Sign up now for CSA vegetables

Some of us are complaining about holiday debt. Much of the North American population is bellyaching about the frigid temperatures. But for some of us, the worst part of this time of year is opening the fridge and finding that we have to actually go to the store to purchase vegetables.

Sure, we miss the food we grew in our garden. But honestly, between the kale overload, the dog eating all of my beautiful haricots verts, the tomatoes that didn’t get ripe enough, the peanuts that didn’t grow and the Brussels sprouts that (as usual) did not manage to finish their sprouty business before winter arrived, the garden was a bit of a drag.

What we are really lacking is the produce from our CSA, which overflowed our refrigerator from June through December.

That’s because last year, we joined a community-supported agriculture program that supplied our veggies from mid-June to mid-December. We’ve just signed up again, and I hope you’ll think about doing the same.

What is a CSA?

If you’re unfamiliar with CSAs, here’s the rundown. Community-supported agriculture is just as it sounds: The community supports an agricultural enterprise directly. Members of a farm’s CSA arrangement pay a subscription fee for a “share” (or a portion of a share) of the farm’s produce. Some CSAs require members to pick up produce at the farm. Others set up convenient locations where members collect their shares.

  • Farmers benefit from having a predictable income stream, and gaining income that comes in before they have to start purchasing seeds and other supplies.
  • Members benefit from paying ahead for their produce, obtaining local (and usually organic) produce nearly direct to their door. Usually, the price for the share is a fair deal — and sometimes it’s a great deal.

Joining now is a great idea

Ideally, CSA members pay the fee as early as possible, so that the farm can purchase seeds, equipment, hire employees, pay for insurance, and handle all the myriad expenses that go along with growing our food.

In the words of our CSA, Grant Family Farms:

This is a very important time for the farm, for when there is nothing to harvest, we have no cash flow, and with the CSA we have embarked on an attempt to become a sustainable farm model, a new chapter to the history of farming.

Here in Colorado, where our CSA is based, farmers are facing challenges heading into this growing season. Again from Grant Farms:

As you know we took a very direct hit this season with a very angry August hail storm. Thankfully, you all had patience and understanding as the crops recovered for a great bounty in the fall.  To make a long story short, with the hail storm and the devastatingly strong winds in October, blowing much of our corn harvest to the ground, Grant Family Farms had a very bad year and are in need of cash flow to start buying seeds, making payroll, fixing tractors and all that goes into growing food.

This farm is absolutely not alone. In Colorado, 24 counties received a disaster designation following these storms. Tornadoes, dry weather, wet weather and all kinds of unexpected conditions dashed farmers’ hopes around the world. It’s part of being a farmer. And by joining a CSA, you can share the risk — and the joy — of growing and enjoying local food.

What will you get?

We chose a small or half share of produce. Each week, we picked up a large, reusable plastic box (or emptied its contents into our own bags).

Inside we found a variety of items. I detailed our first CSA pickup here. It was our skimpiest; in Colorado in June, without greenhouse conditions, the pickings are slim (most often including lettuce, radishes, possibly peas, and spring onions).

Throughout the season, the selection expanded. In October, the heart of harvest season as Colorado farmers and gardeners hold their breath, hoping Jack Frost will wait, I wrote about putting some of our stash away.

Each week, I would estimate we received around 20 lbs. of produce. Toward the end of the season, boxes were even heavier, loaded down with weighty beets, enormous cabbage and a wide variety of winter squash.

The cost breakdown: Less than $1 per pound!

And we didn’t even receive the peppers and tomatoes we had hoped for, because they were demolished by the brutal hailstorm. Better luck in 2009 is likely.

What can you do with it?

