Open the salad bag, add dressing, and eat – it's become a regular routine in the hustle-and-bustle lives of many Americans. The prewashed, pretorn lettuce sealed in plastic bags is common in grocery stores around the world.
But a modestly growing group of shoppers are forgoing this convenience to shake the dirt from lettuce leaves themselves. As "organically grown" and "produced locally" become appealing consumer labels, more people seem to be satisfying a need to connect with the land by making a financial commitment to area farms. Known as community supported agriculture (CSA), shareholders pay local farm owners up front before each growing season and agree to ride the waves of possible drought and crop shortages. In return, the shareholders arrive at designated pickup spots each week to fill bags with freshly harvested produce.
It's a fixed price that more environmentally conscious consumers are willing to pay, even if it means coming up with creative uses for an abundance of say, bok choy.
Tim Fukawa-Connelly of Waltham, Mass., is in his second year as a Waltham Fields Community Farm shareholder.
"My dad always had a small garden," Mr. Fukawa-Connelly says. "The more I read about food, the more I wanted to get back to knowing where my food came from."
The CSA movement originated in the 1960s in Kobe, Japan, where a group of women desired a closer connection with farmers and the food they were consuming. They called this partnership "teikei," which loosely means "food with the farmer's face on it." The trend spread to Europe and then to the United States in the mid-1980s, when Robyn Van En, a New England farmer, founded the American CSA system in western Massachusetts. The Robyn Van En Center at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., now serves as a hub for CSA research and development in the US.
"I think [CSA farms] are definitely on the rise," says Nikki Nazelrod, the program coordinator at the Robyn Van En Center. "You can't get that [farmer-consumer]relationship in the grocery store."
Today there are about 1,300 CSA farms in the US, a 260 percent increase since 1995, according to statistics from the Robyn Van En Center. Most can be found in the Northeast and all along the West Coast, with Massachusetts and Rhode Island having the highest density of CSA farms.
A typical CSA "share" feeds two adults and two children during the growing season. Prices vary across the country, depending on the location, length of growing season, and variety of crops. At Waltham Fields in Waltham, a summer share costs $500 and runs from June to October. At nearby Drumlin Farms in Lincoln, a summer share is $575 or $525 if shareholders are willing to work eight hours in the fields over the course of the season. Winter shares are cheaper because of the limited crops and shorter growing season.
CSAs also have their drawbacks. If a farmer grows an unusual mix of produce that no one seems to want, customers may not return the following year. And unpredictable growing seasons may seem too great a risk for a long-term investment for some shareholders.
Amanda Cather, manager of Waltham Fields Community Farm, says the number of their shareholders has doubled – to the current total of 300 – in the past four years. She turns away potential shareholders every season because of limited land and crop output. The New England CSA demand is a stark contrast from her days as a CSA farmer in Boulder, Colo., where she says it was hard to generate interest.
"Our CSA shares sell out by March, as opposed to [Boulder, Colo. residents] just starting to think about it in May," says Ms. Cather. "We draw people to land by feeding them."
Here in Waltham, Cather says her 300 shareholders have become more than just customers. Rather, they provide a supportive community ready to pitch in when needed. One bright, shiny red example is the $22,000 tractor in the middle of the farm. A gracious gift, she says, from shareholders to the farm they call their own.
On a typical Thursday in July at Waltham Fields, shareholders might get three heads of bok choy, one head of kale, two pounds of summer squash, and several other vegetables. (.) Crops that are more labor-intensive to harvest (peas, basil, and parsley, for instance) are handpicked by the shareholders themselves.
According to Waltham Fields's payout summary, shareholders got 23 pounds of leafy greens, 27 pounds of carrots and beets, and 55 pounds of tomatoes during the 2006 summer season. In good seasons, the produce is usually plentiful, shareholders say. Each week, they report to the pickup table to learn about the available portion of crops such as lettuce, squash, or onions.
Loyal customer Tim Fukawa-Connelly seems to relish the variety and abundance a CSA membership provides.
"I have a big fridge, and I have trouble cramming it all in there," says Mr. Fukawa-Connelly, who signs up for both the summer and winter seasons. His favorite crop is the winter batch of "the best carrots you could ever have."
He also touts his homemade fava bean spread, made by shelling, blanching, and then sautéing the broad beans with onions and a little water. Then he purees the mixture and serves the dip on pita chips as an appetizer, he says.
Melissa Hawkins of Lexington, Mass., joined Waltham Fields's CSA program because she wanted to add more fresh food in her diet.
On this warm Thursday in July, she's with young daughters Emily and Annika, who are cutting sunflowers.
"They love [the farm]," says Ms. Hawkins. "The first time they came, they wanted to stay all day and pick beans."
