I really should have written this column last month. In a few weeks' time, getting a local-food subscription to one of Southern Maine’s sustainable farms will be akin to gaining entry to a swanky country club — both desirable and difficult. But at this point, there are still some shares available at regional community-supported agriculture operations, for the lucky ones (myself included) to snatch up over the next month or so.
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is just what its name suggests — farming operations that run with the financial and physical help of community members, who get produce (and in some cases, eggs, meat, flowers, and herbs) in return for their investment. “Shares” are weekly in-season food boxes that can be delivered to town, or picked up at the farm, usually from late spring until fall. There are 12 such farms in Cumberland County, and about 100 in Maine. (Find descriptions and contact info at mofga.org.)
To me, the environmental benefit of joining a CSA has less to do with quasi-controversial “food miles” (some say that long-distance shipping can be more efficient than local trips), than it does with community involvement, and connection with my food. First, there’s the obvious fact that I’m supporting a local farm rather than shopping at a mammoth supermarket. Second, when I’m getting all my food from one place, I’m more likely to pay attention to farming methods and ecological practices. And lastly, if I’m asked not only to pay, but to work for my food, I gain additional understanding of where food comes from, and what goes into producing it.
That's not to mention the convenience of having my shopping choices made for me in advance, and the cost-efficiency of share-shopping. If I pay $175 a season for a half-share (which I believe will be enough for me and my veggie-challenged man), that’s far less than I would spend at the farmer’s market or at the regular store — where, at 20 produce-dollars per week, I would spend more than $300 in the same amount of time. Hypothetically, all I’ll need to go to the supermarket for are dry goods like rice.
Of course, farm subscriptions can present challenges as well.
“The CSA is not for everyone,” says John Bliss of Broadturn Farm in Scarborough, which offers full shares and poultry shares, and requires members to work at the farm for at least eight hours per season. “It takes serious creativity and a sense of food-adventure to prepare meals with the ingredients members take home.”
To that end, many local CSAs include recipes and food-preparation tips in their weekly shares. Plus, other resources abound. At getrealmaine.com, the state’s Department of Agriculture publishes a printable reference table of seasonal produce availability, which can help amateur cooks plan ahead. Web sites such as localharvest.org and sustainabletable.org provide recipe videos and podcasts, as well as advocacy-oriented local-food news.
It’s likely that being part of a CSA system will have a ripple effect in terms of my environmental relationship with food. For example, I will happily use the canning equipment I bought last year to store leftovers for winter; and it would seem antithetical not to compost these food scraps.
“With an intensely local food system, food comes out of the ground, and as long as it comes back to the farm (in our compost pile, or as food for our pigs), sustainability is maintained,” Bliss says. “Even if not, the miles traveled and wasted is not as great a sin as an apple from China that goes bad in your fruit basket.”
Deirdre Fulton can be reached at email@example.com.