  • Of course, you can eat it!
  • We had extra veggies many weeks, and we happily shared bits and pieces: kale and corn to a neighbor, cabbage and greens to my massage therapist, parsley to my mother-in-law’s bunnies, cauliflower to my knitting group’s fearless leader, and a variety of goodies to our parents.
  • We also put a lot of it away. We cooked and froze cauliflower, sliced corn off the cob and froze it, chopped and blanched and froze spinach and kale.
  • From our basement laundry room/root cellar, we have been gradually working our way through potatoes, cabbage, squash and onions.

What it means for us this year

This year, we plan to grow our own garden differently. We’re going to grow just for fun:

  • The tomatoes we love.
  • A tomatillo for salsa.
  • Some jalapenos.
  • Our fruit trees.
  • Lettuce and radishes in the spring, before the CSA is operating.
  • My beloved okra.
  • And a few things we’ve heard of but never tried.

Join Grant Family Farms

If you are on the Colorado Front Range and are interested in joining the Grant Family Farms CSA, you can sign up here.

They offer all kinds of goodies:

  • 26 weeks of great organic vegetables
  • 5% off every share paid in full by Feb. 28
  • 5% off shares PLUS a free T-shirt AND a free canvas tote bag if paid in full by Jan. 31
  • Full, half and single shares and the opportunity to split shares with a friend or neighbor to accommodate all household sizes
  • Or the opportunity to put down a deposit now and finish paying later
  • A great annual party for all CSA members at the farm
  • Opportunity to purchase meat, egg, flower and fruit shares — or whatever they come up with this year!

I can assure you from our experience this year that Grant Farms has a fabulous, generous spirit. We received unexpected goodies including a bottle of their own wine, a holiday evergreen wreath and samples of fruit preserves from their fruit share partners. YMMV, but it was fun to be surprised.

If you do join Grant Farms, please mention that you heard about them here!

Find a CSA

If you are one of many readers outside this area, and/or if you want to check out all your options, there are many ways to find the perfect CSA near you. Try these avenues:

Some CSAs specialize in staples, some in exotic produce. Some ask you to commit to working on the farm; others offer working shares as an option for those who can’t afford to join.

Whatever option you choose, a CSA is a great way to truly put your heart — and your dollars — behind local agriculture.

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An awesome handmade datebook, and a paean to Nikol Lohr

Knitters, spinners and calendar-users, alert!

Last week was a week of wonderful surprises. A friend sent a surprise holiday package to my family over the weekend, and then one day I opened my mailbox to find a super-special calendar for 2009.

This datebook is part of a limited edition of 200 handmade calendars created by Nikol Lohr of Disgruntled Housewife, where you can still buy your very own copy. Every year she makes these calendars, with a theme — this year’s is “the year of the dreamer” and features vintage yearbook art — and great monthly activities a la Oprah, only more relevant (biggest fears for October … rules if you were queen of the world … what has been ruined in the world and just who is to blame).

She’s totally organized inside the calendar, too, with a monthly page and then weekly pages to keep track of your bad self.  So it’s clever and also useful. And it comes with colored pencils.

Beyond being a calendar goddess, Nikol is the co-operator of the Harveyville Project, where she and her partner have converted an old school in rural Kansas into an artists’ retreat and workshop center. She hosts a twice-yearly shindig called Yarn School, and I’m bound and determined to make it sometime. (I was trying to persuade my knitting group members to carpool in September, but no one bit.)

She is a knitter, knit designer and knitting blogger with her own groovy blog.

She’s got some sheep going on over there in Kansas, and she has an Etsy store featuring her hand-carded and blended and wittily named spinning batts. Mr. Cheap (not so cheap in this case!) subscribed me to her batt-of-the-month club for Christmas, and I can’t wait till the goodies start pouring in.

In short, she is kind of my hero. What more is there to say? Thanks, Nikol.

Eco-fashion — from local to organic to recycled

This weekend, I attended a fashion show organized by Fashion Denver. I was there to help out my friend Ivy, the brains (and fingers) behind Girl With the Curl jewelry in her first big show (whoo!). Her portion of the show went great, and it was lots of fun. And I was inspired to spruce up my own wardrobe with some eco-friendly goods.

