This is the 5th year of our CSA and boy have I ever learned a lot. There is an art to making CSA boxes/bags/baskets that please the customer. Some general things to keep in mind are: everyone loves fruit, many people have families and don’t have time to spend hours in the kitchen, people want to eat seasonally, but don’t want the same thing every night, and most important, everything has to look fresh and pretty.
Fruit is important. More than anything else we put in our CSA bags, people love to get fruit. Maybe it’s because many members have children, and kids love fruit, or maybe it’s because fruit is just yummy! Because of this, we not only give members berries from our farm, we also work with other local Carolina growers to include fruit in the bags all season. In the summer, when melons, berries and peaches are in season, we are sure to include them. Even if it is the dead of winter, local apples are still available and people want them.
Customers are busy and don’t have time to spend hours in the kitchen cooking. The first year of our CSA I was so excited to fill the CSA bags with all kinds of vegetables I knew they would never find in the grocery store. I thought this added value to our CSA and that the customers would love it. Then a dear sweet member, Jamie Allen, gave me some very valuable truth. She said she is a busy mom and it’s stressful to have to Google every item in her CSA bag to figure out what to do with each one. This was some great advice that completely changed how I view packing for our CSA members. Now I understand that busy families just want to get a healthy meal on the table. It is best to have most of the items in the CSA bag be recognizable and likely be something they can easily include in their meals, without much thought or trouble. Members do like to get unusual items, but not very often and not very many at once. Maybe one thing each week, and be sure to include some basic cooking ideas. The people who subscribe to the small bag often are even more limited in their veggie cooking comfort, making it even more important to include mostly basics in the small bags. These members are often just getting their veggie “sea legs”.
Most of our CSA members love the idea of eating seasonally, but they don’t love the idea of having turnips for dinner every night. We are lucky in North Carolina, because we can grow a decent range of vegetables nearly all year long. It pays to spend some time thinking about what is growing in the field and what is planned for the bags. Although most customers enjoy getting things like tomatoes, lettuce, and kale regularly, most of the other veggies are things they would probably be happier to see only every few weeks. We plan our planting and harvesting accordingly.
Lastly and most importantly, everything needs to be pretty and fresh. You would think if we picked it today and packed the bags for tomorrow, that of course it will be fresh. It isn’t that easy. The leafy greens have to be picked only in the morning, when it is cool, and quickly packed and put in the cold room, or they will be wilted and unattractive. To complicate matters more, if it is frosty, nobody can go in the fields at all. Harvest has to wait until things thaw out. The simple act of getting pretty greens in a bag and keeping them pretty can be very challenging. There is also the issue of cooling. We have a very rustic cold room, with a cooling unit called a “Coolbot.” This is a very affordable, but basic system ($500 vs $10,000). The downside is that it will only take temperatures down to about 48 degrees, and much warmer than that if it is 100 degrees outside. I’m constantly asking the farm workers to “close the cold room door!” or “stay out of the cold room!”. Quite often, one of our farm helpers packs the CSA bags. Unfortunately, two of our workers are high school kids, and the other doesn’t cook. This means they don’t have an eye for amounts to put in the bag, or what fresh produce should look like. This takes training. We are constantly improving systems on how to keep produce at the best possible temperature for only a very short time, so that when the bags get to the customer they are as perfect as they can be.
Packing veggie bags and boxes that will please everyone is really important to me. We absolutely want all of our CSA members to view opening their veggie bag like Christmas, fully expecting beautiful things. If you have advice, I would love to hear it! Input from sweet members like Jamie help us make things better every year.
Eat your veggies!