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Failed Experiment: Community Supported Agriculture

Posted Feb 03 2011 10:00pm

Pop quiz: what do stinging nettles, horseradish whips and burdock clubs all have in common? They may all sound like instruments of torture but actually they are foods my CSA (community supported agriculture) farm considers edible. I, on the other hand, consider them... instruments of torture.

Did you even know that you can eat stinging nettles? Indeed, the noxious weed that you spent most of girl scout camp trying to avoid, is considered a delicacy by some people. The only problem is, well, the stinging part. According to the directions that came in the handy-dandy CSA member newsletter, if you rinse the greens three times, then boil them, and then saute them, you are good to go. That seemed like a lot of work to get my green quotient in but, hey, I'm an adventurous eater so why not? Oh, and by the way, you are supposed to wear gloves while handling the vicious little suckers.

Apparently three times was not enough rinsing. The greens bit back. Hard. Evolutionary advantage: plants, 1; me, 0.

At first blush, CSAs seem like a great opportunity. You pay a certain amount of money - often called a membership fee - to a local farmer at the beginning of the season and in return you get weekly baskets of local, organic, picked-that-day produce awesomeness. If you are lucky, it will even wind up being cheaper that buying your produce at your nearby Demon Superstore that imports all your produce and then wraps them un-environmentally friendly plastic bags (obnoxious teenage bag boys come free of charge). For many people, it works out exactly as advertised. In fact, CSAs have become a popular cost-cutting measure advocated by every magazine from Money to Baby Talk.

My first clue that I wasn't going to get my happily ever after should have been that I live in Minnesota. CSA farms are local and therefore provide only what grows locally. Do you know what grows in Minnesota? Six months out of the year when temps are below zero the answer is a big fat nothing. Snow cones, anyone? The other six months of the year are divided between blistering heat, wicked humidity and thunderstorms the like of which I have never before seen. (Side note: one thunderstorm we had a year ago actually caused my friend who moved here from Texas to hide behind her couch. You know it's a heck of a thunderstorm when a Texan thinks a dumpster just got dropped on her house.) So basically we get some good apples (if the hail doesn't get them first), corn (that they sell for everything but eating), and the rest is only stuff that grows under the ground and therefore is safe from the ravages of nature that we live in.

Every month we live here, my husband and I gain respect for Ma, Pa and besmocked Laura and Mary in their drafty, tiny, Little House in the Big Woods.

But the one thing that CSAs don't often advertise is that they're like the mafia. Once you're in, you're in for life. Or until you sell your share to someone else. And so my husband and I decided to stick it out for the year. This is what we learned:

1. There are 27 different varieties of turnips: black, gold, pea-sized, big-as-your-head and even candy cane striped. We also learned that we don't like turnips. Turnips bought in the store are crunchy and mildly sweet. Turnips grown in Minnesota have serious heat. They're like a very spicy radish except you have to chew it longer thereby prolonging the pain. If I was any less of a mother, I'd post video of my son trying to amputate his tongue with his fingers after accidentally eating one. Poor baby made his father feed him for the next 3 weeks, refusing to take anything from my hand.

2. Root vegetables will rule the earth. People talk about cockroaches being the only living thing to survive a nuclear holocaust but my money is on celeriac, burdock, parsnips, rutabagas, beets and of course turnips. I tried putting them in soups and stews, hotdishes (that's Minnesotan for casserole) and salads. I tried roasting, stir frying, pickling and blanching. No matter what I did they all tasted vaguely like crunchy dirt. Although I did discover the one week we had beets with every meal that even though it looks like you have just pooped out a mass of bloody red entrails, it is actually just beetjuice-tinted excrement. Phew! My favorite of these roots though were the horseradish whips. You know what horseradish tastes like right? Well that sinus-cleanser comes from a root. Don't let them fool you - there is no method of cooking on the planet that makes raw horseradish tolerable in anything more than minuscule amounts.

The bonus is that these starchy veggies last forever. I finally gave up trying to use them all (seriously, in one week we got three celeriacs the size of footballs!) and just kept adding them to a box in my basement. I now have 50 pounds of roots that show no signs of decomposition despite some of them being several months old. Will we ever eat them? Only if there is a nuclear holocaust.

3. CSAs operate on weird schedules. I had to drive 20 minutes to my pick-up site which was only open between 1 and 5 in the afternoon on Thursdays. For anyone who holds down a normal job, this obviously falls during working hours (and doesn't even include lunch time!). For moms like me this interferes with the one absolutely sacred time in my schedule: nap time. The only people that might have found this convenient would be retired folk or frat boys with no afternoon classes.

4. The weather is king. Part of the risk you assume when you sign up for a CSA is that not only do you share the bounty of the farmer, you also share their loss when weather destroys crops. We found this out the hard way only a month into our season when severe thunderstorms damaged half of their crops beyond repair.

While we got to try a whole lot of things I've never eaten before - and seriously I thought I'd tried everything - not much of it was worth eating. The produce that my family really enjoys eating like peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, salad, melons and fruit just don't grow here. There were a few things I really enjoyed. The spinach was divine. The apples were perfect. The carrots were heavenly. But I ended up spending just as much money at the store buying "normal" things like lettuce. Even the things we thought we would love, like watermelon, ended up being a disappointment. (Our one and only watermelon we got last summer was the size of a softball and was white through and through. Not a single edible bite! Ditto for the muskmelon.) It ended up being a colossal waste of money and a such a source of frustration that it has ended up being a punchline in our house. If you can't cry, then you might as well laugh!

My advice to anyone considering a CSA is to check out where you live first. Californians and Hawaiians are A-OK, lucky stiffs. My sister in Colorado and brother in Utah have had good experiences with their CSAs. And I've heard the south is so fertile that vegetables do everything but jump in your kitchen window. But if your state borders Canada or ends in "Dakota" you might want to consider there is a reason 90% of your food is imported.

Second, look at what you really like to eat. If those things aren't included on your CSA list then you probably will end up buying them at the store anyhow thereby negating your monetary savings.

Third, get recommendations from other locals regarding which farms are the best. Local Harvest is a great website to start from as it lists all the farms in your vicinity with their contact and CSA information but nothing beats the opinion of your neighbors.

Some people love their CSA like family. Me? I didn't. We'll stick to the farmer's market, thanks.

Any of you use a CSA? What has your experience been? What is the weirdest fruit or vegetable you've ever eaten?

PS> While I like to knock Minnesota's weather, I do love living here! There are many many great things about this place (like being named #3 healthiest city in the US! woot, woot!!) but nothing I love more than the people. They are kind and helpful and generous and make wonderful friends and I only hold them a little responsible for the weather.)

Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2011. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything for more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!
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