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I have spent the past couple months thinking more deeply about what makes a successful CSA, what retains members from year-to-year, and how to drive member satisfaction in a CSA. I have been reading academic papers on CSAs, attended the Midwest CSA Conference last week, and I have been talking to a lot of CSA farmers. I have also been examining how I participate in CSAs and I often bring CSA up in social conversation and I am fascinated by what people say about their experience or perception of what a CSA does.
At the member level, it is clear to me that success in a CSA program is determined by skill in utilizing the weekly box. We want CSA members who are confident in the kitchen; we want CSA members who are canning and lacto-fermenting; we want CSA members excited to cook for family and friends and tell the story of where their food comes from. However on a macro scale, what we have is a nation that has forgotten how to cook. So when an eater comes to a CSA for the first time, it is difficult to make the adjustments that a CSA asks of it's members. These do not need to be exotic skills, but there is a trick to turning a box of fresh food into meals.
You know that already: that's why your weekly newsletter already provides recipes and notes about how to use the box you provide. I keep coming back to this idea that the classic recipe does a disservice to the CSA member because it is a set of discrete steps that need to be followed with these specific ingredients. The subtext of almost any recipe is: if you don't do it in this exact way with these exact ingredients, you will fail. I think that approach sells cookbooks, but it doesn't fit with the seasonal CSA eating model.
I want CSA members who see a recipe for broccoli slaw and immediately realize that they can substitute cauliflower from their CSA box into the existing recipe. Or realize that it's probably okay to use green onions in a recipe that calls for a white storage onion. What has helped me other the years is learning certain base recipes that can be extended with whatever is in the box or in the garden. For example, this summer I started making broccoli fritters which are absolutely delicious. They are equally delicious as zucchini-turnip fritters or mushroom fitters.
I want to teach CSA members techniques for their boxes and get away from classic recipes. I want to teach "substitution style cooking" that teaches kitchen proficiency and economy: use what's in the box to confidently create simple, delicious meals.
I think this is a paradigm shift from how we normally about educate members about how to cook the box and it is not as easy as copying-and-pasting recipes from AllRecipes.com. This kind of education initiative is a long way from the details of growing great food, but I am convinced that it is important to the success of the overall CSA movement. I am very interested to hear if anyone has tried this approach to CSA member education and succeeded and failed? Email me: simon (at) smallfarmentral.com.
The Coloradoan reports that Grant Family Farms has filed for bankruptcy. This farm has been in business for 61 years and serves 3,500 CSA members (along with an extensive wholesale produce business) in the Denver region and was Colorado's first organically certified farm. At 3,500 members, it is one of the larger CSAs in the country so in that light, I thought this news may interest readers of this blog.
The farm cited crop damage and financial hardships as the reason for the bankruptcy. Of course a farm that employs 300+ employees at the height of the summer season is quite different than a CSA that serves a couple hundred families. It is not clear from the article what percentage of sales of the farm relate to CSA customers vs. the wholesale business. The article suggests that Andy Grant, owner of Grant Family Farms, feels that the CSA is one of the strongest parts of his farm operation and it sounds like they plan to continue running that part of the farm after they emerge from bankruptcy.
It will be interesting to watch how Grant Family Farms re-prioritizes their business and how they can lean on their 3,500+ member base to plan a more secure financial future.
Read the full article.
I was discussing legal documents for CSAs with Rachel Armstrong at Farm Commons. This is the organization that posted the sample member agreements for CSAs and ran the webinars which I have posted about on this blog over the past couple of months. Farm Commons is a non-profit helping direct marketing small-scale growers with legal questions and has put together some really nice sample documents that CSA farmers can use.
She wanted to make sure that I distributed the most relevant link for the sample legal documents which is farmcommons.org/csa-operations. The link I posted before was more Illinois specific and she wanted to make sure that our farmers were not confused, so thank you for the updated information, Rachel!
Just to give you a bit of teaser: Rachel and I were discussing the up-coming online CSA conference that Small Farm Central is organizing in conjunction with PASA. More on that later, but mark your calendar for March 15th, 2013.
Staff Member: Lauren Seiple
I am currently obsessed with sage. It's soft, fragrant, has an ancient culinary and medicinal history..but mostly it just makes me happy because it still looks great in my garden while everything else has fallen away. I think that winter is the perfect time to cook with sage, since it goes well with hearty winter foods like squash, pasta, stuffing, and meat.
This recipe features sage in the cream sauce, but also includes some of my other favorite things: farm fresh pork and cooking in my cast iron skillet. Unfortunately I haven't reached a point in my cooking experience where I can put my own name to a recipe, so I have to give credit to Alexis Touchet at Gourmet.com for coming up with the original idea.
Sauteed Pork Chop with Sage Cream Sauce
2 (1-inch-thick) rib pork chops
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup finely chopped shallot
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh sage
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh parsley
I don't cook meat very often and their aren't many ingredients in this recipe, so when I make this I don't substitute anything. I say: go with heavy cream & fresh herbs or go home. Also, I've found that the recipe works just as well with 2 chops as with one. As long as they are not too big, there is plenty of sauce to share.
