Simplifying The Holidays: CSA 101

siena-farms.jpgApril Paffrath is one of the most devoted foodies I know. No taste is too simple, no ingredient too humble. And when you read her writing, you can tell how much she relishes preparing, tasting, and writing about food. April is a regular contributor here on Boston Mamas, but today I'm thrilled to introduce her via her voice on Wicked Tasty Harvest. For the eleventh installment of my Simplifying the Holidays guest blog series, April shares a highly impacting way to simplify your holidays and beyond: by thinking about local foods and considering a CSA. Included is a primer on local foods and CSAs, as well as a fantastic guide to CSAs in the Boston area.

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From April:

The holidays are a chance to live it up. We have license to battle the encroaching dark with candles, twinkling lights, bubbly, and more food than you thought you could possibly eat (and yet somehow you can). I adore the festive moments when you're eating wonderful food with people you love, raising a glass to the people you're with, the festive spirit of strangers, and the start of a new year. Food-wise, it's so easy to enjoy and simplify your holidays -- and the year ahead -- by thinking about local foods.

Why eat local foods?

Eating locally over the holidays doesn't mean living on potatoes. Even though snow has fallen, there are plenty of local foods that store well into the cold months, or are being grown in greenhouses. (In the plentiful months, it's easy to prep the freshest food and store it in the freezer for amazing food mid-winter.) Also, local pasture-fed meat is available year-round and it makes a huge difference in the flavor of your meals and the environmental impact of your dinner.

When we choose local foods we're doing several important things. We're caring about the quality and tastiness of the food we eat. We're supporting the community we live in and the livelihood of our neighbors. We're acting as stewards of the planet. And we're ensuring the healthiness of the food with which we nourish ourselves and our families.

When food is sourced locally, there's very little time between when it's picked fresh from the field and when it is served up on your dinner table. Nutrients and flavors don't have as much time to degrade as, say, food that was grown across the country and was picked under-ripe to withstand the shipping. It also means that the local farms can grow plant varieties that might not travel well, but which have amazing flavors, wonderful colors, and provide a better taste experience at dinner.

And better tasting produce and meat means you have to do very little to make an outstanding meal; you need little more than good olive oil or good butter and a bit of salt to make everyone at the table ooh and ahh. For your daily dinnertime, that ease of prep with good ingredients saves countless hours.

When you buy food from a farmers' market, a local grocer who stocks local foods, or through a CSA (community-supported agriculture) share, you're making a decision to direct money to your community, your neighbors, and your region. If you keep more money local, you help preserve the diversity of your region, you keep farming from becoming centralized, and you make it easy for your neighbors to stay in their line of work--which in turn keeps them buying locally. It's a very good circle. Does that mean that you need to decide it's all or nothing? No way. By getting what I can from our local providers first, I don't feel conflicted when I do need to shop at national stores.

How do CSAs work?

A CSA works in a pretty simple way. You give money to a farmer in the off-season. With it, the farm buys seeds, repairs equipment, hires farm staff, and prepares the fields before they've even planted or harvested the next year's crops. You are helping them to prepare for the growing season during the time of year when they aren't making money from the crops. Then, when the growing season begins, you get a return on that early investment in the form of a weekly share of veggies. You take on the risk of a bad year (like tomato blight and flooding) as well as the benefit of plentiful harvests.

Vegetable CSAs are the most common, but the Boston area has meat, fish, and grain CSAs, too. A quick Google search will show you local CSAs in your area. Armed with your list, it's easy to look through and see which farms follow the principles you like. It's also helpful to visit the bulletin boards on to see what people have to say about their experience the previous year. Did they like the food and the variety? Did it taste good? Did they like how the CSA was run?

Boston-area CSAs

Below is a sampling of just a few of the local CSAs available in our area. The produce ones typically run for 21-27 weeks, and several offer winter CSA shares where you can get veggies stored expertly in their root cellar. The meat and fish CSAs are available year-round and you can sign up for the seasons or quarters you like. For a national list, Google or check out Eat Well Guide. While nowhere near comprehensive, it does provide a small listing of CSAs, stores, and more. It's a good idea to call, email, or explore the websites of the farms you're interested in and ask them questions about how they grow things. Several local farms grow "organically" but they've decided not to pay for certification so they can't technically call themselves organic. It's worth asking about growing practices, chemicals, feed, antibiotics, and more so you can make sure it's a farm whose style you dig.

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[Note: all prices listed below are as of time of posting.]

Siena Farms, Sudbury, MA

Pay $750 for the weekly box share and pick up at Sofra (Farmer Chris' wife is chef Ana Sortun of Oleana and Sofra), or $500 for the market share, which is a discount of 50% at the Copley farmers' market or at their Sudbury farm stand.

