Down On The Farm

A woman longing to get closer to the earth learns to reap (and cook) what she has sown.

August 21, 2002|By Marion Winik | Marion Winik,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

GLEN ROCK, Pa. -- When I told my husband we were joining the CSA, he looked confused, what with the Civil War being over so long ago and my being a confirmed Yankee. Not that CSA, honey, I explained; it's Community-Supported Agriculture. It's a farm where we're going to help plant and pick vegetables and get tons of great fresh produce!

He looked only slightly relieved, as might anyone who's just heard he's been volunteered for farm labor. He liked the rebel part of it, though, when I explained it to him. Because this CSA is a rebellion, too, an uprising against the corporate control of our vegetables.

The disillusionment of food lovers with the products of agribusiness -- always pretty, often tasteless or mealy, unhinged from season and location, of dubious chemical and genetic provenance -- has done great things for farmers' markets. You feel different about your zucchini if you know its parents. What the CSA movement offers is an even closer connection to your squash, as well as a way to be part of an environmentally and economically responsible alternative approach to farming.

A CSA farm has members, each of whom pays a lump sum at the beginning of the season. In return, the member receives a proportional share of the farm's harvest, taking on a share of the farmer's risks -- pests, weather and other unforeseeables -- as well. Whatever is picked each week -- whichever vegetables and how much -- is what the member gets a portion of.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's informative Web site, www.nal, which includes a locator that finds the CSA nearest you, the concept originated in the 1960s in Switzerland and Japan. It arrived in the United States in the '80s; today, the site lists more than 400 farms. The closest to me is in Glen Rock, Pa., at Rob and Lucy Wood's Spoutwood Farm, a place best known locally for its annual Fairie Festival. It was while under the spell of this charming May Day celebration that I learned about Spoutwood's CSA and, as a committed vegetable eater and social idealist, was easily sold.

I learned I could get either a medium share for $295 or a large share for $460, and because I have five kids, I chose the large. We could have paid extra to get out of the work commitment, but it was only 10 hours for the whole season.

We took our first shift at the farm early on, planting a bed of eggplant with Farmer Wood himself, a lanky, weathered fellow with a graying ponytail under his straw Panama. I think of myself as a total nongardener and haven't even had a houseplant since I was a girl, but this was more like playing in the mud than anything else. First, my husband, Crispin, made the furrows, then I filled the holes with water. We laid a seedling in each, then went back and tucked them in with mounds of earth. I was a total mess by the end of it, and so was our toddler, Jane; neither of us minded.

Later in the summer, I joined the Thursday morning harvest team -- a simpatico group of mostly women and children working under the direction of a barefoot Wood and his equally barefoot assistant Curt. We picked, washed, sorted, counted out and bagged the 28 shares to be picked up by York-area members later in the day. (There are 55 shares total, but the remainder go to Baltimore, and the harvest and distribution for those members is on Mondays.)

After we filled the bags with vegetables, we added a packet of fresh herbs and bouquet of wildflowers to each one. I enjoyed putting these lovely additions in as much as I enjoyed taking them out at home.

In fact, some weeks, I fished out my flowers and herbs and took another half-day to gather the courage to unpack the rest of the gargantuan sack. I had never seen -- or at least had never been personally responsible for -- so many greens, so many beets, so many cabbages in all my life. I was all gung-ho at first, but by Week Three, I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed by what Wood said was the most abundant yield on record.

In the third week, our bag of vegetables weighed 20 pounds, and Crispin was sick and the kids were out of town. I had to eat the whole large share by myself. Grimly sorting the greens into piles and rebagging them, I tried to comfort myself by thinking how much weight I would lose by eating nothing but vegetables for every meal.

I had a salad for lunch, then potato-kale soup for dinner; steamed beets for breakfast, then the beet greens tossed with buckwheat soba and tahini dressing for lunch. The fridge was stuffed and I wasn't making a dent in it. I felt guilty if I ate a bowl of cereal or a can of tuna.

But after a while, I got my guilt -- and my refrigerator -- under control. I did a lot of cooking, a lot of giving, a little freezing and some straight-out composting, but eventually, I showed that bag of vegetables who was boss.

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