CSA: A Growing Season in Review

I’ve talked about supporting CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs on this blog (here and here), so some of you may already know that we purchased a half share  into Sunhill Gardens CSA program the last growing season (Sunhill is owned and operated by Wayne and Karen Sollid).  For those who aren’t familiar with CSAs, Sunhill has put together some great information (and a video) providing information and education on CSAs.

“The concept is simple.  You buy a ‘share’ of our vegetable crop pre-season and this allows us to purchase seeds and supplies and to plan the crop.  You then visit a central pick-up site in Camrose or Sherwood Park weekly during the growing season to gather your share of the incredibly fresh and delicious offerings that we have grown and harvested for you.” (- exerpt from Sunhill Gardens website)

Picking fresh peas at Sunhill Gardens (photo by Dong Kim)

With Spring springing up earlier than usual, I thought it would be timely to blog about our first year with the CSA program. CSAs are well established and very popular in BC, Ontario, and down in the States. It’s not uncommon for certain farms in Vancouver to have their CSA shares fully booked by April. It seems as if the concept of CSAs is still relatively little known in Alberta which is a shame because we found that a CSA program is a great way to support local farmers, to eat more locally grown and fresh produce or animals, and to learn about the work that goes into getting great quality food to your plate.

As part of the CSA program, I worked 6 hours on the farm. The day I went to help out with in-row weeding at Sunhill Gardens was possibly THE most physically-tiring day of my 2011. After only 2-3 hours squatting over rows of carrots, I walked away with battle scars of a blistery aching sunburn, a butt that throbbed for days after, and 52 mosquito bites (yes, I counted). But weeks later when we received our first bag of carrots (and when the sunburn stopped burning), I was able to REALLY appreciate the work and love that goes into making our carrots grow perfectly beautiful and sweet. The fresh yummyness of the salads, soups, sauces that we made with those carrots made all that work and pain worth it.

Peas were so sweet, the dogs were helping to pick (and snack on) them (Photo by Dong Kim)

Purple Kohlrabi (Photo by Dong Kim)

There were other benefits from the CSA program that I wasn’t expecting. In getting a stock of farm fresh vegetables each week, we ate lots more fresh veggies than usual AND I was able to try out new produce and have fun with creative recipes.

We picked up our produce every Thursday over summer and if D was doing the pick-up, I’d greet him at home with the question, “What did we get?!”. It was like receiving a gift each week, a gift of the sweetest and freshest flavours. We were enthralled when there was an item that we weren’t familiar with, not that I’m opposed to eating kohlrabi, but having never eaten or cooked it, I never had cause to buy any. Who knew it made such a delicious crunchy addition to stir fry?

I soon developed new favourite recipes like a summery potato & bean nicoise salad or a bright salmon chowder loaded with dill, onion, corn, and peas. But curries were by far my favourite way to incorporate loads of vegetables into one tasty dish!

I had a ton of fun experimenting with yellow curries, green curries, coconut curries, Singaporean curries, Indian curries (thanks to Vikram and Meeru for the awesome Vij’s recipes), and Thai curries. We served our curries mostly with quinoa but sometimes I’d get creative and serve it with buckwheat or chick pea pancakes. The best thing about curry is that most vegetables go well with curry and meat isn’t required for the dish to be flavourful. I could toss in whatever produce we had on hand or received in that week’s harvest box. I learned that I really love curried cauliflower.

Zucchini (Photo by Dong Kim)

As I socialized the CSA program to friends, coworkers, and acquaintances, by far the most common questions I got asked were “How much is it?” and “How much do you get?”… what greedy capitalists we are! Here’s the bottom line…

The risk with investing in a CSA program is that along with the bounty of fresh produce, you also share in the risks of weather conditions, pests, and other issues that may affect the crop. The growing season in 2011 was affected by poor Spring weather. As a result, the season started later than usual.

We started receiving vegetables on July 21, receiving one harvest box of produce every week until Thanksgiving weekend (Oct 6) for a total of 12 weeks. We paid $325 for a half-share last year (plus 6 hours working on the garden). The full shares start at $595 (with garden time). When you average it out we paid $27.08 per week for our share of produce.

We had purchased the smaller half-share, which was great since there were only two of us. A typical week’s share during Aug-Sept included:

  • 1lb beans (green or white)
  • 3 lbs potatoes (purple, red, or yellow)
  • 1 bunch kale
  • 1 bunch beets
  • 1 bunch carrots
  • 1 bunch green onions (or 1 bunch dill)
  • 1 bag peas
  • 1 bag lettuce

One week's half-share CSA veggie "box"

We found we always ended up with potatoes, carrots, and beans leftover from the week. We gave some away to friends and family but valued Karen’s advice of parboiling and freezing the vegetables for winter.

Knowing how much I pay each week at the Farmers’ Markets, I would say that for our first CSA season, we probably paid just a bit less than what we would have if we bought the same amount from the Farmers’ Markets.  Yet the slim financial value was outweighed by other benefits…

  • The excitement of having a box of produce packed for you each week (it was like receiving a gift each week)
  • The knowledge that the produce was packed only a couple days prior to our pick-up (and really tasting the difference)
  • Having a stock pile of veggies in the freezer that lasted us through December (great for soups and stir fries)

Most of all, we loved knowing that our money was going to support a local farm and we also enjoyed developing a familiarity with the farm and the family who lovingly tended to each carrot and beet that went on our plates.

Near the end of September when D and I went to pick up one of our last weekly Harvest boxes, he said to me, “So, we can’t not sign up for next year. It would be strange not to get our vegetables from Karen.” He’s right. We signed up for our second season with Sunhill’s CSA.

Beet Greens (photo by Dong Kim)

Snow Pea (Photo by Dong Kim)

Purply Cabbage (Photo by Dong Kim)

To inquire about Sunhill’s CSA Program, please contact Karen here.

All photos by Dong Kim.

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4 Comments on “CSA: A Growing Season in Review”

  1. March 20, 2012 at 8:42 am #

    You got some fantastic photos at the farm. I just made kohlrabi soup and my family really enjoyed it.

    • March 20, 2012 at 8:49 am #

      Thanks Tammy – can’t take credit. The beautiful photos were taken by Dong. Kohlrabi soup? You have me intrigued…

  2. March 20, 2012 at 10:34 am #

    So enjoyed reading this, Carmen and beautiful photos, Dong! Thanks. Fun to notice that, since the pick-up is combined with a market, we find ourselves watching for each CSA member with the same bit of excitement that goes with waiting to give someone a gift and watch their reaction. We love the feedback and the relationships.

    Sorry about the sunburn and sore butt, Carmen. You did work hard that day freeing those carrots! Group sunscreen, bugspray and a pre-work warm-up should maybe be our standard protocol for workdays?!

    And, yes, when we did the math on the $325 share last fall, at market prices it was worth over $400. The beans, potatoes and carrots were extra plentiful. Excited to see what this season will bring!

    • March 20, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

      Thanks for reading Karen. Loved hearing that the excitement of the CSA pick-up is mutual.

      Don’t worry about my butt, it needed the squats!

      Great to hear about the costs of CSA vs. costs of Farmers’ Market AND that you’re almost sold out of the shares for this year!

      Can’t wait to see you again for some yummy, fresh veg.

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