CSAs help you take advantage of nature's bounty

Once the first tender shoots of rhubarb, asparagus and leeks nudge upward through the ground each spring, local growers ready themselves for the busy times that follow: a nonstop cornucopia of berries, cherries, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, cauliflower, corn, apples, plums and sweet peppers.

As a cook, this often turns into a frustrating chain of events. So much produce! So little time to track it down and bring it into the kitchen.

Local CSA list online

For a listing of community-supported agriculture programs throughout Southern Oregon and beyond, go to www.oeconline.org. On the home page, type "CSA" in the search bar and then click on "OEC's Guide to Community Supported Agriculture." It lists CSA programs by city.

But what if there were heaps of succulent strawberries, tender peas and crunchy carrots out there with your name on them? Literally. Fresh-from-the-field produce, gathered at the peak of perfection at a local farm, then handed over so you could produce meals of extraordinary quality without running to the supermarket every second day?

The concept, in its most generic form, is called community-supported agriculture — or CSA. If you participate in a CSA program, it means each week, you will go to a convenient, prearranged pickup site and leave just moments later with an ever-varying collection of both staple and exotic produce, ranging from salad greens to root vegetables and fruits, depending on the season and the farms' specialty crops. Most CSA programs start providing produce boxes in late April or early May and carry through to the final harvest period in late October or early November.

There are huge benefits for the grower also. It offers a certain amount of security to a farm operation at a critical time in the planting cycle. The membership fee, typically paid in the spring, reduces the amount of money some businesses need to borrow for seeds, labor and soil-amending materials.

But what about farmers markets, you ask? In Oregon, the growth in this form of shopping has been tremendous. Each season, more and more consumers are embracing the practice of obtaining their weekly cache of fruits, vegetables and even flowers directly from the local grower at one of these events.

And most local growers who deal directly with consumers not only applaud the trend but participate in one or more of the markets. Indeed, farmers markets are an important link between consumers and the people who grow their foods. But CSAs can reach people who don't get to farmers markets.

After all, going to local, outdoor markets takes time. It's an experience unto itself. But in a CSA program, you can get to your pickup site in less than five minutes and carry away a week's worth of produce for the family. So it's convenient — an easy way to obtain fruits and vegetables that have come from the field just hours earlier.

The growth of CSA programs in the United States has been rapid. Since the first few began in 1985, it's estimated there are now as many as 12,500 farms nationwide marketing their produce through a CSA program. And these days, it's more than just fruits and vegetables. Many farms offer cheese, grains, flour and even wine. Animal producers offer pasture-raised meat, poultry and egg shares.

Of course, the CSA model isn't for everyone. Even serious vegetable lovers may not want someone else choosing what they eat every week. Or some are concerned that they won't like everything they're given.

On the other hand, for those who like the idea of having a direct link with the people who produce the food they eat, CSAs can be a positive force in a family's life. It can be a wonderful experience to know the people growing your food.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or read her blog and at www.janrd.com.

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