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So you've done your reading and decided going organic, or perhaps even attempting a raw diet, is within the realm of culinary possibility. Maybe you've been titillated by the specialty produce you've seen served in restaurants. Or like me, you're for the most part seriously unhappy with the quality -- not to mention price -- of the fruit and vegetables you can find in local supermarkets. Aside from growing your own, which requires a good deal of dedication along with a modicum of expertise, where can you satisfy your healthier-lifestyle cravings?
My answer in the past has always been, um, dunno. Many of the farms, orchards, and groves I've written about over the years have catered mostly to the restaurant trade. Others ship their products out of state. As consumer wannabes, it's been frustrating to know that the biggest avocados and juiciest tomatoes have always been just beyond our home-cooking reach.
Fortunately, thanks to a growing sense of kinship that is infusing Florida City, Homestead, and Redland growers, that's about to change. For the first time Redland Organics, an offshoot of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative, is offering the public the opportunity to buy in for the entire harvesting season.
According to the UMass Extension Website, "CSA reflects an innovative and resourceful strategy to connect local farmers with local consumers; develop a regional food supply and strong local economy; maintain a sense of community; encourage land stewardship; and honor the knowledge and experience of growers and producers working with small to medium farms." In other words, it's a way of reaching out to and protecting the family farm. The ideology was born in Japan about three decades ago, when prospering trade with other nations flooded the grocery store shelves with imported food items. There a cooperative of women came up with teikei, which means literally "putting the farmer's face on food."
Okay, so some of us don't like to eat food with a face -- hence vegetarianism. But the forging of a personal connection between the growing and purchasing of food became immediately popular, and the teikeimodel was subsequently adopted by European, Canadian, and American farmers who had been feeling increasingly isolated -- the one house where the rest of the gastronomic neighborhood refused to play. Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts is given national credit for coming up with the CSA term in 1985, and today there are at least 1000 CSA farms in North America alone.
CSAs operate by allowing consumers to purchase "shares" of a season. In return for an up-front fee, which covers the growers' costs for seed, fertilizer, machine maintenance, and labor, supporters receive a continuous portion of the harvest over the span of the growing season. The term share is especially appropriate, given that the word denotes a sense of brotherhood but also connotes the stock market -- an important point when you realize that as in life, nothing in farming is ever for sure. But by contributing to CSAs, community members ensure that growers can afford to err on the side of having a reliable, permanent market. Indeed members are like bankers, loaning the farmers funds and being repaid by increments with fresh, seasonal produce. The interest on the loan is paid off in health benefits.
Unless they're very large endeavors, however, with a variety of crops, CSA farms can experience difficulty traversing the supply-demand curve. For one thing not many purported shareholders will be attracted to a six-month supply of, say, lima beans. And as the season wanes, growers might have a hard time fulfilling the pre-ordered boxes. Paradise Farm owner Gabriele Marewski found out last year, when she started a CSA for the first time, that she simply didn't have enough material. But rather than leave the dress half-made, she asked neighboring grower Margie Pikarsky of Picarco/Bee Heaven Farm to pitch in.
Pikarksy saw the wisdom of not only supplementing Marewski's CSA, but in creating a CSA collective. "There've been a number of organic growers operating under the radar down here. We'd pretty much reached critical mass. We got the idea going that we could combine [our efforts] to satisfy a lot more people." Encouraged by Marewski and another grower, Chris Worden of Worden Farms -- who had approached Pikarsky about selling his produce for him at the Pinecrest farmers' market -- she founded the Redland Organics group. "Now we are finding out we can do better by banding together," she notes.
Currently a six-farm collective, Redland Organics has just put its 60 shares on sale for the first time ever this past week. Community members have several options. You can buy in for the season, which runs for 20 weeks, at $460 (plus a $15 one-time membership fee, which puts you on the e-mail list and invites you to farm-related events). That translates to a $23 investment and a return of one rather large box of produce per week. You can also do a trial share, which is $100 for four weeks, after which you can decide if you'd like to continue; at this point, however, the weekly price rises to $25. For those who live alone or eat sparingly, half-shares -- 20 weeks of produce packaged in smaller quantities -- are being offered at $275.
There are a couple of caveats. Redland Organics doesn't deliver. Community members have the option of picking up the goods at Bee Heaven or at one of the farmers' markets -- Coral Gables or Pinecrest -- where Pikarsky sells to the general public. More convenient, perhaps, is if at least five community members who live in the same area (Aventura, for instance, or South Beach) have a point person who will pick up a number of boxes and distribute them. I'm going to bully -- I mean, rally-- my neighbors into forming this additional kind of cooperative, so that we can all take turns in heading south for the winter. (Note that half-shares are available for pickup at the farm only.)
Then, of course, there's the element of surprise. To paraphrase the eminently wise mother of Forrest Gump, CSAs are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get: avocados and edible flowers from Bee Heaven Farm; heirloom tomatoes and peppers from Evertrue Farm; mamey and sapote from Health and Happiness Farm; micro-greens and sprouts from Paradise Farm; longans and lychees from Saw Mill Farm; and broccoli and cilantro from Worden Farm, to name only a few of the dozens of possibilities. Pikarsky has already worked out some of the possible kinks. "I've budgeted a certain amount so that I will always get something from someone, and everyone will have a chance to participate," she guarantees.
Still it's wise to heed the Redland Organics brochure: "We are not a supermarket! The vegetables that you find in your box are what we are harvesting at that time, and you will not be able to pick and choose as in a market.... Part of the commitment is to learn to eat what is in season in your area."
But even such stipulations have upsides, it seems. You can note preferences on a list that you submit along with your application form (see www.redlandorganics.com/CSAapp.htm) by rating your produce -- a "4" means you'd like to see cucumbers in your box every week, a "1" indicates that you don't even know what sweet luffa is. You can also expect some consistency in terms of category. Pikarsky says, "I always include some sort of green, salad makings, and an herb in each box, in addition to whatever else is in season." Finally, if you pick up your veggies at the farm, you can swap at an exchange table if you really can't bear to bring home the daikon, and you can buy extra of whatever crop is in surplus while you're there.
As added incentive for learning to eat seasonally, from time to time the box will include recipes and tips on cooking unfamiliar vegetables. As far as a school of thought goes, the CSA/Redland Organics seems to be one in the making, and this first year will no doubt be a time for experimentation and education on the part of both growers and community members. But at least the curriculum promises to be tasty.