Day 110–Our First Produce Box of the Year!

The Produce Box is here! The Produce Box is here!

Pulling into my driveway last night, I saw an unfamiliar car behind me. The car pulled into my drive and stopped. Someone looking for directions? Someone complaining about my lack of green grass in the yard? Nope. It was my Produce Box Neighborhood Organizer delivering my first Produce Box of the growing season! Life is good.

I’ve blogged about The Produce Box before (HERE), but this is the first box we have received since last fall, so it merits some additional blog time! The Produce Box sources all its vegetables and farm products (cheese, bread, honey, jam) from North Carolina farms, packages them into CSA-type boxes and delivers them to the house. Members also contribute a small fee (I think it was $3 this year) to provide small grants to local farmers to help address issues on their farms (some of this year’s grants included purchasing seed starting supplies, purchasing refrigeration units, educational opportunities, etc).

Because The Produce Box works with several farms, they do offer a greater variety of vegetables than a traditional CSA, which also reduces the risk of not receiving anything if one farmer has a crop fail. Members can pick among several boxes each week, including an organic box and a small box for folks who can’t consume all the veggies in the standard box. And I have to say it, I love having my vegetables delivered. One thing I can cross of my list. But you know, meeting with and talking to farmers has been a real joy for me, so even though I get my produce box delivered, I’ll still be heading out to the farmer’s markets to pick up anything not in my box as well as cheese, pasta, meat, eggs, etc.

What did we get in our first box? Due to a late season frost last week, this week’s box is smaller than usual, but still a very welcome sight! We received two packages of strawberries, sweet potatoes, spinach, a HUGE head of lettuce, greenhouse cucumbers, and carrots so fresh they still have the dirt on ’em. Yum. Just in time for saladpalooza night!

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Day 63–Heaven on Earth Organics

This week, I managed to make it to the State Farmers Market on my lunch hour, something I hadn’t been able to do in a few weeks. Since my weekend is booked shilling Girl Scout cookies, I was glad to get my shopping done a day early.

I quickly found my favorite organic farm, Heaven on Earth Organics, and commenced to shopping. Farmer Scott Smith is eager to share nutritional information, and patient at answering my many questions. Like most farmers at the market, he lets me try samples of tomatoes, for example, so I can figure out which varieties I want and he often gives me a recipe idea or two. Try THAT at your local grocery!

We are in a strange mid-point with produce here in NC. Winter crops are on their way out, but spring crops haven’t quite come in yet. Still, I was glad to find plenty of lettuce, spring onions, and carrots along with collard greens, sweet potatoes and cabbage.

And SCORE! I was able to get two beautiful fresh roasting chickens from Rainbow Farm. Typically, if I can find them, they are frozen. Can’t wait to make roast chicken for Sunday supper!

Now I just need to figure out what we’re doing with the rest of this bounty!

Happy farmers market shopping! May you score your own fresh treasures today!

Day 33–Are You Joining a CSA?

CSA Haul the First

Today is 70 degrees and definitely doesn’t feel like February. But here we are in winter, dreaming of all the wonderful fruits and vegetables yet to come in the next few months.

For CSA (community-supported agriculture) organizations, this is the end of the sign up season. We have just renewed our membership in The Produce Box, which is a modified version of a CSA. I love the concept of the CSA, but the pickup idea just wasn’t working for our schedules (or my memory). Wondering about getting your local veggies this spring and summer? Here are some good options.

CSA

CSAs are membership “clubs” typically organized between a farmer and individual members of the public. In the winter, members purchase  “shares” in the farms future bounty and pay anywhere from $400-$500 up-front. This fee gives the farmer funds to purchase seeds, upgrade equipment and get ready for the busy season. Once the farm is producing, each member receives a weekly box or other amount of whatever is harvested that week and this goes on throughout the growing season. The benefits to the farmer are great–he or she knows has money to invest in the farm upfront and has a ready-made customer base (although members don’t pay for the weekly boxes, there are usually opportunities to purchase other items). The benefits to members include a steady supply of fresh fruits and vegetables and having a connection to a community farm. If you want all-organic produce, you can work specifically with an organic farmer. This all works really well unless the weather is bad or there is a blight and farm production is reduced. In that case, it is a good learning experience about the gamble of farming.

Modified CSA

Modified CSAs are membership clubs that work with a select group of farmers, rather than just one and they tend to offer a greater variety of products. Like traditional CSAs, there is usually some up-front or membership fee and after that, they vary widely. Some provide one standard box of produce each week, others give members varying degrees of choice in what is in their box.

Benefits to the farms are the same as a traditional CSA, and include also that the farmer does not have to run a separate business. Benefits to members include a wider variety of produce and a small safety net in case one farmer has trouble producing.

Because modified CSAs are run by a third-party, members should ask a lot of questions, including how much of the weekly or annual payment goes directly to the farmer. Other questions to ask might include:

  • Who are the farmers? Where are their farms located?
  • Can I visit the farms? How can I contact the farmer?
  • How are farmers chosen for participation?
  • How sustainable are the farms in the group? What are their farming protocols?
  • How much of the membership fees/payments are used for overhead (management, marketing)?
  • Can I see the most recent annual financial statement?
  • If all fees are paid in advance, how are these funds managed? Is there a board or is this an individual? Who has authorization to spend the funds and how is the risk of fraud addressed?

