Community Supported Agriculture

CSAWe’re in a committed relationship, but it’s not monogamous. I love what I get from him, but sometimes satisfy myself with something fast, cheap and easy. Some of my neighbors get their share of him too. Sure, I’d love to have him all to myself, but what he gives me is so satisfying, I’ll take what I can get. He’s my farmer, and last winter I promised I’d be true, more or less, all year long: I prepaid for a weekly share in his harvest.

The relationship is called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and here’s how it works: Each winter customers like me buy a share in a farmer’s harvest for the coming year. Then, all season long, from spring’s first radishes to fall’s last squash, we collect our vegetables, some harvested that morning, at the weekly pickup point—in my case the vegetables are piled high on fold-out tables in a bare church annex on Court Street in Cobble Hill. By the last week of the season, with a heavy heart, I load my bags with sweet potatoes, arugula, frisée, Romanesco cauliflower, purple broccoli, cabbage, kale, radishes and cilantro. If I were to channel Carrie Bradshaw, I might wonder: Where does appreciation end and love begin?

I’m not the only Brooklynite with such strong feelings about my weekly delivery of exquisitely fresh produce. The Cobble Hill CSA, the largest in Brooklyn, is full at 200 shares for the second year in a row.

The CSA buying-club model, which began with experiments in Switzerland and Japan in the 1960s, was first tested in NYC in 1991. Today the city boasts 41 such clubs, 11 in Brooklyn neighborhoods: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Carroll Gardens, Clinton Hill, Cobble Hill, East New York, East Williamsburg, Midwood, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Red Hook and Williamsburg. Just Food, the not-for-profit that runs the programs, plays matchmaker, pairing urban neighborhoods with 16 participating vegetable farmers, all of whom farm within 250 miles of their weekly distribution site. In more rural areas (there are now over 600 CSAs throughout the US) members typically pick up their weekly shares at the farm, but here the food comes to us and farm visits are optional fun. In June, I brought my mother to my farm in Long Island to pick strawberries at “my” farm.

Fees vary but a standard share is around $375 for the harvest season, which works out to about $14 a week. Some CSAs also offer half-shares, winter shares and supplementary shares for fruit, honey, eggs and flowers. All offer some form of flexible payment: sliding scales based on income, installment options, even food stamps. Different groups require varying levels of work from their members, but it’s usually minimal. Susanne Oellinger, who was staffing the front table at her pick-up site (a two-hour shift everyone does once during the season), says, “At first, we were shy. We thought it would be too much work. Later we wondered why we hadn’t done it earlier.”

Sound like a good deal? It’s great for the farmers, too. Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht of Garden of Eve farm in Riverhead, Long Island, has been delivering her organic produce to weekly pick-up points in Brooklyn for years. She reports, “It’s a huge help to us financially. It provides stability. Getting money in the spring, we don’t have to borrow money at the time when we need to spend it on seeds and new equipment.”

Each CSA has its own feel. In Clinton Hill, the pickup point is a spacious cafeteria where children can play and adults can swap kohlrabi recipes. In East New York and Red Hook, CSA members pick up their shares at local farmers markets. The Williamsburg CSA held a Thanksgiving potluck in a member’s loft. The farmer brought the turkey and everyone else brought sides made from his crops.

Ask members about the experience and they rave about the freshness, value and variety of the produce. You’ll also hear about less concrete ideas like community and sustainability. For Tom Kingsley, it’s the intimate nature of the experience. Celine Mizrahi says, “I’ve never had lettuce like that.” Her husband, Doug James, agrees, “the lettuce is ridiculously good.” Celine also likes trying new ingredients. “You’re forced to get things you wouldn’t necessarily pick up, like tomatillos and daikon radish.”

In the age of FreshDirect, joining a CSA is not for everyone. It can be inconvenient to make it to the site during the circumscribed hours. And despite your plans or preferences, you might get lots of cauliflower and no broccoli. Even Mizrahi admits, “the winter’s gotten a little tough. I’m tired of sweet potatoes. But by March I’ll be excited to sign up again.”

Me, I find restrictions spur my creativity. This week I’ll peel sweet potatoes for fries, chop cabbage for coleslaw, snack on salted radishes and top everything with cilantro. For CSA members like me, winter can be long and lonely, a hungry pit in my stomach that Key Foods’ produce just can’t fill. I’m already fantasizing about spring, and when I mail in my check for next year’s harvest I’ll seal it with a kiss.

I hope my husband doesn’t mind.

More information: Just Food, 212.645.9880.


by Mary Margaret Chappell, editor-in-chief Vegetarian Times:

Named for its rich, creamy, dairy-like texture, apple butter is more than just a condiment that turns an abundance of fruit into something to store for the rest of the year. Apple butter has a long tradition in Europe, particularly in France, where the 24-hour process is a festival of music, dancing and stirring, as villages hold pommé fes- tivals that last through the following day, when the butter is jarred and sold to support local causes. Happily, homemade apple butter does not require 24 hours to make. While it may be time-consuming, apple butter is easy.

4 lbs. (about 12 medium) tart apples, such as Winesap, Macoun, McIntosh
2 c. (1 pt.) apple cider
3 c. (11⁄2 lbs.) dark brown sugar
2 T. ground cinnamon
1 T. ground ginger
1 t. ground cloves
1 t. ground allspice
optional: juice of 2 lemons

Wash and quarter apples but do not core or peel them. In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, cook the apples in the cider until very soft, about 45 minutes. Cool the apples slightly, then press them through a strainer, sieve or food mill. (If you stop here you will have a wonderful apple sauce!) Return apple purée to the stockpot. Stir in brown sugar, spices and (if using) lemon juice. Stirring occasionally, simmer over very low heat 1 1⁄2–2 hours.