Whatever the calendar says, as far as I’m concerned summer doesn’t begin until the first BLT of the season. Although regional tomatoes have been available for several weeks, they’re only slightly better than the cardboard versions shipped in from California, and the BLT must wait until I can get perfectly ripe tomatoes at the local farmers’ market. That red-letter day finally arrived.
One of the problems with farmers’ markets, though, is the hours. For instance, when I lived in Sacramento there were half a dozen markets each week, but unfortunately all but one took place during the workweek. Those hours make them difficult for people with jobs to shop at, and even if you can leave work to visit a market, you don’t want to leave a bag of fresh produce sitting in a hot car all afternoon, and some things you want to refrigerate immediately.
When I moved back to Knoxville there were two markets in the area, one on Tuesday afternoon and the other on Friday afternoon. Things have improved and there are now five markets, including two on Saturday mornings. Because I don’t have a real job (meaning 9 – 5) the afternoon markets work for me and I love going to them and seeing what’s new, chatting with the farmers, and swapping cooking tips with the other customers. It makes me feel very much a part of the community. But I’m lucky (or unlucky according to my creditors) in that my schedule is my own. For those without this blessing there are CSAs.
CSA is an initialism for community supported agriculture. The noun is used to describe farms that offer subscriptions to their crops. They’re a sort of co-op. You sign up in the spring, typically paying in advance for an entire summer’s worth of fresh produce, and then each week you receive a box of veggies. The veggies reflect what’s currently in-season — lots of greens in May and June, squash and tomatoes in July, corn and melons in August, apples and hard squash in the fall.
There are two big advantages that CSAs have over farmers’ markets. First, some CSAs deliver and, if not, pickups can usually be scheduled on Saturday or even Sunday making CSAs more convenient for working folks. Second, the price of a subscription is usually cheaper than buying the same items at a farmers’ market. (Note, farmers’ markets are often accused of being more expensive than supermarkets. Although this accusation is generally false, CSAs can be real bargains.)
CSAs also offer an element of fun because you never know exactly what you’ll be getting. Sure, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash will be in the box, but the tomatoes might be Cherokee Purples or Candy’s Old Yellow. The cucumbers could be the size and shape of baseballs. Plus, there are often completely unexpected items in the box. A friend of mine up in Maine just received a bunch of baby turnips. Another friend found cardoons in her box.
On the downside, when you subscribe to a CSA you’re putting yourself in the same boat as the farmer. We’re experiencing the worst drought ever recorded here. This follows a warm winter that encouraged early blooming. Then a week-long cold spell killed the buds. I’ve seen this bad weather reflected in less produce and higher prices at the farmers’ market, but I don’t have a financial investment in these folks. If I were a CSA subscriber I’d be suffering too.
There don’t seem to be any CSAs in my area; I’ve looked, but fortunately going to market is no problem for me. However, if you’d like to buy more local produce and farmers’ markets aren’t a good option, you might want to investigate CSAs.
A Side Note
A few days ago I ran across this blog post by Kate Hopkins at Accidental Hedonist. It was a response to this post by Laura Moncur who pens Starling Fitness, which, in turn, was a response to Hopkin’s post on her perception of the Asheville, North Carolina, food community.
In essence, Moncur accused Hopkins of being a food snob because Hopkins advocates supporting local farmers and restaurants. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary a snob is, “one who has an offensive air of superiority in matters of knowledge or taste.” I suppose offense is where you find it, but accusing someone of snobbery because they think buying from small business people — whether they’re farmers, restaurant owners or filling stations — is a good thing strikes me as absurd. Besides, it’s hard to take seriously the opinion of someone like Moncur who thinks: “Food is meant to keep me from passing out from hunger and low blood sugar.” Right, and sex is only for procreation, and music and art are a waste of time.
Perhaps I’m a snob too. Then so be it. I do think supporting local businesses is, in general, a good thing. More specifically and as I keep emphasizing, locally grown food tastes better — even if it’s the same variety of tomato grown in California or Chile — because it’s picked at the perfect point of ripeness and delivered without the trauma of traveling thousands of miles. I don’t advocate giving up pineapple or coffee because it won’t grow in your area. I don’t even advocate driving 30 miles to buy a local cucumber if you can save gas by running down to the local supermarket.
But I’m telling you, that local cucumber will taste better than the one at the supermarket and the ribs at your local barbeque joint will taste better than the ribs at Applebee’s. And the money you spend on a local cucumber or ribs will more directly benefit your local economy (and so, indirectly, you) than the other options. So as I see it, buying local products, whenever feasible, is a win-win situation.
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