Sunday, November 14, 2010

From farm to Fremont.

There is a chill in the air and the scent of fireplaces in use. The sweaters have come out of the back of the closet. The leaves on the tree outside my building have changed color and dropped to the ground. Yes, winter is coming up fast. And while there are many things to love about wintertime – pumpkins, egg nog, snuggling, and snowboarding – there is one significant downside. The J.E. Perry Farms produce stand is closing for the winter, and my main source for local, organic, and surprisingly affordable produce is going away.

Before I found the produce stand, I purchased most of my fruits and veggies at the Newark farmers market and the rest from Trader Joe’s. The farmers market is still a good option, but it takes a lot of effort to vet the farmers. Unlike the Ferry Plaza farmers market in SF or the Berkeley farmers market, these vendors are not expected to follow any particular practices or farming philosophy (although local and small farms are given some preference, and GMOs are not allowed). That means it’s up to me to ask lots of questions, and I have to simply trust that the vendors know the answers and are telling me the truth.

Relying on a farmers market also means I have to shop during specific hours, usually only one day a week. If I have something else to do that day, or I’m sick, or it’s Tuesday at 6pm – well, I’m stuck with Trader Joe’s or maybe even Safeway. While it’s better than not having access to produce at all, I’m no longer satisfied with industrial organic produce, heralding from distant lands, and shrink-wrapped in plastic.

An option I have not yet tried is joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A farmer or group of farmers can choose to sell shares in their harvest as part of a CSA program. Members pay in advance to receive boxes of fresh produce - and possibly also eggs, meat, or other farm goods - over a specified length of time. This gives farmers a steadier source of income and helps mitigate unforeseen problems like bad weather. CSA members get fresh, local produce from a farm that fits their needs and values. Farms that participate in CSAs are generally small, family-owned, polycultures that use sustainable practices. These are the farms rarely represented in a grocery store because they do not produce a vast quantity of one or two crops. Building strong relationships between growers and eaters is beneficial for both parties, and CSA participation is on the rise.

Local Harvest, a site devoted to helping consumers find sustainable farms, farmers markets, and other resources, maintains a list of CSA programs throughout the United States. The site claims to have over 2,500 CSA farms in their database with the number growing all the time. I used the CSA search tool on Local Harvest to find a program in my area: Fremont, California. (I also used it to find a delicious nearby restaurant that uses locally-sourced ingredients!)

Out of the 20 (!) listings on Living Harvest for CSA programs in my area, I narrowed it down to three and finally one: the Eatwell Farm CSA. I picked this program because it has a drop-off near my work on Thursday evenings, which totally fits into my schedule. They offer a wide variety of veggies and fruits even in winter. And they have eggs. Incredible, ethical eggs! Also, I have seen Eatwell Farm’s produce and eggs at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market so I know they are high quality goods and that the farm uses sustainable practices, as that market requires. They also had a nice website with a lot of information about the farm, member feedback, and even a farm blog. I just signed up for their 4-week trial subscription, which will include a half dozen eggs and a whole lot of produce for $108. That’s $27 per week, which is about what I spend now. I’m also opting to receive a box every other week to start with.

Given that I have to pick up my box on a certain day and time window, this option may not be much better than the farmers market. However, picking up my CSA box is a lot faster than shopping! Plus, I know I am supporting a farm that I can be proud of. I guess I'll just have to test it out and see. For now, though, I’m looking forward to my first mystery box from Eatwell Farm and a carton of beautiful eggs!

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