It’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) season, time to buy your farm share if you haven’t already. Why would you want to buy a CSA share if you have a Farmer’s Market to got to? Well, with a CSA share you develop a direct relationship with a farmer and their farm. You find yourself in conversations saying things like, “my farmer is really great at growing hot peppers.” Or (when we can gather together again) at a barbecue your guests gush over the luscious sweet corn and you say with pride that it came from “your” farm. Your farmer’s success becomes your success. And since you have a stake in the farm produce, you want your farmer to succeed.

You can visit the farm for a tour or to help out. You eat only what is in season and it is picked ripe. Your farm is local. You can actually make suggestions to your farmer for what you would like to see in your share the next year. It’s a win-win.

Farmer’s Markets are great but you need to be careful that the produce actually comes from a local farm. I’ve been to markets in May where the tables were piled high with pineapple and oranges and all sorts of tropical fruit along with bell peppers and tomatoes. Unless there is some lost tropical paradise in a river valley that no one in Minnesota knows about, this food at the farmer’s market did not come from anywhere around here. 

Farmer’s Markets are great when you only want a little of something, or you want a lot of extra of something. But for your week to week regular produce, a CSA share is where it’s at.

Why should anyone care about CSA’s and Farmer’s Markets and local food? 

Our globalized agricultural system that lets us buy fruit and vegetables year round regardless of the season, is a carbon intensive system that relies on so much oil and fossil fuels from the fertilizers to gas for the tractor to the trucks to haul the food to the distribution center to the place that packages it all up to the airplanes that fly it all around the globe. As Helena Norberg-Hodge says in Local is Our Future:

Our food system is at great risk from a problem most are not yet aware of, i.e., energy decline. Because the problem is energy, we can’t rely on just-in-time innovative technology, brilliant experts, and faceless farmers in some distant lands to deal with it. Instead, we must face the prospect that many of us will need to be more responsible for food security. People in highly urbanized and globally integrated countries like the U.S. will need to reruralize and relocalize human settlement and subsistence patterns over the coming decades to adapt to both the end of cheaply available fossil fuels and climate change.

It’s really nice to imagine that renewable energy will replace fossil fuels 1:1 but that is a fantasy. Biofuels will not replace all gasoline. There is not enough land to grow enough fuel and food. Electric vehicles will not save us either. Electric cars and trucks will work in a limited capacity, but the concentrated use anytime energy of fossil fuels cannot be replaced by electricity generated by intermittent wind and solar.

Jason Bradford in The Future is Rural notes that our current food system is so complex and reliant on fossil fuels that 

If oil supplies became unavailable suddenly on a large scale, most of the U.S. population would be at risk of going hungry within days or weeks, as just-in-time delivery systems and computerization have infiltrated the food system to a high degree.

While systemic change is clearly needed, we as individuals are not helpless. We should be advocating with our votes, our money, and our voices for a different system. Along with that, households should begin to take steps now to relocalize their food. Grow some of your own food if you can! You can’t get more local than your backyard or balcony.

Bradford offers an iterative three-step process for those who want to work toward relocalizing their food: description, assessment/goal setting, and management.

Description: figure out the boundaries of your local foodshed. Is a 50-mile radius reasonable? Maybe as long as the food is grown in your state? You decide and describe what counts as local for you. I know for me and James local is a set of concentric circles. First it’s our farmer, then the farmer’s market, then our food co-op that sells food from Minnesota and Wisconsin. In winter, when local fresh food is no longer an option, our circle extends out to the United States, but not across the borders—no garlic from Argentina in February, no apples from New Zealand in June.

Assessment/goal setting: Assess your local system, learn about where your food comes from. Learn about when food you like to eat is actually in season. Then set some personal goals. Are you going to work locally or nationally in some way to change the system? What about when you eat out at a restaurant? Are you going to care about where the food they serve you comes from? And when you buy your own food, will you ask the produce buyer where the asparagus in August came from? Will you buy a CSA share or shop at the Farmer’s Market and talk to the farmers before you buy to find out about the food you are thinking of buying? Will you consider the frozen food you buy and when and where it was picked? And if you eat meat, eggs, cheese, or drink milk, will you try to unravel where these came from and find local farmers if you need to? Are there even local dairy farmers? And if not, what will you do about it? So many questions to ask!

Management: How will you manage buying locally and in season? How will you store your food? And what about food scraps? Can you compost? Does your city have organics recycling? If not, is this something worth advocating for?

