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Community Supported Agriculture programs provide direct link between farmer and consumer

Michiana farmers are making it easier than ever for consumers to receive local, freshly harvested produce and meats — minus the middleman.

Following the growing national farm-to-table movement, CSA (community supported agriculture) programs have been cropping up across the region in recent years.

Consumers purchase a share of a local farmer’s seasonal crop, usually prior to the commencement of growing season, and are presented with an assortment of items each week, often bundled in full-share and half-share allotments.

“I think CSAs work best for people who like to cook and are interested in maybe sometimes trying out some meals that they haven’t done before with some slightly new ingredients,” said Alex Smith, manager of Elkhart’s Rise Up Farms.

“We try to make sure that we have a lot of the staples in there, but sometimes we’re also putting in things that people haven’t had before, something like kohlrabi. I think having an interest in trying out some different vegetables, or maybe new varieties of familiar vegetables could make good use of it.”

The programs assist farmers by providing early sales that help sustain cash flow throughout a growing season. By having customers reserve shares early, farmers are able to spend less time marketing their products and more time tending to crops.

Not only do CSA members reap the bounty of the harvest, but the transparency of the transaction also promotes a personal relationship between creator and consumer.

Most CSAs have satellite pickup points for the convenience of members who are unable to travel directly to the farm.

Many farmers will ally with other producers of eggs, meats and flowers to make the weekly offerings more well rounded.

Some even offer work share options, where CSA members to get their hands dirty on the farm in exchange for discounted shares.

The downside to making a deal involving Mother Nature? Nothing is guaranteed.

Erratic weather and grow conditions can easily deliver a debilitating blow to any crop. The risk involved in a CSA agreement is made clear to consumers, with some farmers requiring contractual agreements to legally safeguard their business in the event of a less than stellar season.

Conversely, there are times when the yield of one particular item is greater than expected.

“With any sort of farm, even when we’re growing a whole lot of different things like we do, sometimes we’ve got a glut of one crop, like tomatoes, for example,” Smith said. “If you’re able to do a bit of preserving at that time, then that can really help you enjoy those in the future.”

Of the different methods for preservation, Smith believes freezing to be easiest way to stretch the life of CSA produce items and recommends his personal two-step process.

  • Step 1: Clean and cut produce, then lay it out on a tray and put it in the freezer.
  • Step 2: After a day, move them from the tray to a sealed bag and back in the freezer.

“It’s going to make them a lot easier to use. They’re not all going to freeze together,” he said.

A number of items included in CSA baskets are best consumed shortly after purchase, particularly the variety of greens grown in Midwest weather including spinach, chard, romaine, cabbage and kale.

“I think storing everything properly is the name of the game, especially for our half members that come every other week,” said Theri Niemier, owner of Bertrand Farm in Niles, Mich.

Before refrigerating, wilted leaves should be pulled and discarded.

Niemier also stressed the importance of removing excess moisture from greens either by hand or with the assistance of salad spinners, if available. Spinners can range anywhere from around $10 to over $150, depending on the size and quality of the common kitchen device.

“The best thing to do would be maybe to sit the greens out on your countertop and let it dry,” Niemier said. “Then wait until it’s thoroughly dry and then bag it with a piece of paper towel in the bag and put it in your crisper.”

Greens tend to decay quicker than any other item found in CSA baskets, so it’s best to use or preserve them quickly.

Niemier noted the abundance of kale, a leafy, vitamin-rich superfood that has typically made its way to her customers in the past.

“One of the things that newbies on our farm always want to know is what do they do with all of this kale. Kale chips are the easiest, fastest way to preserve them,” said Niemier. “When you bag them, they’re kind of preserved indefinitely.”

  • Step 1: Remove the kale leaves from their tough stems and toss the leaves with a little olive oil and spices.
  • Step 2: Spread leaves on a baking sheet and place in the oven on low heat until dehydrated and crunchy.

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