I happily renewed my "membership" for next year's box share. The food is amazing and almost unbelievable. It comes to you pristine and glowing and full of flavor. They offer varieties that are grown for their amazing taste. It's no surprise that the city's best restaurants also get their produce from Siena Farms--places like No. 9 Park, O Ya, Beacon Hill Bistro, Craigie on Main, and more. When you prepare the produce from Siena Farms, it tastes amazing, even if you only treat it with a bit of olive oil and salt. Their mesclun is peppery and wonderful--a real highlight!

Chestnut Farms, Hardwick, MA
[Editor's Note 3/6/2011: Direct link removed because McAfee is showing security risks with this website.]

Pick up this meat CSA once a month in several locations, year round (Arlington, Natick, Northhampton, and about 5 more). Prices depend on how much you're getting each month. It starts at $80 and 10lbs a month ($8/lb). It costs less per pound if you get more. A bonus is that CSA shareholders are eligible to sign up for one of their coveted natural turkeys. They raise cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, and turkeys. The pasture animals (like cows and sheep) are pasture-fed as long as the New England weather lets them, and they get hay with occasional grain over the winter.

Red Fire Farm, Granby, MA

Pay $640 for the summer season CSA. They have add-on shares like eggs, flowers, and fruit. You can pick up your weekly share in Brighton, Cambridge, and Jamaica Plain, as well as a handful of other towns. You can also get it delivered at extra cost through MetroPedal Power. Shareholders get special pick-your-own privileges.

Parker Farms, Lunenburg, MA

Steve Parker is a fixture at the Union Square farmers' market. Pay $325 for the small share or $500 for the large share. Pick-ups are in Davis Square, Somerville, and Porter and Central Squares, Cambridge.

Lands Sake, Weston, MA

Lands Sake is an education farm. (It's also a fantastic pick-your-own farm with strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and more. What's so nice about that is that it's organic, and it's hard to find u-pick organic fruits.) We love to visit the farm because it's a little bit hippy and super calm. They had some trouble with their CSA last year due in part to weather, but it's a long-running farm that cares about treating the land and the food right.

Stillman Farm, New Braintree, MA

Another meat CSA, year round. You can find them at farmers' markets and they're very popular. CSA members get a 20% discount at the markets! Like Chestnut, they have grass-fed, pastured animals that are raised in a sustainable and humane way. Shares go from 5lb for $46/month up to 20lb for $155/month. Pick-ups are in Jamaica Plain, Brookline, and Lunenburg.

Six Farms CSA at Silverbrook Farm

Pay $325-500 for a half share or $565-730 for a full share; prices vary based on pick-up or delivery location.

Silverbrook teamed up with 5 other farms to offer a CSA. Some farms specialize in certain products or add in something special to the whole partnership. You also get Hannabells from Shy Brothers Cheese, since they're one of the six farms. Mmm. Pick-up locations around Boston, Cambridge, Cape Cod, Rhode Island, and more. In Cambridge, they'll deliver your share through MetroPedal Power, included in the CSA price.

Cape Ann Fresh Catch, Gloucester, MA

This CSA is really a CSF, a community supported fishery. This unique program brings some of the local sea bounty to New Englanders, year-round. Each fish is valued the same, no matter the species. That allows the fishermen and women to go out and catch fish without chasing the highest paying species. There's no toss-back of caught, dead fish that don't get as high a price as other species. There's less environmental damage in the quest for the priciest fish. They can fish unstressed areas and not risk their lives as much bringing it in. You'll get cod, haddock, hake, shrimp, and more. They use innovative shrimping tools to minimize by-catch and environmental damage, and this shrimp is local -- not the ecosystem-damaging shrimp you can find in the freezer section.

They have a bunch of different sign-up options, including all shrimp and a shrimp-fish combo. Pay $125-$400 for a 10-week share from anything from 5lb of shrimp to 40lb of fish. Pickups are all over the area, Cambridge, Jamaica Plain, Acton, Ipswich, and many more.

Drumlin Farm, Lincoln, MA

Drumlin Farm is a Mass Audubon Sanctuary. They also have a popular CSA, as well as a winter share that comes from their root cellar. Pay $575 or $525 if you work the farm for 8 hours. Pick up at the farm, Central or Porter in Cambridge, or in Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, and Quincy

Picadilly Farm, Winchester, NH

This certified organic farm has pick up in Arlington, Bedford, and Belmont. The form isn't online yet for 2010, but 2009 shares were $525.

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April Paffrath is a writer in Cambridge. Food is her big love, next to her husband and their 3-year-old daughter (who frequently makes dinner right alongside the grown-ups). She writes the blog Wicked Tasty Harvest with two of her food-writer pals. You can follow April on Twitter at @prillyp.

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Image credit: Siena Farms