I know that last question sounds harsh and it might be hard to ask, but some modified CSAs charge an annual fee of up to $500. That’s a lot of money for a family and if the farmer isn’t in charge of the money, you need to know who is. Just sayin’.

Farmer’s Market

The farmer’s market is still a great way to get the widest variety of locally produced vegetables quickly after harvest. Farmer’s markets are springing up everywhere these days, which is great for consumers. To find a farmer’s market in your area you can go to www.sustainabletable.org and search by zip code.

Benefits to farmers include one-stop delivery of their products and a direct connection with customers. The downside to farmers is that farmer’s markets are a lot of work and their customer base is heavily dependent on the weather that day. Benefits to consumers include the ability to price shop among vendors, ask questions to the farmers themselves (or their family members), and see the amazing variety of seasonal products available in your area.

Farmer’s market caveat: make sure the market where you shop requires vendors to a) grow the food themselves and b) farm within 100 miles or less of your market. This prevents commercial food vendors from selling you the same veggies they are delivering to the supermarket, which often come from another state or country.

Grow Yer Own

Ok, this probably should have been first on the list. Growing your own vegetables or fruits is an incredibly fulfilling task. From my experience, I can say that walking out to your own backyard and picking vegetables for dinner is tremendously satisfying. You can’t get any fresher or more local than that! With a sunny patch and a little know-how, you can produce wonderful results for your family.

Gardening in your yard does have a few requirements: sun, consistent water and patience. My yard lacks adequate sun and once the mosquitoes turn out in force, it’s really hard to make myself water every other night, which is what we have to do when the weather turns hot. So, raising veggies has not really worked for me (more on that in another post this week!), but I do have plans…

The only downside to growing your own vegetables is that if you aren’t successful, you pay for the seeds/plants and still end up buying vegetables elsewhere. That’s where I am and why we joined the flexible CSA.

No matter what your resources, there are options for fresh vegetables coming soon! How will YOU get your veggies this year?

Day 27–What Is Sustainability?

Agriculture

The word “sustainability” is probably this year’s most overused buzzword. It must be the trendy replacement for “green”. Everyone from businesses to teachers are trying to be “sustainable” in what they do and how they do it. Or, at least, they say they are. Who knows what they are doing in practice.

And the same is true for farming and ranching. More farmers are using the “sustainable agriculture” term, but what exactly does that mean? And how will I know if they are really “sustainable” or just using the jargon as a marketing tool? I found myself getting a little muddled on the subject, so I started doing some research to clarify the issues for myself. And here is what I found.

Sustainable agriculture is “farming that provides a secure living for farm families; maintains the natural environment and resources; supports the rural community; and offers respect and fair treatment to all involved, from farm workers to consumers to the animals raised for food.” (www.sustainabletable.org)

While sustainable agriculture includes organic food production, it is a larger philosophy that promotes living wages for farmers and farm workers, healthy environments for humans and animals on the farm, caring for the land so it is not depleted of its richness and fertility, and reducing the carbon foot print of our food by encouraging consumers to buy as local as possible. Unlike the term “organic,” there is no certification for a farmer to be “sustainable.”

So, how do I know if a farmer is using sustainable agricultural practices or not? The Sustainable Table initiative offers loads of resources to help consumers, including lists of questions to ask farmers, produce managers, even grocery store workers. This is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about sustainable agriculture. It is offered by the Grace Communications Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to highlighting the connections between food, water and energy. Here is the link to their question sheets: http://www.sustainabletable.org/shop/questions/ 

Would a farmer lie about being sustainable? I can’t say “no”, but my guess is that the vast majority of farmers will be pretty upfront about how they grow their crops or raise their animals. The questions certainly help since they are very specific. If you get wishy-washy answers or defensive responses, keep moving!

I’m planning to take some of these questions to the farmer’s market tomorrow and see how it goes. I know this information has helped clarify things for me. I hope you find it useful as well!

Day 22–Starting Week 4–Budget and Menu

Well, Week 3, despite my less than stellar shopping experience, ended up a great success. Pizza challenge night and “breakfast for dinner” with our farm fresh eggs were both popular events that we’ll repeat! We even made our 75% challenge! The shopping experience went much more smoothly this week, although we have a TON of greens. We will definitely be getting our fresh greens in! We also picked up our first meat box from Farmhand Foods. The box included a braising cut (2 beef shanks), a grilling cut (hangar steak) and a roasting cut (mini boneless ham) all from local farmers. Since that’s a lot to eat in one week, we’ve frozen the steak and ham and are having the shanks this week. To make budgeting easier, I cut the cost of the box ($45) into thirds and will add each third into my budget as we use the meat. So how did we do budget-wise? Here is the breakdown:

  • Farmhand Food (beef shanks from meat box): $15.00
  • Mae Farm (Italian sausage, eggs): $12.00
  • Farmer’s Market-various vendors (onions, carrots, locally ground grits): $6.00
  • Farmer’s Market-Heaven on Earth Organics (collard greens, kale, salad mix, pea shoots, broccoli, sweet pepper): $23.00
  • Trader Joe’s (organic canned tomatoes, organic garlic, organic apples, soy milk, frozen fruit, wild caught salmon, yogurt, wine): $45.13

Total this week: $101.13 (YAY!!!!)