Pat your pork chops dry and season with salt and pepper. Heat oil in an 8- to 10-inch cast iron skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then brown chops, turning over once, 5 to 6 minutes total. Transfer with tongs to a plate.
Pour off all but 1 teaspoon fat from skillet and reduce heat to moderate, then cook shallot, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes. Add vinegar and boil until liquid is evaporated, about 3 seconds.
Return chops to skillet along with any juices accumulated on plate, then add water, cream, and sage and simmer, covered, without turning, 5 to 6 minutes. (If you have a meat thermometer, it should register at 150°F when inserted horizontally into center of chop)
Transfer chops to a clean plate, then simmer sauce, uncovered, stirring, until liquid is reduced to about 4 tablespoons, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Spoon sauce over chop.
To complete the meal, I use the leftover heavy cream when making horseradish mashed potatoes. I also like to include a green vegetable; usually roasted Brussels sprouts, steamed broccoli, or sauteed spinach. It doesn't take long to cook the pork, so get these side dished going first. Enjoy!
To save up some stores of energy as we go into our busy season, the Small Farm Central team will be taking a light week between Christmas and New Years. This means that we will continue our 24/7 monitoring of the servers and the health of the service including major bug fixes, but we will not be scheduling sales phone calls and support will be limited to email. Please bear with us as we we'll have reduced staff watching the support email inbox. You may find your answer in the comprehensive knowledge base.
If you are interested in Member Assembler, sign up for one of our weekly online demonstrations that we run each Wednesday (starting again on Jan 2nd).
It has been a really great year here at Small Farm Central and we have some really big initiatives to announce to you in early 2013, so stay up to do date by subscribing to the blog if you don't do that already.
I feel honored to work for so many talented and good-hearted farmers. I hope that you get some time to spend with family and friends as well as some time to relax and recharge the batteries. We'll try to do the same here.
-Simon & the rest of the Small Farm Central team.
We spent some time working on the Member Assembler public pickup page with 3 goals:
Welcome to the pickup page that we quietly released about two weeks ago! The member can now type in their zip code or address and get a list of the 10 closest locations to them as well as the distance from their address to the location (see red circles in image above).
Also, notice that the full address in never shown to the customer until they have joined this pickup (see blue circles in image above).
Customers may be given an option to select a 'second choice' pickup location when registering with your CSA. You can this feature on or off under Member Assembler / configure / display settings.
I know it's the time of year where people try to impress one another with their culinary expertise for pot-lucks, parties, and food blogs. I'm not above such self-aggrandizing (I roasted and served an acorn squash stew inside a pumpkin last week) but in choosing a staff recipe, I decided upon a different take: the slacker chef approach.
One winter, I found myself hungry and in no mood to go outside the house (or shower, likely). All I could scrounge around was the remains of a large bag of carrots of which I had probably only needed a couple for a previous recipe and an onion. As an Italian, I always have pasta in the house, but I had no sauce or tomatoes. I did have a can of cheap condensed tomato soup, however. So I conceived of the idea of roasting the carrots and onions and then blending them with the soup. How bad could it be? Turned out it was crazy delicious and my friends now request it all the time.
10 Large Carrots
1 Onion, preferably Vidalia
1 10.75 oz. can of Condensed Tomato Soup
Chop the carrots and onion, but not too small. No reason to over-extend yourself.
Turn the oven to bake at 350 degrees. Toss the vegetables with enough olive oil to coat and some garlic salt. Arrange the vegetables flattish on a baking pan. Roast in oven for 45 minutes, stirring every 15. Put roasted vegetables in a bowl and add the can of soup (the more generic the brand the better) along with the basil and oregano. You may want to add a half a can of water. Make sure not to add too much. Blend the mixture COARSELY, until it is the consistency of mashed potatoes. A hand blender works best. I would use a hand masher before a regular blender. Pureeing will make it too liquidy! Don't do it.
This goes great tossed with pasta drained over frozen peas, or as a dip with pita or fried ravioli, or as a spread for sandwiches, or just right out of the bowl! Served hot or cold, it's orangenious!
As an added bonus, and if you're into the surreal, I cooked this recipe on television once when I worked for the local PBS station and it's pretty mind-blowing, if I do say so myself:
Last month, I posted an entry about some superb sample member agreements that an agricultural law professor from the University of Illinois put together.
This group is now holding some webinars covering these issues. I joined the one that was held last night and found it to be very insightful. They covered member agreements, volunteer agreements, how to handle intern payment, and many other pertinent legal issues. Luckily, the organizers decided to run another webinar on Decemeber 18th due to the high demand for the first sesson (over 200 farmers registered).
Register for the next CSA Legal issues webinar here.
As Brian admitted during the webinar, this is not an enjoyable part of the CSA enterprise for most farmers, but an important aspect to get right during the winter when you have time to think about it!