There might still be snow on the ground, but it's not too soon to start dreaming about the summer crops. Spring is the perfect time to join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
Over a dozen Alaska farms, from Talkeetna to Bethel, are offering CSA shares this summer.
Essentially a weekly vegetable subscription, I like to think of a CSA as a prescription to eat your greens. You pay a set price at the beginning of the season to purchase a "share" of the farm's harvest. In return, you receive a box of vegetables and herbs every week throughout the growing season. This method benefits both the consumer and the producer. The farmers receive pre-season payments, which provide financial stability when they need it most. The shareholders receive deliciously fresh, locally grown produce each week straight from the farm.
Here are six reasons I subscribed to an Alaska CSA this year.
1. To grow Alaska's local food economy
CSAs are not all created equal. Like any investment, you'll need to do your research and decide which one you want to support. For example, I used to be a shareholder of Washington's Full Circle Farm CSA, which delivers organic produce to many communities in Alaska. Off and on for almost a year, I struggled with whether organic or local was more important to me. My decision? Local produce trumps organic certification. Even though Full Circle's offerings were organic, being a shareholder in a company that ships produce across the world in the name of the environment went directly against my desire to build a relationship with local farmers and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Joining a local CSA means less money is spent on foods grown outside Alaska being shipped many miles. It means your dollar will go directly to the people who plant, tend and harvest your food. And although many small farms can't afford the USDA organic certification, you can visit their farms and talk to the farmers directly to learn about their growing practices. Many don't need to use chemicals, as they are growing on a small scale with a diverse number of crops.
2. I want to build community relationships and know where my food comes from
Wild Rose Farm is located three miles west of the University of Alaska. Susan Kerndt and Eric Mayo, along with their four children, grow vegetables and herbs, operate a 40-member CSA, sell their produce to local restaurants and also run a summer camp for hundreds of children. They are an integral part of their community and know their customers well.
In Chickaloon, Allie Barker of Chugach Farms told me, "I am transplanting greens in our hoop house this week, starts are booming in the wood-fired seed house and I'm about to start the wood stove and in-floor heat system in the greenhouse. It's all happening." Her CSA members will know exactly how their food is being grown, and I'm guessing they'll be pretty inspired too. Each farm and farmer has a story and they are inviting you to be part of it.
3. I hate food labels, calorie counting and high fructose corn syrup
I'm sick of foods with paragraph-long ingredient lists full of words I don't recognize and can't pronounce. I don't want my food to have barcode stickers on it, and to have to keep track of my health through numbers and data entry. I'm annoyed there is high fructose corn syrup in everything. (Applesauce? Ketchup? Yogurt? C'mon!) I just want to eat food that is real. So I get my CSA box, where lettuce is lettuce and what you see is what you get. No hidden health costs and freaky chemicals.
4. Alaska veggies taste better
I think this one goes without saying. Once you've bitten into a super sweet locally grown strawberry or carrot, or crunchy peas still warm from the sun, you'll know what I'm talking about.
As a country, we've grown accustomed to having the opportunity to eat what we want, when we want, year-round. While I am nowhere near giving up my daily cup of coffee or banana bread comfort, I also recognize that the year-round availability disconnects me from what's grown seasonally. Each week in a CSA, you will get veggies at their seasonal best -- freshly picked and packed, right from the farm. And there's something about the first crisp greens, and the anticipation of late-season delights like carrots and winter squash, that make them taste even better.
5. It inspires me to be creative and build healthy habits
I like colorful meals and creating new dishes out of what I get in my CSA box each week. Fennel and tomatoes equals spaghetti and meatballs; too much kale means it's time to make pesto. Five pounds of zucchini in August calls for zuke curry and chocolate chip-walnut zucchini bread for the neighbors. I like making up new meals throughout the week with what I have at hand. Eating with the seasons is less challenging than it seems, and it's totally rewarding.
Having a CSA box also ensures a weekly allotment of nutritious greens, which means a healthier lifestyle. Having the veggies in the fridge increases the likelihood I'll incorporate them into daily meals.
6. It's great if you are on a budget
CSA shares end up being a better value over the season. Instead of purchasing each individual item at a farmers market or in the store every week, you get a bulk price that is substantially cheaper. So although the initial cost can be daunting (full shares are usually between $500 and $650), when you break it down it ends up being a better deal. Many farms also accept food stamps as a payment method.
There are many ways to eat local, and a CSA is not for everyone. But if this method resonates with you, I encourage you to sign up this year. There are many reasons it's worthwhile, but perhaps the best reason of all is that it's fun. CSAs often fill up by May, so be sure to contact the farms as early as possible to sign up.
Arctic Organics (Palmer)
Fireweed Farm (Palmer)
Chugach Farm (Chickaloon)
Spring Creek Farm (Palmer)
Sun Circle Farm (Palmer)
Talkeetna Grown CSA (Talkeetna)
Twitter Creek Gardens (Homer)
Calypso Farm and Ecology Center (Ester)
Cripple Creek Organics (Ester)
DogWood Gardens (Ester)
Feedback Farm (Two Rivers)
Pioneer Produce (North Pole)
Rosie Creek Farm (Ester)
Spinach Creek Farm (Fairbanks)
20 Mile Farm (Two Rivers)
Wild Rose Farm (Fairbanks)
Meyers Farm (Bethel)
Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.
Food & Culture