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Harvest boon: CSAs are a growing trend in North Texas

Local CSAs

Although a complete inventory of area CSAs is hard to determine, here’s a selection of some that are accepting memberships:

Elizabeth Anna’s Old World Garden

Yearlong memberships include an administration fee ($50) and basket fee ($12). You can then purchase baskets each week, $35-$50. Participants pick up shares at the garden (2825 Eighth Ave., Fort Worth), but don’t forfeit any money if they decide to forgo a weekly pick-up. www.elizabethanna.net/csa.

Rose Creek Farms

An annual membership promises 20 weeks of produce throughout the year. A full share costs $730, a half-share $530. Participants pick up shares at the farm, in Sunset. http://rosecreekfarms.com/ CSA.htm.

Urban Acres

This Dallas-based organization operates more like a co-op, collecting produce from numerous local growers, then sorting and selling the shares itself. Yearlong memberships include an administrative fee ($50) and basket fee ($14). Weekly costs are $17-$50, depending on the size of the share. Pick-up locations throughout the Metroplex. http://urbanacresmarket.com.

Cold Springs Farm

Participants sign up for a seasonal, eight-week share (spring, summer and fall). A seasonal share costs $320. The farm is in Weatherford, and the pick-up location is a private residence in Fort Worth. www.coldspringsfarmcsa.com.

Comeback Creek Farm

Shares can be purchased for six ($185), nine ($275) or 12 weeks ($365). The farm is in Pittsburg, about 100 miles east of Dallas. The Fort Worth pick-up location is Avoca Coffee on Magnolia Avenue. There are additional pick-up locations in Dallas, Coppell and the Keller area. http://comebackcreek.com.

Posted 5:41pm on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013

Cast aside your clichéd notions of hemp-wearing hippies or tree-hugging vegans searching for new ways to prepare tofu. If some of the folks milling about at Elizabeth Anna’s Old World Garden in Fort Worth on a September Saturday like to eat organic green sprouts, well, it’s mostly because they’re in season — and they taste really good on a turkey sandwich with a smear of spicy mustard.

Just ask Zoe Pierce, a fitness instructor in Fort Worth who hardly considers herself some kind of food fascist. (For one thing, she allows her 14-year-old son to take after-school jaunts to Taco Bell, so long as he eats a healthy dinner.) Pierce tells a common story of what happened when she started regularly eating farm-grown, locally sourced vegetables. “I didn’t know salad could taste so good,” she says.

Or you can ask Jacqueline Banks, a health counselor in Benbrook who recently relocated from New York. In 2007, she was told by doctors that she might never be able to have children — and so, she decided to place a renewed focus on nutrition and eating organically. She now has a 2-year-old daughter named Annabelle, who joins mom on her weekly trips to purchase fresh farm eggs. “She doesn’t get anything that’s been treated with pesticide,” Banks says of Annabelle.

Pierce and Banks are part of a growing wave of participants in CSA, or community-supported agriculture, a movement that seems to be attracting young professionals and retirees, single people and married couples, at just about every rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

Participants buy “shares” in local farmers’ crops. For either a seasonal or weekly fee, depending on the rules of the individual CSA, they are given a basket of newly harvested, organic vegetables that the growers say are vastly healthier — and taste better — than anything to be found at the grocery store. Shareholders don’t get to choose which vegetables they want, but instead accept whatever the farmer happens to have just harvested.

And as you watch the CSA shareholders at Elizabeth Anna’s, their black baskets stocked with purple cabbage, yellow onions, red peppers, watermelon and, yes, those crunchy, scrumptious sprouts, looking happy and healthy and eager to get home and start cooking their bounty, you can’t help but wonder:

What do these folks know that the rest of us don’t?

And can their approach to eating catch on, changing the way we all think about our food?

Farm-fresh trend

CSAs are hardly a new phenomenon in the United States. The first one was formed in the mid-1980s, at Indian Line Farm in Great Barrington, Mass., by a group of farmers inspired by similar practices in Europe. Like a lot of modern CSA farmers, these early adopters weren’t necessarily political activists, but they resisted corporate culture and the overmechanized way of modern life. They also wanted to strengthen their community and help create a hyperlocal economy, where consumers knew and interacted with food producers, and vice versa.

