Once upon a summer and before I knew better, a friend e-mailed me after Christmas and said they were buying a share from a Community Supported Agriculture group; did we want to split it with them? It would be $60 a month for an unspecified selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, grown locally, that we would take turns driving out to the farm to pick up. A farm! Wheeeee! And while, I would normally get more detail before signing up to do something this amazing for at least 6 months, I trusted that she had done her research.
And I’ll be honest, just thinking about joining a CSA made me feel morally superior.
People join CSAs for a variety of reasons. Some like the fresh produce. Others appreciate that it is grown locally and therefore supports the local economy and local farmers. And still others like that it is more environmentally friendly because fewer fossil fuels are burned in transit moving the produce around town than shipping it from Mexico or New Zealand. I liked it, because my friend liked it. And so in March, I filled out the CSA application and wrote a check.
This should have been my first clue that joining a CSA would be problematic. Who needs to fill out an application to get fruits and vegetables? If I had visited the Safeway just one block from my friend’s house, I am certain I would not have needed to fill out any paperwork to buy some apples or show my ID to get a bag of carrots. I would probably need a pre-qualification letter to buy the raspberries, but that was understandable. Those things are expensive.
The next clue came when I looked at the directions to the farm. It was in a neighboring suburb. No problem. I hadn’t expected it to be a mile from our house, right downtown, having replaced a parking lot where someone charged $15 an hour to watch my car get door-dinged by other drivers, though acre for acre this CSA might have been making the same kind of income. As I studied the map, I realized that this place was 15 miles away. 15 miles. That meant that I would drive 30 miles round-trip to pick up my locally grown fruits and vegetables. And not only that, it was off one of the busiest interstate highways. I looked at my watch. It was 5 o’clock. Perfect.
For a second, I considered not going to get the vegetables. But the farm closed at 6 p.m. If I didn’t leave now, I wouldn’t get there in time. So I drove my Honda Civic to the freeway on-ramp and sat there. I moved along, keeping pace with a plastic bag on the shoulder that was blowing in the wind, until I found my exit. Then, I turned left after a shopping mall and joined a secondary road that led me to an exceptionally large, empty lot. I could see apartments in the distance and a small wooden building with a bunch of cars that looked a lot like mine clustered around it. That must be the pick-up location, I thought.
I turned off the paved road onto a grassy trail that led to the hut. I tried not to high-center my Honda in the rutted road and then parked in a haphazard fashion next to a Subaru Impreza. This really was the country. There were no yellow lines and no parking attendants. I went into the hut and explained that I was here to pick up our produce.
“Great,” said a young, fit, college-aged woman. “Sign in right here.”
“No problem,” I said.
“Did you bring your own bags?”
“Ok, well, there are grocery bags over there and then you can look at the board to see what you are getting. The list is in shares.”
I glanced over at a collection of plastic, industrial-era, capitalist grocery bags in a box and picked two. They were from Safeway, of course. And then I looked up at the chalkboard.
Pick 1 of 3 from squash, zucchini, pumpkin (limit 5)
Pick 2 of garlic or onions (limit 2)
Pick 7 apples or 5 carrots (limit 1)
Peaches next week
My face drooped. I was reasonably good at 8th grade geometry, and I actually kind of liked fractions, but this was math that I didn’t understand. I stared at the boxes of unattractive vegetables and tried to figure out what to take and how I would subsequently divide that amount by 2.
“Where is the garlic?” I asked the college-age vegetable sprite.
“Right there,” she said, pointing to a box full of what looked like long, green fingernails from the Guinness Book of World Records. I untangled one of the green tubes from the others and peered at the little blind bird’s head at the end of it.
“It’s a garlic scape,” said the sprite, noticing the puzzled look on my face. “They’re delicious. Like garlic but more subtle.”
I nodded and put two in my bag. Never having figured out the math and realizing that no one was watching or cared what I took, I went to each box and took an even number of most items. I knew that there was no way that I could bring myself to eat some of the vegetables, like mangled-looking broccoli, so I only took one for my friend.
This is the other thing that they don’t tell you when you join a CSA. The food will be ugly. Everything from the grocery store is the supermodel version of the fruit and vegetable world. When you try to grow the same stuff in the hard, clay-like soil in Colorado, it’s not pretty. Literally.
I took my vegetables and put them in the trunk of my car, but it was only to make myself feel better. The bags were so small, I probably could have held them on my lap on the drive home. When I got home, my friend dropped by to pick up her share.
“What did we get?” she asked, clearly excited to see what this week’s surprise produce was.
“Some good stuff and something called a garlic scape.” I tried to sound excited. But really, I just wanted to shove this stuff in the crisper and eat some real food — like a lasagna.
“Oh wow! I can’t wait to try that,” she said.
As the summer drifted by, I kept waiting for the big haul. I was certain in April that the bags of vegetables were small because nothing was in season, yet and that some day in August, when I drove the 90 minute round-trip to the happy little farm in the suburbs, there would be so much food to bring home that I would have to put the seats down in the Civic. But every week, I went home with less than a full bag for each of us. And the garlic scape dried out in the bottom of the crisper.
“We should use this,” said my spouse.
“I know,” I said. “But I don’t know what to do with it.”
“Let’s just use it for something we would put garlic in,” she said.
And so we did. I cut it up and buried it in the lasagna, and then I walked to Safeway to pick up some raspberries for dessert.