It sounds like a lot of work, and it is when you first get started. Take it slow, break things down into steps. You don’t need to jump into the deep end right away. This is a long-term commitment and you need to not get overwhelmed by it all and just give up. Plus there will be obstacles you won’t be able to easily get around. As Bradford says,

being sustainable is nearly impossible without the surrounding system in full support. Be mindful of shortcomings so they can be addressed later, but don’t let imperfections impede progress. Like climate change and the energy system, food system reform is a collective problem, so work hard on social and political fronts and forgive yourself for personal inadequacies.

I also want to be clear that localizing your food does not mean you cannot have coffee of chocolate or bananas if they do not grow within your foodshed, region, or even country. It’s about finding a balance in the context of climate change and energy decline. It’s about knowing where and how your food is produced and consciously choosing as many sustainable options as you can. James and I love coffee so we buy organic shade grown fair trade beans that are locally roasted. It’s expensive, yes, so we don’t drink pots and pots every day, just a cup each at breakfast. It’s a trade-off we are willing to make.

In an effort to further localize our food, James really likes blueberry jam and strawberry jam. We grow strawberries in the garden but not enough to make jam because we eat them all fresh. And we have tried growing blueberries but our garden soil is not acidic. So we talked recently and decided that this year we will go to a local pick-you-own farm in June and get ourselves lots of strawberries to make jam. And in the summer we will do the same for blueberries. Sure this will be a lot more work than buying a jar from the grocery store, but it will likely be a lot more satisfying to open a jar of strawberry jam in December that we made ourselves.

If you are interested in finding a CSA near you, a good place to start is Local Harvest. They have a local CSA finder, just enter your city or address and you will get a list. I think this might be for the U.S. only. If you are outside the U.S. and can offer a similar resource for your country or region, drop the info in a comment.

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12 thoughts on “Localize Your Food

  1. Food miles have always been a worry for me, but in the UK our diet would be very boring because you need heat for so many veggies and fruit. I always make a lot of jam from wild raspberries which grow outside my back gate and strawberries which we can pick from a farm. I’m hoping to get plums from my tree this year. Home made jam is so much better than shop bought.

    1. Homemade jam is definitely better than store bought Katrina! I hope you get plums this year. I planted a plum tree two years ago, a wild native variety but it is still very small but I keep giving it encouraging words because I can’t stop thinking about all the future plums! 😀

  2. I love this guide, Stefanie. So much good info in here. And the Minnesota pineapples made me laugh 🙂 While looking for CSAs here in Serbia, I came across this guide to community-supported agriculture in Europe, which may be useful for your European readers: It says there are only 2 CSAs in Serbia 🙁

    But the good news is that the markets here are the real deal: local farmers bringing their produce to sell on little tables, all fresh and in season, all local (well, probably not ALL, but that mostly seems to be how it works) and very affordable. It’s a world away from the “farmer’s markets” I knew in London, which were mostly high-end food emporia selling empanadas and olive oil at eye-watering prices. I’ll see if I can track down either of those 2 CSAs, but otherwise the markets will be good for now.

    1. LOL Andrew pineapple is one of our main export crops 😉 Thanks for the European CSA link! You are lucky to have such great markets to go to. I bet they are so much fun to just walk through and find all sorts of delicious things!

      1. Yes, those markets are a lot of fun! And it’s always different every time I go, as things change with the seasons. Last time I saw sprigs of wild garlic and knew spring was here 🙂

  3. We’ve been composting for several years now. It’s so great to be able to use that for our plants and just reducing waste. Thank you for the CSA finder link. We have one in our area and will definitely look into that!

  4. These are all very good questions you raise, Stefanie! I’m going to see if I can find a local CSA near me. I definitely will make more use of my local farmers market this spring.

    1. I hope you find a csa Laila! Part of the fun I think is we get vegetables and herbs we’ve never tried before so there is also always a bit of adventure too 🙂

  5. That CSA finder is a good start! We’ve tried a lot of CSAs over the years, as we live in a rural area with lots of small farms. The only one that didn’t work out was the one we tried last spring, in a new place too near a river, and it flooded. They actually refunded our money although I thought we had signed up to bear part of the risk.

    1. Oh wow Jeanne! That’s incredible the one CSA refunded your money after the flood. I always sign up thinking stuff like that is part of the risk too. Really cool that you have tried several different ones!

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