Farm fresh — CSAs allow you to own a piece of the farm, support your community and eat fresh.

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If you’ve had the privilege of biting into a freshly picked tomato straight from the garden, you know there’s a difference between that and what you’d get at many supermarkets. It’s an indescribable blast of flavor and (don’t tell the kids) nutrients. Don’t like tomatoes? Then lettuce, strawberries, radishes, onions, potatoes — you name it, it’s better when it’s fresh.

For many of us, especially those who reside in the city, having a full vegetable garden is unrealistic whether it’s due to time restraints, inadequate space, a busy lifestyle or you just plumb don’t know how to garden.

Local Maine farmers and growers are offering you the opportunity to enjoy fresh seasonal produce, as well as supporting local businesses and the economy, through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.

CSAs are farm-run programs where consumers can purchase a “share” from the farm during a growing season. Shares are typically divided up into either a full share (enough for a family of four) or a half share (family of two). The consumer then becomes a “shareholder” or “member” and receives a predetermined amount of produce over the season; it could be a heaping bushel-full a week or $250 of store credit to purchase what you want from the farm’s food stand. Depending on the farm, in addition to produce, shareholders can also receive dairy products such as fresh eggs and raw milk, baked goods and meat.

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“It’s such a great thing to support local farmers,” says Stacey Ross of Greene, a CSA member at Nezinscot Farm in Turner. “People who run farms are amazing. They work from sun up to sun down, 14 hours a day. It’s important that we support them and, in turn, we get fresh, locally grown produce and I know who is growing our food.”

Closer means fresher

On average, it is estimated that our food travels 1,500 miles before reaching our plates, reducing the quality and nutrition as well as contributing to the use of fossil fuels and waste to transport and package the food.

According to Melissa White Pillsbury, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) organic marketing coordinator, after produce is picked it begins to decompose, using up stored nutrients. So, invariably, the nutrient level diminishes by the time it arrives and sits on the supermarket shelf waiting for you to purchase it.

When you buy local, seasonal produce, you greatly reduce those variables in quality. Most often what you receive in a share has been harvested recently, if not that day, and out of Maine’s current 150 CSAs, more than a third are certified organic and almost all practice pesticide-free farming.

“You know where your veggies and meat and eggs are coming from,” says Darcey Ennis of Durham, who has a CSA share for her family with Little Ridge Farm in Lisbon Falls. “You know that they aren’t mass produced, that you’re not having all the pesticides or genetically engineered greens or fertilizers. That’s all very important to me.”

Building a community

The CSA mantra is “food with a farmer’s face.” Knowing the people who grow your food, understanding what it is they do to bring you your weekly share, interacting with them and developing a vested relationship is all part of the experience.

“Having close contact with the people you are growing for is like providing for your family,” explains Jill Agnew, owner of Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus. Her organically-certified farm was the first CSA in the area, established back in 1988 before people were hip to the idea of what it was.

“What draws you in to doing really intense work or working really long hours is a passion for what you are doing,” says Agnew. “I have that passion sustained by appreciative friends, family and shareholders.”

CSA members are encouraged to take advantage of all the farms have to offer. They are often  invited to walk the grounds, help to weed gardens, learn about farming and crafts, pick flowers and herbs from pick-your-own gardens and to use the farm as a place to gather with other member families. Oftentimes, the farms will arrange pot lucks and special events drawing the community of shareholders together.

Parents are also using the opportunity to educate their children about where their food comes from and how much work is needed to maintain a farm.

“Even though my kids are really little,” says Ennis, “I think it’s important for them to see where their food is coming from (and to know that) it doesn’t come from the grocery store shelf.” Her husband and two small children have made going to pick up their weekly bounty a family outing where they are sure to visit the animals, walk the gardens, say hello to Little Ridge Farm owner Keena Tracy and pick up the produce. “It’s definitely an educational experience for them.”