The CSA trend grew slowly throughout the 1990s, particularly in places with a strong farmers market tradition, like Oregon and California. Yet it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that CSAs began to multiply. That was when books like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and documentaries like Food Inc. started raising troubling questions about the safety and possible toxicity of the food supply chain in the United States, and when television shows like Top Chef and From Farm to Table began extolling cooking that used locally sourced, seasonal ingredients.

Suddenly eating “sustainably” was every bit as trendy as a box of Betty Crocker cake mix would have been back in the 1950s.

There are now upward of 2,300 CSAs in the United States, up from about 600 in the late 1990s, according to Christine Mayer of the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources at Wilson College in Pennsylvania.

“We’ve known this stuff for a long, long time — that we should eat what we grow and support our farms — and we have lived this way with gardens in the back yard,” says Mayer. “So it’s been very exciting to see people coming back to that way of thinking.”

She adds, “I’m just sorry it took such drastic things like Food Inc. to get them to think about it.”

It’s a similar story to the one recounted by James and Elizabeth Samudio, owners of Elizabeth Anna’s Old World Garden and the organizers of a 60-member CSA.

In 2002, they bought a lot along Eighth Avenue in Fort Worth’s Fairmount neighborhood, launched a gardening and landscaping business, and began growing fruits and vegetables on the property. A battle with cancer only strengthened Elizabeth’s resolve to control the food entering her body. In January 2006, eager to share their growing knowledge of organic urban farming, they decided to host a seminar and posted a few flyers around town to promote it. They were expecting a dozen or so folks to attend. More than 90 people turned up, even though it was an outdoor event on a cold night in January.

“I asked them, ‘How many of you have organic gardening experience?’” Elizabeth Samudio recalls. “Not one person raised their hand. But there was a hunger for this sort of information.”

The couple launched their CSA in 2012, using fruits, vegetables and herbs from their own garden, and supplementing it with produce from a handful of nearby farmers. A number of other CSAs in the area also began launching around the same time — although a little bit behind the national curve, North Texas was finally catching up. Exact numbers can be hard to determine — shares are often sold via word-of-mouth, and some farmers will suspend their CSAs if their crops are disappointing — but there are probably now about a dozen operating in the North Texas region (see sidebar).

Whereas CSAs usually require participants to buy a share that lasts for a set number of weeks (and forfeit a share if they can’t make it to the pick-up site that week), the Samudios charge a once-a-year administration fee ($50) and basket fee ($12), but don’t require you to commit to purchasing a share every week. Each week’s share will cost $35 or $50, depending on the size of your basket.

And while the weekly basket on a recent Saturday contained mostly familiar fare — green peppers, watermelon, a lonely late-summer tomato — the Samudios have recently planted sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, arugula and figs, all of which should be ready in the coming months. If you don’t know what the heck you’re supposed to do with something you find in your basket, or you still haven’t figured out the difference between kale and Swiss chard and bok choy, the Samudios will happily provide recipes.

“It’s mostly been vegetables we like so far,” says Lindsay Montgomery, a 20-something who joined the Elizabeth Anna share over the summer. “But I think it’s been making us cook and eat more, because you don’t want the food to go to waste.”

Many of the farms that offer CSAs also take their produce to local farmers markets. Check out a brief guide to some of DFW’s farmers markets. Confused about what to do with some of your more off-the-beaten-path CSA veggies? This Buzzfeed piece shows you 31 things to do with them.

Inconvenient truths

There are numerous compelling reasons why even someone with just a passing interest in food would want to sign up for a CSA. For one thing, most will agree that the food tastes better because it hasn’t been grown in a greenhouse, because it’s harvested closer to when it’s actually ripe and because it hasn’t been carted halfway across the country — or the globe — to find its place on your local supermarket shelf.

For another, CSAs reduce the number of people and machines handling your food, meaning it’s much less likely you will run into problems with bacteria or contamination.

There is also the simple pleasure of knowing you are living a more locally focused, eco-friendly existence. Indeed, in an increasingly impersonalized, machine- and big business-driven world, it’s little wonder that “sustainable” has become such a buzz word.

Still, are CSAs really capable of taking root and succeeding on a large scale, much less eventually giving large grocery store chains a run for their money?

