traditional way.
These dollars also stay in the community and represent a direct link between food production and consumption. And with guaranteed customers, farmers can invest their time in doing what they do best.
Some people join a CSA because of food safety. While there are never guarantees, knowing where food is coming from-maybe even knowing the person who grew it-makes families feel good about what they're eating.
On a larger scale, joining a CSA means fresher food and less pollution. According to the Worldwatch Institute, food in our country typically travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles to reach our plates. That's a lot of fuel. The food I receive from my local farm was probably picked the day before. It never traveled on an airplane or a freighter. It never sat on a shelf. No packaging was wasted. It never came into contact with a pesticide and was not genetically engineered.
I'm not sure a reason can be found not to become a CSA member. Wilson College's Robyn Van En Center, located in Chambersburg, PA, reports that there are more than 100 CSAs located in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Since emerging in North America during the 1980s, more than 1,500 CSAs can be counted across the United States and Canada.
I fondly refer to my weekly CSA delivery as "the box." The box dictates my grocery list, keeping me focused on what I really need to accompany my produce while it's fresh. The box feeds my family a wide variety of foods during half of the year, longer if I'm diligent about freezing. It directs my hard-earned money to a local farm that is taking care of our lands and waters. Even though I pay for it, I feel like the box is a gift I'm receiving every week-one that keeps on giving in so many ways.