Picking a CSA that’s right for you

CSA members acknowledge there can be challenges to a CSA membership. Having to pick up produce from the farm, instead of an easy trip to the grocery store once a week, can be daunting at first. Different farms offer different alternatives to getting your share. Some welcome shareholders to arrive any day Monday through Friday after noon, others have one or two pick-up days a week. Smaller farms, such as Emmalou Farm in Leeds, deliver.

Then, there is the plethora of vegetables — or the dearth. During a good year, depending on how the particular CSA works, you may get a bounty of bok choy one week. You have to be up for potentially dealing with a load of vegetables and, potentially, a load of vegetables you don’t have much familiarity with.

Seasoned CSA members realize this, and look at it in a positive way: If things like celeriac, kale, bok choy and beet greens aren’t in your everyday vegetable repertoire, belonging to a CSA will help to diversify your palate, they say.

“Part of the challenge and part of the fun is that you get to try things that you would never have eaten before,” says Rachel Lowe of Auburn. She and her family have had a share at Willow Pond Farm for the past three years, and in that time have developed a greater appreciation and knowledge of veggies.

“We got Swiss chard many weeks in a row and it was never a vegetable I would have picked up and eaten before, but I’ve figured out how to cook it, like it and look forward to it.”

Having a good cookbook or a blog that is focused on fresh farm vegetables helps with ideas on how to prepare some of the things that may be unfamiliar. Another great resource is the farmers themselves. They’ll regularly post recipes, ideas, cooking tips and techniques on the farm Web site and include printouts for members who don’t have a computer.

On the flip side, during a bad year — like last year’s wet and miserable growing season — you may get much less produce than expected.

Ultimately, members are sharing some of the risks of farming with their CSA, but most members feel those risks are worth the benefits.

That’s one reason researching a CSA before becoming a member is a crucial step in the process. “It’s really important to be aware of what the farm is, who the farmer is and what their style is,” suggests Tracy.

Determining how a particular CSA operates, what food they grow, what other products are offered and whether you have the flexibility to “buy” other farm products with your membership if you’re not interested in that week’s load of leeks is important for being happy with your CSA.

MOFGA.net provides a list of all CSAs in Maine and their contact information divided by county, making finding the perfect fit for your family fairly easy. A quick call and a visit can help determine the right farm for you.

CSA programs in Androscoggin County

MOFGA.net provides a list of all CSAs in Maine and their contact information divided by county

• Little Ridge Farm

101 Gould Road

Lisbon Falls, Maine 04252

Phone: 207-353-7126

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• Maple Ridge Farm and Fishery

558 Sutherland Pond Road

Sabattus, Maine 04280

Phone: 207-375-9090

• Mysty Mountain Farm

388 Upper St.

Turner, Maine 04282

Phone: 207-225-3915

• Nezinscot Farm

284 Turner Center Road

Turner, Maine 04282

Phone: 207-225-3231

• Summit Springs Farm

222 Summit Spring Road

Poland, Maine 04274

Phone: 207-998-2196

• Tom’s Veggie Club

29 Berry Road

Wayne, Maine 04284

Phone: 207-685-9337

• Whispering Winds Farm

87 Standpipe Road

Mechanic Falls, Maine 04256

Phone: 207-345-9005

• Willow Pond Farm

395 Middle Road

Sabattus, Maine 04280

Phone: 207-375-6662

Resources:

Cookbooks:

• “Serving Up the Harvest: Celebrating the Goodness of Fresh Vegetables”

By Andea Chesmen

•”The Victory Garden Cookbook”

By Marian Morash

•”Smith & Hawken: The Gardeners’ Community Cookbook”

By Victoria Wise

•”Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets”

By Deborah Madison

•”Farmer John’s Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables”

By Farmer John Peterson

•”Simply in Season”

By Cathleen Hockman-Wert & Mary Beth Lind

•”Recipes from America’s Small Farms: Fresh Ideas for the Season’s Bounty”

By Joanne Hayes, Lori Stein & Maura Webber

Blogs:

www.smittenkitchen.com

www.eatrealgood.com

www.kitchen-parade-veggieventure.blogspot.com

www.organictobe.org

www.greenearthinstitute.org

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