Kathy Diamond, a shareholder and board member at Waltham Fields, says she enjoys making pesto from fresh basil. Ms. Diamond says the habit of consuming local, organically grown food is difficult to break. She finds she simply cannot eat store-bought asparagus during the off-season.
"This will change your life," she promises as she offers a leaf of fresh kale.
Part of the creative challenge of being a shareholder at a community farm is figuring out how to transform a bag of random vegetables into a tasty meal. Food writer George Erdosh was asked to share what recipes he would use if confronted with a grocery bag containing three heads of bok choy, one head of kale, two pounds of summer squash, several beets, and an assortment of snow peas and beans. Here's what he suggests:
Sautéed, grated summer squash concentrate
Filled with mostly air and water, squash can grow an inch or more a day. Because of its phenomenal growth, the flavors get diluted. All summer squash need serious flavor addition. Spices, herbs, and the right cooking method can take care of that. This recipe concentrates flavors by reducing the water the squash contains using a French culinary technique called dégorger.
2 pounds summer squash, unpeeled, coarsely grated
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, olive oil, butter, or a mixture of the three
Toss the grated squash with salt in a large bowl and let it sit on the counter for at least an hour. Drain the accumulated liquid and thoroughly rinse excess salt from the squash under running water. Dump onto a thin kitchen towel, then twist and squeeze as much liquid from the vegetables as you can.
Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and add half of the oil or butter and the drained vegetable. Spread evenly in the pan and gently press down with a spatula. Reduce heat to low-medium and cook uncovered until nicely browned on the bottom, 15 to 20 minutes.
Place a flat platter over the pan and, wearing a pair of oven mitts, invert vegetables as a single patty onto platter. Return pan to heat, add remaining oil or butter and slip unbrowned side of the cake of squash back into the sauté pan. Continue cooking until bottom side browns, 5 to 10 minutes.
Serve as is for a side vegetable, or flavor with fresh herbs, spices, lightly browned garlic, or caramelized onion. Serves 4.
Freshly harvested beets have such magnificent flavor that I never embellish them with anything but a touch of seasoning. Beets are best simmered slowly in enough salted water to cover, unpeeled. Removing the peel after cooking and dicing is a messy but unavoidable task. But peeling beets before simmering takes away some of the flavor and dulls its beautiful ruby red color.
1 pound beets
1 teaspoon salt
Butter or cooking oil
Pepper, to taste
Cut greens off the beets – but not too close to the bulb itself. Leave the root end intact. Wash beets and place them in a cooking pot large enough to fit and cover with water and 1 teaspoon salt. Discard greens.
Bring the water and beets to full boil, then lower heat to a gentle simmer. Cover the pot and let simmer for 30 to 40 minutes for small to medium beets, 50 to 60 minutes for large ones. The beets are done when a skewer penetrates them easily.
Drain and rinse in cold water for a few minutes for easy handling. Wearing rubber or latex gloves, cut both ends of the beets and slip off the skin.
Slice or dice beets, then return to the cooking pot with a small dab of butter or olive oil. Heat over moderate heat while shaking the pan. Season with nothing more than a shake of salt and few grinds of pepper. Serves 4 as a side dish.
When you have several kinds of fresh vegetables available stir-frying is an easy and tasty option. Preparation does take some time, but can be done in advance. Cooking takes minutes.
The beauty of stir-frying is that you can substitute whatever vegetables you have on hand. But be sure every item is fresh. And be sure never to stir-fry longer than 2 or minutes. Exception: Dense-root vegetables may take up to 5 minutes.
3 tablespoons vegetable or chili oil
1 small yellow onion, peeled and cut into small wedges (or 4 scallions, greens included, chopped coarse)
1/2 green pepper, cut into coarse strips
1/2 red pepper, cut into coarse strips
1 medium summer squash, sliced
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1/2 cup snow peas, strings removed
1 cup bean sprouts, rinsed with hot water
1 bunch of sturdy green leaves (kale, chard, bok choy, or napa cabbage), coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Line up ingredients in the order they will be cooked, from slower-cooking items to lighter vegetables last (as arranged above). Mix salt, sugar, soy sauce, and sesame oil in a small bowl.
Heat a wok or large sauté pan over high heat. When hot and smoking (about a minute), add oil, swirl around, add onion and stir-fry for 30 seconds. If using scallions, stir-fry for only 15 seconds. Keep them moving continuously.
Quickly add peppers and squash, stir-fry for 1 minute. Add garlic and ginger, stir-fry for a few seconds then toss in snow peas, bean sprouts, and greens, stir-frying for another minute.
Drizzle in soy sauce mixture, stir, remove from heat and serve over steamed rice. Serves 4.