It's Friday, farm-box day in my house. I grab my box of fresh produce from a local pickup place and open it. Broccoli rabe—hallelujah! Blue kuri squash—beautiful! Onions—useful! Turnips! Uh—turnips?
As a member of Full Belly Farm, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm located in the Capay Valley, about 100 miles from my home in Berkeley, California, I'm often cooking something I've never seen at a store or at least never thought to buy. I give Full Belly $15 a week and, in return, receive a box of wildly fresh fruits and vegetables of the farmer's choosing. Each week, I hope to get what I love: stone fruit, chard, or corn, depending on the season. What I don't love—parsnips, rutabagas, and the like—well, I hope the crops won't be too bountiful.
Try as I might to be open minded, I think of turnips as a subsistence crop, a tuber whose main culinary claim to fame is that it was once eaten to prevent scurvy. But never mind. Turnips are what I've got; turnips are what I'll eat. I plow through my cookbooks and find a decent-sounding soup recipe. I'm betting that the ingredients, which include butter, onions, celery, apples, and curry powder, could transform even the most humdrum root vegetable into something edible. They do. And I won't have to worry about scurvy.
When you get a CSA box, you have to figure out what to do,says Judith Redmond, one of Full Belly's four owners. It can be an exciting and creative process.
Indeed. For me, the unanticipated gift of a CSA box is that food is no longer a commodity but a creative challenge. No more ratatouille in the springtime—tomatoes and eggplant are summer crops. You cook with what grows in this place and time. Your box gave you turnips? Go figure it out.
When I first heard of weekly veggie boxes, I thought the idea sounded cool. I figured I'd be supporting a small farm (indisputably a good cause), I'd learn what grows nearby, and I'd be introduced to stuff I wouldn't normally buy. I didn't know how profoundly I was departing from the standard practices of our food supply.
A tomato can travel thousands of miles before it lands in a grocery cart. Most often, it's a hybrid that was bred to survive the trip rather than to taste great, and it may have been picked before its prime, in order to last days if not weeks in the supermarket. It used up plenty of the earth's resources as it was packaged, refrigerated, and trucked from farm to distribution point to store. Poor tomato. Poor you.
Those turnips in my box traveled just 100 miles (about the limit for most CSA produce), and they were an heirloom variety chosen for outstanding flavor. They were harvested about 24 hours before I ate them; plus their arrival at my house put money in the hands of a farmer who, by cutting out middlemen and the costs of transportation, just might stay in business. (Nationwide, farmers typically receive 19 cents of each dollar a consumer spends on food. For a CSA farm, the number is close to 100 percent.) On top of all that, the turnips prompted me to rethink dinner!
I didn't ask for all this when I committed to the weekly deliveries, but I'm grateful to have found it. As the poet farmer Wendell Berry wrote, "Eating is an agricultural act...Most eaters, however, are no longer aware that this is true. They think of food as an agricultural product, perhaps, but they do not think of themselves as participants in agriculture."
Eating locally—which you can also do by frequenting farmers' markets or grocery stores that carry locally grown produce—does a lot more than save gas: It can improve your diet. The shorter the time and distance between the farm and your tummy, the fewer nutrients your food loses; the more varied your diet, the broader the range of nutrients you get.
Supporting local farmers protects genetic diversity, too. Corporate farms (even of the organic persuasion) generally grow dozens or even hundreds of acres of a single crop, and they only plant produce for which there's wide demand. In effect, distributors decide what farmers grow—and that means only a few rugged varieties of the most common fruits and vegetables are planted in any given year. CSA farms, though, have a captive audience and can take more chances growing unusual crops and heirloom produce. One farm might plant crops like kohlrabi and purple broccoli, or might cultivate a dozen hard-to-find varieties of tomatoes over the season.
Julia Wiley, co-owner of Mariquita Farm, a CSA farm in Watsonville, California, proudly grows heirloom vegetables. She says: "The varieties are older and more interesting. And it keeps these heirlooms alive." But Wiley saves her most unusual produce like nettles, lamb's quarters, cardoons, and purslane for restaurants and the famed Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco. (Some of her CSA clientele are less enamored of odd produce.) The balance between the CSA and the farmers' market, she says, works quite well, and everyone wins. She gets to grow diverse crops, which keeps heirlooms and biodiversity alive, and consumers get to experiment and eat a wide array of produce.
Eating only locally grown food can be a challenge, and Jessica Prentice, the author of Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection, literally turned it into one. Last summer she posted a challenge on her Locavores website (www.
locavores.com), asking people to commit to eating only locally grown food for a month as a way to get to know their "foodshed."Some four hundred people spent last August doing so.
Prentice, who is planning another challenge for this May, found last summer's experiment a huge success. "People learned to pay more attention to what grows here," she says. "When I did the challenge, I found that most of the foods that were bad for me left my diet. I stopped eating sugar and ate raw honey. I stopped drinking caffeine [coffee doesn't grow in the Bay Area] but replaced it with medicinal teas."The point of the challenge, she said, was not to disdain foods that come from far away (where would we be without cumin or coconut milk?), but to raise support for locally grown food.
Prentice counts as her biggest coup hooking up local baker Eduardo Morell, who sells his artisan breads at the Berkeley Farmers' Market, with Full Belly Farm, which grows wheat. After some experimenting with the local wheat, he created a bread that he felt was good enough to sell—in fact, it continually sold out. This is just one example of how demand can create supply: Ask for locally grown food, and you just might get it!
But there's another benefit to eating locally. When we eat food that's grown near us, by people who live near us, we eat according to the rhythms of nature. In a culture that has become removed from food production and seasonal cycles, and resents limitations of any kind, eating locally is not only an agricultural act but also a radical one.
"Our culture is profoundly disconnected from the earth," Prentice says. "When you eat food grown locally, it brings alive your connection to your place, to the people who grew it, to the seasons, and to the cycles of life. You realize just how interconnected we really are."
Me, my food, and my farm
I know what she means. Last October, I took my family for a visit to Full Belly.
We parked the car and were immediately greeted by a full dog escort of four boisterous canines. Judith showed us the fields of autumn greens—kale, chard, mustard, and bok choy. We checked out the peach trees, the watermelon patch, and the pomegranate trees, and walked past bright ornamental sunflowers and flowering amaranth. We marveled at the pumpkin patch; my children were overjoyed when Judith handed them two giant carving pumpkins. We met the farm pig, Cinco, whose enormous girth and lusty grunts delighted my boys endlessly.
I fell in love. I felt deeply connected to the farm and grateful to all the farm workers who've worked so hard to provide gorgeous produce to my family year after year. As we drove out, I felt as if I had left a part of my heart behind.
Luckily, though, I never have to fully leave the farm. There's always Fridays and my weekly box. Just yesterday I picked one up. Melon! The last tomatoes! An insanely buoyant crop of mustard greens!
Dayna Macy, a writer and musician who can be found at www.daynamacy.com, is the communications director of Yoga Journal.