The next day, I visited a local used/vintage/crafty/unique stuff store called On a Lark to snap up a bamboo T-shirt. They carry T-shirts from ONNO, made sustainably, fair trade, from bamboo and organic cotton. (Their tag reminds us that conventional cotton consumes 25 percent of the world’s pesticides! In fact, some Buddhist meditation practices ask people to practice compassion by imagining everything that went into articles we use … including the birds and insects harmed by pesticide use in places like cotton fields.) ONNO has a great Web site here with a lot more information. (And if you click on the link in my sidebar at the right to visit, they just might send me a free T-shirt!)

The T-shirt is super soft and the bamboo reportedly inhibits BO. Here’s what the T-shirt looks like:

At the show, I thought the most exciting (and thoughtful) styles by a local designer were from Francis Roces of Kimono Dragons. He creates “disconstructed” garments and adjustable styles inspired by kimonos … like dresses with waistband/belts that can fit different-sized women.

I did not strain my pride by testing his theory with one of the dresses modeled by the size 0 models, but I did pick up this groovy sweater. It’s a thick cotton sweater from Japan, remodeled with some zippers that can be adjusted to give the neckline whatever look you like. For the price of a generic Old Navy sweater, I was proud to support a local designer:

Kimono Dragons sweater

Kimono Dragons sweater

And to top it all off, the current edition of Fiberarts magazine has an article about DIY fashion — remaking used or old clothing to suit your own style and express your unique fashion personality. I tend to be more conservative than a lot of the DIY chicks (and guys), but I admire their pluck (chicken pun intended).

Is your wardrobe eco-friendly?

Green gifting, good oil prices & organic ROI

Today’s weekly wrap-up tackles issues sure to raise hackles around family dinner tables, even those that are assiduously avoiding political conversation during the election year: Oil prices, green gifting and whether organic food is worth it.

The good and bad of high oil prices

This week, I came across a wrap-up for my wrap-up. Take a look at One Green Generation’s post on the pros and cons coming from high oil prices, and browse the articles that interest you.

I don’t know if we’ve changed our behaviors based on high oil prices, although I’m trying to squeeze more miles per gallon from my car, and Mr. Cheap has been driving his higher-mpg Toyota more than our Subaru this week. Then again, I work at home, so public transit isn’t really an issue, and the cost of public transit is more than the gas price of driving Little Cheap to school. How about you all? Are you changing your ways?

Giving & getting green gifts

The holidays are just around the corner … at least for those who are shopping ahead and planning to give homemade gifts. This week, The Green Parent wrote about how to give green gifts. I’ve done all of these — and it’s a great reminder that I need to start planning my holiday giving strategy now! I have a few things in mind, but for those things I need to craft, I’d better get cracking.

The cost-benefit analysis of organic food

The Simple Dollar wrote a post titled “Balancing Personal Principles and the Bottom Dollar: The Cost of Healthier Food” that, as I write this, has generated 67 arguments comments. There’s a ferocious battle out there over whether organic food is any good. It’s a complicated matter, and in the end, I think it’s a value judgment — and most of us have to go with our gut (and sometimes, our wallet!).

In my home, as we have become more committed to holding the earth more sacred, and at the same time a little more prosperous, we have shifted back to a high percentage of organic foods. Local is very important too, but I won’t promise to eschew chocolate, never eat a pineapple, give up bananas, or abandon citrus. But we are getting most of our vegetables from our CSA about 60 miles away, some from our backyard; virtually all the meat we are eating comes from our frozen beef that was raised within 100 miles; and I buy organic milk raised in northeastern Colorado, also within 100 or so miles of our home (and perhaps closer).

On the other hand, Mr. Cheap has developed a Pellegrino addiction … that I hope might wane as the hot weather disappears this fall.

It’s all about balance, and I wish you the same.

