I've been surprised at the number of people I know this year who have taken the leap into paying in advance to get a weekly supply of vegetables from a particular farm for the 20 or so weeks of summer that we have here in Michigan. The CSA (for Community Supported Agriculture) model of shopping for your produce is like getting a subscription to a farm. Whatever they have, you get some of. And whatever doesn't grow or is destroyed by hail or woodchucks or drought or heat or bugs or frost or deer or fungus or flood - you won't be getting some of that. You pay up front to give the farmer enough security to grow food for you. In return for sharing some of his or her risk, you're rewarded with sharing in whatever the farm is able to produce. It's a way to support a farm in your area that's growing *food* for people in your area - food security.
Someone asked me recently "well, if you want to support a farm, why don't you just buy from them at the market?" It's true, that is certainly a way of supporting the food-growing farms in our area. No arguing with that. Although, at our market how do you know which of the farms are actually in *our* area, and which are 4 hours away? Since a direct purchase does support the farm I'm buying from, I struggled to give an answer to why I'd choose instead to have someone else to pick out my produce. How is there possibly an advantage in trusting someone else to choose the amount, the kind and the quality of what I'm getting? And why allow anyone to take some of my central role as the family food procurer?
First I went for the rational. Well, it's cheaper. We're paying about $15 a week for our half of the farm share. If I had to buy each thing separately, it would cost more. Since there's a consistent weekly supply, I know we're going to be eating our vegetables - which is good for us. And it's greener - our food is grown organically and it doesn't travel very far to get to us. Plus, it's convenient. I'm going to the farmer's market anyway and now I don't have to angst over whether to get the broccoli or the bokchoi for the stir-fry, that choice is made for me. I don't have to try to guess quantities - that's decided too. And since the food is so fresh, it's very high quality. Those are good reasons, right? Why did it seem like not quite enough? Shouldn't I be able to get exactly what I want extremely cheaply and conveniently? That *is* the American way after all.
Several years ago, on our first foray into trying out a CSA farm share, we subscribed to a farm where the pickup was not at the Saturday farmer's market and the actual cost of each item was tallied and we gave a check each week to cover what we were buying. Strangely, this was psychologically much more difficult than paying up front and picking up at the market, even though I doubt the total cost was any different. Trundling over to the pickup spot at the pre-assigned time felt like another burden on our schedule. And I couldn't help thinking - what? $14 for a bunch of scallions, 2 heads of lettuce and a bundle of spinach? Is that too much? Did you bring the checkbook? There are definitely some psychological things going on with the perceived price/value ratio that made us decide that one wasn't for us even though the produce was excellent.
Not only psychological, but also emotional things go into the decision to have a farm share. For example, on the plus side now, we love getting a surprise package every week. Even though we get a weekly newsletter about what to expect, it's still a thrill to open the box every week. The regular work party days and workshops and their invitation to visit any time makes it feel like there's a connection to the farm and the people there. It's such a beautiful place and wonderful for kids - who can run around barefoot and see that carrots come from the dirt and how big a cow is. Plus, I know the people who are growing my food - I respect their values and expertise and what they are doing to build a community.
That's a lot of talk to answer a simple question, so I knew I was just circling around and around the issue without actually naming it. I hadn't realized I had such a wide variety of rationales I could come up with for my food choices - both conscious and unconscious. As I've heard some of my friends talk about their food decisions, for example whether to buy organic milk and which brand, it's clear that with food the decision-making criteria are pretty murky even when you think you're going with a rational choice. There's certainly a price/value threshold that seems unique to each individual (usually not rational either) but beyond that, what is there?
After the mental wild-goose chase, I think the truest thing is that the farm share is a way of directly investing in what I value. I can't do much besides shake my head in disbelief about the war in Iraq or the miles of plastic junk floating in the ocean. Head-shaking=not very useful. Over that stuff, I'm completely powerless. But with food, even if it's a small thing, I can actually *do* something about what I eat. I can participate and see that it's real when I make a tiny contribution toward making sure food is grown in this area for people who live here by people who live here. And it's a total bargain, with multi-faceted rewards. So if paying up front gives some needed security to a farm to grow food, that cost is like an insurance policy for me. Vegetable insurance. What a fantastic deal.