as celiacs, there’s one thing we can eat with confidence… no research, no grocery guides, just gluten free and healthy… and that’s fresh produce.
one of the benefits of living in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, is that we’re surrounded by lots of small, mostly organic farmers, and many of which sell shares of their crops each season to the public (which is called community-shared agriculture). these shares are generally boxes of produce that you receive weekly through the summer months. and you pay for them with a fee before the season begins.
there are tons of farms to choose from, which translates to tons of variations in the plans. besides the obvious price differences between farms, there are many other things to consider while picking out a farm and plan.
first of all, the farms will offer various share sizes~ the usual options are a half bushel, 3/4 bushel, or full bushel. the half bushel size is good for a couple or small family, and the full bushel is for a large family or one that eats a LOT of veggies. it’s cheaper to split a full bushel with someone else than it is to each order the smaller size. this is so commonplace, that most farms will ask on the sign-up form for the name of the second person/ family that you’re splitting with. splitting a share crop also makes it easier for picking up the produce, in case your family is out of town during one of the days you usually get them~ that way there’s a back-up plan, and someone to share the burden with.
another major variation is the amount of weeks you sign up for, and the frequency in which you get them. generally, 16-18 weeks of produce is the norm. some are longer, some are shorter. also, some farms offer plans that deliver every other week, instead of weekly. this isn’t as common, and just like half shares, it costs more than half of what a normal share would cost. but it could be worth it if you feel like you just can’t get through all those vegetables before the next week! (I end up doing a LOT of stir-fry to use up my extras).
the contents of your crop share are another main factor to consider. the crop shares are primarily composed of vegetables. the veggies planted differ at each farm~ usually there is a description of the overall vision of the farm in regards to crops (the majority grow the most popular veggies, some focus on heirloom breeds, others like oddball veggies, etc), and many of them have websites where you can find complete lists of produce offered or past newsletters that you can read to get a feel for what they grow. there’s a typical trend of which produce is in peak harvesting~ early spring usually yields a lot of greens, herbs, and other salad-making fare. the tomatoes (and heirloom tomatoes! my favorite!) usually come around August, as do the melons. squash and potatoes come later in the season.
many if not most of these crop shares include at least some fruit in them, again in varying amounts by the CSA you choose. if you’re a huge fan of fruit, many of the farms will offer an actual “fruit share” with it’s own delivery schedule.
in fact, there are lots of extras that you can add on, or sometimes get instead of regular produce shares. probably the most common add-on is a winter crop share. these shares include a lot of winter storage vegetables, like potatoes, onions, squash, pumpkins, etc. these are often just 2-4 extra deliveries.
other add-ons include things like egg shares, chicken shares, beef shares, flower shares, honey, maple syrup, and other unique ones. the eggs are more common than the others listed above. and sometimes for the meat shares you have to go to the farm to pick them up, rather than having them delivered.
drop-off locations can be a major factor. usually a CSA farm will make weekly deliveries to various locations for pick-up, and you sign up for the delivery site/time that you’d like. drop-off sites are all over the Minneapolis/ St Paul metro, Rochester, and sometimes even Winona, as well as a few other cities in the region. there are at least one or two in the Western Minnnesota / Grand Forks/ Fargo areas. (in fact, there are CSA’s all over the country, so if you live in another region, look for what’s available near you). and the location itself could be at a grocery store/ co-op, some other type of business location, or even someone’s home. the amount of drop-off places to choose from varies, depending on the size of the farm~ some can be quite small and offer few options, while others are large and have a vast amount of choices. and if you’re fortunate enough to live near one of these farms, it’s generally cheaper to pick your crop up at the farm.
your pick-up time will usually be a window of somewhere around 4-6 hours, so you don’t want to miss it or you may lose out on that delivery. (they often give away the leftovers at the end of the window, so as not to waste them.) so make other arrangements if you can’t make it any particular date.
lots of the CSA farms have activities to participate in. these can include fall harvest festivals, hayrides, pumpkin patches, orchards, berry picking, salsa-making days, opportunities to help out on the farm one day (some even require that), and all kinds of other creative activities to visit the farm. so if this interests you, make sure to check out what they offer, and where the farm is located.
also, some of the farms have websites and some don’t. I prefer the farms with websites, so I can feel like I’m more part of it. but this may not be important to everyone. many of the farms at least include newsletters with the deliveries that tell you what’s in the box, some recipes to utilize them, and some updates on the farm.
since there’s so much to consider, you can check out this master list, which provides lots of these details for the area farms in Minnesota/ Wisconsin: http://www.landstewardshipproject.org/csa.html scroll down to see general contact information and scroll down further to see more details about the farms. I also just came across this list from the Wedge Co-op, which has a nice format that I find almost easier to compare, though I haven’t checked to see if it’s as comprehensive: http://www.wedge.coop/resources/resources-list-of-csa-farms.html
from either of those sites, you can find the link to many of the CSA farms’ individual sites for more information.
for at least the past couple of years, Seward Co-op had a CSA fair in April, where farmers would come and present what plans and crops they offer, and it gives people an opportunity to ask questions and find out more. it was packed there, and many of the CSA’s sold out. so if you would like to wait until then (provided they offer this again at Seward), make sure and go early because not only do the farms sell out, many of the drop-off site choices fill quickly and then you may have to switch farms in order to get a drop-off location that’s more convenient for you.also, some of the farmers brought some items to sell, such as cookbooks with ways to use all of your veggies, honey products, herbs to plant in your home garden, etc. I enjoyed it. Eastside Co-op may do something similar in the spring as well.
what I did my first year was to research them online and sign up in the early spring, and then I also went to the CSA fair to find out more about the farms that came, for future reference. your first year will definitely be a learning experience~ you may be overwhelmed at how much produce keeps coming, or disappointed that you split a box with someone because you could’ve used more. even though I found it difficult to keep up with the constant flow of veggies, I sometimes wished I had BOTH eggplants or BOTH squash that was in my shared box, because after splitting it in half, my one item wasn’t enough to do anything with. my friends that I split with and I should’ve adjusted how we split the boxes to avoid that. but you may also find that you weren’t a fan of a lot of the types of veggies you received, or decide that you’d like to add a fruit share or meat share, and may have to switch CSA farms the next year to satisfy those desires. so don’t worry too much the first year~ just pick one that you’ll be happy with and then adjust as necessary after that.
and if you decide that a CSA is just too much for you, these same farmers usually bring their leftover produce to farmers’ markets in the area, so you can just purchase what you’d like.
I find the CSA shares to be a health challenge of sorts, to try and learn to use new vegetables that I normally wouldn’t, and to try and use up all of the veggies before the next ones come (or at least before they go bad). and with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, extra nutrients are always welcome!