Re-using household items

In the process of trying to reduce our garbage, I’ve come across several items that I needed and wanted to not buy — and conversely, several items I hated to throw away but couldn’t easily recycle. By reusing these items, necessity meets utility.

Quite some time ago, when I started cleaning everything with baking soda instead of scouring powder, I wanted a convenient container – like the one scouring powder comes in. I found an old plastic peanut butter jar in my laundry room, used a nail to punch a bunch of holes in the lid, and voila – my baking soda shaker makes cleaning the bathroom a tiny bit easier.

baking soda shaker

In the kitchen, we have liquid dishwashing soap for washing dishes, but I prefer to wash my hands with something else. We usually use bar soap that has been sitting on a saucer, but Mr. Cheap complained a lot about the soap’s soggy bottom.

The solution? Inspired by this number on Green as a Thistle’s blog, I saved up chopsticks from a couple of sushi outings (I know, I know, we could take our own, but I didn’t think of it), sawed them in half and tied them together with jute twine. It could be fancier. Then again, we could have soggy-bottom soap.

soap dish

In my bathroom, I have spent the past several years using up a giant jug of hand soap I bought at Costco (literally several — I bought it before we moved into this house three years ago). In between, I’ve gotten some “soft soap” type liquid soap at the store when it was free with a coupon. Even though I haven’t bought that soap in at least a year, we’ve been using the containers on the sink. Finally, I finished the heinous, stinky bottle of Dove hand soap recently. As I was debating refilling it, I remembered a lotion bottle I had emptied recently that was much more attractive. The label soaked right off, and now I have Dr. Bronner’s organic, fair trade lavender hand soap — in a much nicer container.

hand soap bottle

Finally, on a recent outing to my sister’s cabin, I was preparing the food to take along and bemoaning our lack of tiny, tiny storage containers — small enough to take along some salt or the cinnamon for French toast. With excellent synchronicity, it came time to change my contact lens container.

I can only tolerate contacts easily by using Clear Care, a bubbling peroxide concoction that requires storage in little hard plastic containers with lens-holder inserts. I hate to throw them out – it’s a lot of hard plastic. But by breaking off the lens-holder portion I can save the bottle for teensy-weensy storage (as a bonus, it’s even a watertight container!). The picture below shows before (left) and after (right).

re-use contact lens container

Now to think of something to do with the broken-off lens portion … it looks like a Barbie-sized version of those crazy devices to hold your bra’s shape in the washing machine. If only our Barbies weren’t braless, brazen hussies.

Dealbusters: Our quarter beef is here

Beef in car

This Monday series checks out whether something that sounds like a good deal — or takes a bit of extra work — is a good deal. We’ll look at cost and benefit — with everything filtered through my individual experience. Please chime in with your take.

Last Friday was a beautiful day, and Little Cheap and I spent part of the morning driving about 68 miles northeast of Denver to pick up our meat.

We saw a little of this, and a lot of that …

Sights 1 Sights 2

And came home and filled up our freezer with meat.

Before:

Before freezer

After:

After freezer

What’s in 105 pounds of beef? We received:

  • 40 lbs. of ground beef
  • 3 packages of soup bones
  • 2 packages of short ribs
  • 24 steaks of various cuts
  • 6 packages of sirloin tips (and I didn’t know what those are)
  • 7 roasts
  • 6 little packages of filet mignon
  • 3 packages of stew meat

So far, we have eaten one package of New York Strip steaks (verdict: Delicious — Mr. Cheap’s red wine-and-shallot sauce made even me, not normally a big fan of steak, enjoy it) and one pound of ground beef (Mr. Cheap and Little Cheap had hamburgers yesterday. After turkey mole the day before steak day, and Spicy Chinese Chicken on Friday night, I was meat-ed out). Both were excellent.