What good eats are we having this week? Here is what’s on tap at our house:

Sunday–Braised beef and sausage ragu over creamy grits, sautéed collard greens (Recipe will be posted this week)

Monday–Broccoli quiche and salad greens with pea shoots

Tuesday–Poached, wild caught salmon with sautéed greens and red quinoa

Wednesday–Leftover quiche or sandwiches (scout night–everyone fends for themselves)

Thursday–Leftover ragu over whole wheat pasta

Friday–out (date night!)

Saturday–Pizza challenge using leftover vegetables and cheese carryover from last week

As usual, breakfasts are toast, bagels, oatmeal and lunches are sandwiches or leftovers. I see more kale chips in our immediate future!

Have a happy and fulfilling week!

Day 12–The Produce Box

A single week's fruits and vegetables from com...

I love the idea of a traditional CSA, where you arrive at a meeting place, wait with other earnest, veggie loving people, and leave feeling virtuous with a box of farm fresh produce. The trouble is, I am a terrible CSA participant. Terrible. Pickup day arrives and I invariably have a late meeting scheduled or I get stuck in the carpool line (it’s not a social gathering, Mrs. Volvo Station Wagon!) or…I forget. Most often, it’s the latter. I’m half way to the gym and realize…*@&!$%…veggies! And “resentful” isn’t the way we should pick up our fresh veggies. That just seems so wrong.

So, a friend and neighbor introduced me to The Produce Box. I love those people, I tell you. Rather than waiting with a tapping foot for me to come screeching around the corner, they patiently pack up my order and deliver the veggies to ME! I didn’t realize anyone did that anymore. According to their website, they are “a network of families, farmers, neighborhood moms, and others who all share a common vision–growing and eating food that’s good for you and the planet, from people you know.” I think of them as the “veggie fairies,” but whatevs.

Here is how it works:

  • You pay an annual membership fee of $18. (This fee covers boxes and containers and provides funds for small, board-sponsored grants to local farmers to buy seed, equipment, and make their farms more sustainable.)
  • Each week on Friday, you receive an email detailing the standard (default) box of veggies as well as several alternatives, including an organic box, a fruit box and so on. Each box is about $23.00 and you pick whatever you want or bypass that week altogether and pay nothing.
  • By Sunday night, you go into your account, pick your box for the week, plus any additional add-ons. If you’re like me and you forget, you automatically get the standard box (it’s like they know me). This fall, add-ons included local bread, honey, preserves, apple butter and cheese. Your account is charged when your order is filled.
  • Wed or Thursday, a box of your beautiful, locally grown vegetables and other items arrives on your doorstep.

Voila! No forgetting! No speeding down the highway after a long meeting to get to a pickup location!

I say, “voila!” like this is an easy feat. Really, the entire production depends on a LOT of very dedicated farmers, volunteers and part time employees. I don’t know them, but I love every single one of them. The vegetables we have received have been unbelievably wonderful, very fresh and of excellent quality. The board surveys members in the fall and works with local farmers to plant crops that members have interest in. Pretty cool!

The Produce Box is not operating now, but they will be starting up again in April. Here is a sampling of what they hope to offer in April:

  • asparagus (yes!)
  • cauliflower
  • broccoli
  • green beans
  • onions
  • berries
  • cherries

Interested? The website is www.theproducebox.com

It may be cold and rainy outside, but I’m thinking spring!

Day 7–The Winter Farmer’s Market part 2

We are a carnivorous family. Actually, we are ominovores, but we like our veggies with some animal on the side, and I probably have the only child who called bison jerky “meat candy.” (Apologies to my vegetarian friends, but that’s how we roll).

But reading the blogs, papers, websites, books, etc., it is clear that our mass produced food supply–especially our meat production–is out of control and often dangerous. When the government (after quite a long lag time) has to tell some meat producers NOT to inject ammonia into meat to keep ecoli at bay, you know there is trouble.

Happy pigs at Mae Farm

So finding high quality, locally produced meat is essential to our journey. We agree that eating less meat that is of higher quality is a good tradeoff. I’ve blogged about Farmhand Foods already and Whole Foods is a good, albeit expensive source as well. On my recent trip to the Farmer’s Market, though, I found that several local meat producers, including Mae Farms of Louisburg, NC (maefarmmeats.com) had set up shop. What a great find!

Mae Farms raises hogs, cattle and chickens on pasture, humanely, and with no antibiotics, growth hormones or animal sourced food. In fact, Mae Farms sells to Whole Foods, but at the Farmer’s Market you can get the same products for a bit less. In talking with the folks at Mae Farms, I realize what a treasure we have in North Carolina (and you probably have this in your state, too). Small production farmers who want to producde high quality food and maintain a lifestyle they love. I purchased some barbeque they made as well as bacon and fresh eggs. Can’t wait to try them next week!