How to Get the Most Out of Your CSA

Here's how to find & join a vegetable CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and 5 tips for getting the most out of your CSA veggies.

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I'm a bit of a CSA junkie. I've been a CSA member for the better part of the last 15 years. I love supporting local farmers and being challenged to sometimes cook things I don't typically buy or finding ways to make my family love certain veggies (or at least accept them for that meal).

For those new to the idea, CSA stands for community-supported agriculture. Here's how it works: You pay a local farm up front, usually in the spring when the farmer has lots of expenses-seeds, soil amendments, etc.

Then once the farmer starts harvesting, you get a weekly pickup of freshly picked produce. Sometimes the pickup is at the farm, sometimes it's at a local business. Some farmers bag everything up for you in advance-this makes pickup fast but you don't get any choices. Other farmers set up tables and provide instructions for what to take. This can be as simple as a list and you take one of everything or there may be options ("1/2 pound total of 3 different types of salad greens," for example, or "choose 2 pounds total of eggplant, sweet peppers and/or tomatoes").

The best part is that the produce is super-fresh. I can buy salad greens from the supermarket and they go bad within days. But farm-fresh salad greens last for a solid week-even longer in some cases-because they were harvested the day before or the day of my pickup.

But I know some people struggle with CSA shares. Maybe you freeze up when you aren't familiar with certain items or you are overwhelmed with getting a big bag of produce. It can sometimes feel like a chore for me too. But I feel like I really have it down this year and I thought I'd share some of my CSA wisdom with you. Even if you don't get a CSA share, these tips are handy for farmers' market shoppers too!

Here's how you can get the most out of your summer CSA share:

1. Clean out your fridge the night before your pickup.

Prep your fridge for your share. Compost anything that's starting to go bad or you know you won't use before it goes bad. Make pesto with the last of your herbs. Shred the zucchini and freeze it for making bread later. Pickle those cukes. Make a mental list of what you still need to use so you can incorporate it into your meal plan (see #5).

2. Talk to your farmer and your fellow CSA members at pickup.

Not sure what to do with kohlrabi? Your farmer is happy to share their favorite recipe with you. So is the person standing next to you. Do you just hate parsnips? Or do you still have leftover parsley? Don't be afraid to mention it to the folks who are picking up when you are. Chances are there's someone who'll want to swap with you or the farmer may let you do an exchange.

3. Have a simple dinner plan for pickup day.

Unless the person picking up your share doesn't work a full day, plan to make an ultra-easy dinner the night you pick up your share. Have leftovers, grab a pizza or throw something on the grill and make a salad from your most perishable salad greens. By keeping it simple, it frees up some time for you to prep your other veggies so they'll last longer. Which brings us to…

4. Store your vegetables for maximum shelf life.

I didn't do this previously, but I've started to and it makes a world of difference. Storing everything properly will help it last as long as possible. Give any greens that are still damp a whirl in your salad spinner, then bag them with a few paper towels to absorb excess moisture to avoid wilting. Cut and wash heads of lettuce and bag them up the same way. Toss a paper towel in any bag that has dark leafy greens, such as chard and kale, too. Do you still have some carrots in the fridge from your last pickup? Put the old ones on top of your new ones so you use them first. I store my potatoes in a colander on the counter and rotate them so the new ones are at the bottom. And don't forget to cut the greens off radishes, beets, kohlrabi, carrots, etc. Those greens look pretty but they suck moisture from their roots, which can have rubbery results. I like my radishes crisp, don't you?

5. Make a meal plan.

You don't need to plan to use all of the vegetables in your CSA-I know I'll get through salad greens, radishes, carrots and bell peppers-but I write down anything else that needs to be turned into a meal. Using the remaining produce as a guide, I start combing websites and blogs that feature recipes made with my fresh, in-season ingredients. Bookmark recipes that you like, then make a plan for what night you'll make them. If you get a newsletter with your CSA, read it-it often contains recipes featuring the produce you got in that week's pickup.


How to Find & Join a CSA

Are you ready to do it? The best way to find a good CSA in your area is to ask your friends and co-workers. Make a list and check out each one-every CSA is different. A farm will usually provide a sample share list or at least a list of crops they grow, so you can see if your tastes match up. Most offer a variety of share sizes, so think about what you'll actually cook.

The CSA "style" varies. Some farms give you a credit for the season and you just go to their farmers' market stand and get whatever you want. This is a great option if you travel a lot over the summer and may not want a weekly share, or if you are a farmers' market junkie who wants to throw a lot of support to your favorite farm. Others prebag certain items for you every week. My favorite farm does a mix: I show up and there are tables loaded with produce. Sometimes I'm bossed to take 3 ears of corn and 1 pound of greens, but I will also have options for other things. Example: There will be a table with a mix of eggplant, peppers and corn and I can take 1 pound total. Maybe I have peppers from last week and I don't need more, or maybe I want to make eggplant parm, so I can take all eggplant.

Another consideration is pickup location-you want to make sure it's convenient for you. Farms often offer different options-the farm, a workplace, another business. Some farms that have on-farm pickups offer pick-your-own items occasionally over the season.

Another consideration: See if the farm offers "add-on" subscriptions-think weekly loaves of bread, eggs, meat or other local ingredients. It's also nice to know if the farm will give you a credit if you skip a week when you're traveling.

If word-of-mouth is unsuccessful, check out or peep the bulletin board at your natural-foods store or favorite coffee shop.

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