The cost breakdown:

The total weight of the beef came out to about 105 lbs. Our costs were:

  • Meat = $310.50 (live weight was 1,150 lbs; 1/4 = 287.50 lbs x $1.08/lb)
  • Slaughter charge = $5.00 (1/4 of a $20 charge)
  • Processing = $87.53

TOTAL = $403.03, or an average $3.84 per pound.

If I add in the cost of gas for the trip, it was another $19.78. (I don’t know how to calculate a deduction for the “get out of town” break I really needed, or the enjoyment Little Cheap and I got from our fleeting glimpse of a rancher rounding up calves on horseback.) That brings the grand total to $422.81, or $4.02 per pound.

The normal price for naturally raised ground beef at our grocery store is around $4.99 per pound, and the natural roasts that I purchased last fall were about $6 per pound. Online today at King Soopers’ HomeShop site, it averages $5.99 per pound. (Conventional ground beef is $2.79 a pound or can be found online for $7 for 3 lbs … but I never buy conventionally raised beef.)

Cost for 105 pounds of store-bought meat at $5.50 per pound = $577.50

Savings (I hope for about a year) = $154.69 or $13 per month. We are spending about $130 more than if we bought conventional beef at the store.

The winner:

Our bulk beef, for cost, humaneness and quality.

The priceless factors:

  • We know our meat was locally, naturally raised, given free pasture and plenty of good care, and butchered and processed at a local business that we got to see (and if their process is as clean as their restroom, we’re in very good hands).
  • Eating meat this consciously. Little Cheap got a little teary in the office at the processor, and again when she first looked at the steak on her plate the other night. Her concern about animals has helped us re-focus on eating meat only when it has been humanely raised. I reminded her of that regarding the steak, and she recovered to her natural carnivorous nature to enjoy the meat. I can relate to her quandary – I was a vegetarian for 10 years, and I could survive happily with little to no meat. But we’re all built differently, and my family really enjoy and thrive on meat. I know there are environmental arguments against eating meat, and health arguments against eating too much red meat. On the other hand, the cattle industry is an important one in Colorado. Our family’s eating vegetarian won’t change that. But I hope by choosing the meat we do consume consciously, we can make a difference by supporting farmers/ranchers who are doing the right thing, and by putting our weight behind humanely raised meat.

The drawbacks:

  • Planning, lead time and waiting. Picking up the meat alone took a couple of hours. And it’s been quite some time since we placed our order in late January.
  • Storage space/needing a freezer. The quarter might fit in our refrigerator’s freezer, but it would take up the whole thing, and the quality would be more questionable as fridge odors could circulate there. Really, a freestanding freezer is the only realistic option.
  • The risk of having the meat causing one to eat more meat, therefore going through it faster and spending more on meat than before.

The verdict:

On my own, I wouldn’t eat enough meat to make it worthwhile. As a family, it makes sense, and it probably would make still more sense to buy a larger portion and divide it with friends and family who have expressed interest.

Grade:

B+

If you’re looking for another perspective on why and how to buy local meat in bulk, Get Rich Slowly wrote a terrific post on the topic.

Where’s the beef?

You might remember we ordered a quarter of beef a while back.

Where is it?

I don’t know. Hopefully still at the processor.

We’re new to all this, and it’s rather confusing. We thought we would be picking it up March 1. I called to confirm, and reached general confusion — why on earth did I think it would be done? (Well, maybe because during Mr. Cheap’s half-hour conversation about cutting, we were told March 1?)

They said they’d call us this past week, so we could pick it up March 8.

No word.

I thought it might be last week, but they didn’t call. We did get a bill from the rancher for $310 for what I anticipate will be about 150 pounds of beef. We’ll pay the processor about another $100, we think, coming out to $2.73 a pound plus gas to pick it up.

So … we wait. It sure isn’t like rushing over to the grocery store to pick up some hamburger. So far, that’s OK. We’re just trusting in the local beef gods. Wish us luck. Anyone else been through this?