Even the CSA movement’s most vigorous champions admit that’s probably a bit of a pipe dream. Part of the problem is that ours remains a culture of convenience and choice — we want a tomato when we want it, not necessarily when it’s in season, and we want the vegetables we like, not necessarily the broccoli or cauliflower a farmer has on hand. Another issue is that we tend to eat partly with our eyes, and we’ve all been conditioned to think the shiny, perfectly round vegetables we encounter in produce bins are the ones we should be eating.

At her CSA in Pennsylvania, Christine Mayer says that even the most food-savvy shareholders often slip into this way of thinking. “We’re continually having to re-educate them and remind them,” she says. “When they don’t get their carrot scrubbed clean, or if we have a beetle on some bok choy, we get complaints about that. But would you rather that, or vegetables treated with pesticide?”

There’s also the matter of cost — and the fact that, in a still-tight economy, many simply can’t afford the a CSA. For comparison’s sake, I visited both Sprouts and Kroger, to see how much the same quantity of vegetables contained in an Elizabeth Anna share would cost me at a grocery store. At Sprouts, the nonorganic equivalents cost about $12 total, and at Kroger the organic equivalents added up to about $21 — notably less than the $35 for a CSA share basket.

It’s an issue that most CSA farmers are conscious of, especially as it relates to lower-income families, who often turn to cheaper processed and fast foods instead of eating fresh fruits and vegetables because of the cost. Indeed, there’s no denying a widespread perception that organic eating is for the same people who dine out at $30-a-plate restaurants like Ellerbe Fine Foods or purchase their cookware at Williams-Sonoma — i.e., people with the means and the time to seek out the best food they can find.

“I think there’s a lot of dialogue about that, and I think that there are not a lot of easy answers,” says Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable farming and CSAs. Barnett notes that many farmers are lobbying to change the rules on food stamps, and allow them to be used for the purchase of CSA shares.

For his part, James Samudio says he regularly gives shares to CSA members who are struggling financially. But he also thinks people need to change their long-held ideas about how much food should cost and weigh that against the benefits of eating a healthier diet.

“The people who joined our CSA are coming back each week, and they are eating seasonally and losing weight and feeling better,” he says. “You can’t put a price ceiling on that.”

Finally, there’s an unavoidable political dimension to all this, and the question of how popular CSAs can become before they start to experience pushback from corporate and government interests. For years, CSAs have mostly flown under the radar, which has meant there are very few federal, state or local laws around the country dictating how they can be run. But small organic farmers fear that might change, especially if corporate farms feel their bottom lines are being threatened. (Just last week, California passed a statewide registration program for CSAs.)

“Right now I’m in the middle of writing a newsletter about the proposed regulations on organic eggs,” says LocalHarvest’s Erin Barnett, about a Food and Drug Administration proposal that would require outdoor chicken flocks to be isolated from birds and wildlife. “These new rules are very clearly being influenced by the huge egg producers, and they really undermine the spirit of organic farming.”

The basket in practice

It’s one thing to talk about CSAs in theory; in order to truly understand the movement, James Samudio insisted upon sending me home with a share basket, so I could see how this all worked in practice.

I’d already explained to Samudio that, like a lot of his CSA members, I’ve been paying closer attention to eating organically in recent years, and that, during the summer, I try to eat as much as possible from the food grown in our backyard garden. Yet as much as I love my veggies, I’ve resisted signing up for a CSA for all the common reasons — cost, convenience, a possibly pathological distaste for broccoli.

I can’t say that everything in the basket was packed with mind-blowing flavor. Frankly, I found the string beans a little bland, and the watermelon, while crisp and brightly colored, might have been sweeter. But for three consecutive evenings, I put together dinners almost exclusively using ingredients found in my basket: a dish of grilled potatoes and onions (topped with chives from my own garden), a coleslaw from the purple cabbage, a salad of romaine lettuce and tomatoes.

And while flavor is notoriously tricky to describe, the vegetables somehow tasted richer, cleaner, punchier than any of our store-bought equivalents. Suddenly my partner and I were talking about signing up for a share, because $35 for three exceedingly tasty meals didn’t seem like a bad deal at all.

“We’re missionaries,” James Samudio told me when I first met him. “We’re trying to make people see that they can live like this and eat like this.”

One organic vegetable — and one stomach — at a time.

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