Friday, September 9, 2011

Farmers Markets, CSAs and Local Produce Markets

Because my family consists of locavores and 'mostly vegetarians', we tend to eat a lot of local produce.  This can be a budget buster for a lot of people, because it can be expensive and the food doesn't last long.  Also, for some people, it can be difficult to find access to a local farmers market and that may make it difficult to eat local produce.  One of ouur remedies to this situation has been to use CSAs (community supported agriculture, aka community farming projects) and a local farmers market that offers organic produce that is locally grown.

I have found that our CSAs locally offer competitive pricing.  A half share, which has fruit and vegetables, is about $25 for organically-raised, in season produce and is enough to feed three people for a week.  A full share is about $50 and will feed a larger group of people, or a smaller group of people for a longer time (if properly stored).  Our main CSA is HomeGrown Organics and we make arrangements to pick up our produce nearby, whenever there is a need.  The only reservation about using CSAs is you often have to place an order in advance, so it's not a good option for just picking up a few needed items.  It is an excellent option however, if you want a regular, weekly supply of locally grown, in-season, organic produce.

Another option is to use produce markets.  Often, these offer organically grown, local, competitively priced seasonal produce.  Not too far from me, there is a weekly farmers market - the Alachua County Farmers Market.  One of the great things about this farmers market is that, in addition to seasonal produce, it offers fresh baked goods, honey, candles, cheese, free-range chickens, homemade jellies and jams and smoked mullet (local catch), as well as wild boar sausage.  Some of the vendors will sell vegetable, herb and fruit plants, too.  That makes it a convenient, stress-free way to eat local, in season produce.  As a person who strongly supports community farming projects, it feels good to spend money to support produce markets and local farmers markets instead of big chain grocery stores.

A lot of areas have food co-ops to join, as well.  That can be a very effective way to keep costs down while maintaining access to organic, locally grown and in season produce.  A recent development in Alachua County is the Citizens Co-Op, which is a community-owned market.  A member purchases a share in the market, and purchases items from the market.  The individual will get a dividend, or refund, from the market based on how much money is spent there, reducing out of pocket costs.   There are student and low-income shares available, too.  Other memberships available are producer memberships and employee memberships, which require more direct contact and support of the food co-op, as opposed to a consumer membership.

The last option is to grow some yourself.  While this may not yield the entire amount of in season produce you might need, it will help to cut your costs.  Anything you can grow and eat yourself is going to be less expensive and will yield less packaging, less fuel costs and less environmental impact than what you can buy elsewhere.  It's fine to start small, with a small container garden on your porch.  I have herbs like oregano, basil, chives and stevia on my porch.  I also have tomatoes, peppers (sweet and hot), white beans, eggplant (aubergine) and squash.  I am sprouting okra, spinach, bok choi (pak choi), and Swiss chard for the next wave.  Since I have been doing this a while, my investment is almost nil annually. In fact, my last bunch of seeds was given to me by a co-worker.  I grow organically, so I spend a lot of time reading on organic pest control and optimizing compost and manure for fertilizer.  To me, it's worth it.  I feel more comfortable and secure being able to control my access to healthy, nourishing  in season produce.  I don't want to have to depend on CSAs, farmers markets or organic food co-ops for everything.  I love supporting them, but ultimately I feel I should be able to take matters into my own hands if needed.

Once you move beyond container gardening, you can start with small bed.  I have a pentagonal (five-sided) plot that has herbs like fennel, thyme, tarragon, chamomile and feverfew.  I will build some boxes and expand my vegetable garden next year.

I have also been a member of organic gardening co-ops, also known as allotments in the UK.   These groups host community gardening plots that you can rent for a season for about $10 or so.  (That is what mine cost).  UF Organic Gardens was where I had my plot, or allotment. The thing I really enjoyed about this was learning from other gardeners how to do organic gardening, being able to discuss and bounce problems off of other members, and that they had all the tools and seeds readily available for use so no additional outlay was required to get started.  What changed for me was the perspective of traveling 10 miles each way to do my organic gardening.  The need to be out there nearly daily in the height of growing season caused the fuel expense to go way up.  It seemed inefficient to spend that much gas to just be able to organically garden.  What I miss about the allotment is the comraderie and the large space in which to grow produce (along with the ease of having all the tools and seeds available).  We would also donate in season produce we couldn't use to local homeless shelters in town.  I felt really good about that.  I also enjoyed the ability to eat local and share in season produce with my fellow co-op members. However, if you have one nearby, I would highly recommend doing it.  It is educational, and empowering, to learn how to grow your own food organically.

Eating well, and nutrtionally, is an investment in yourself.  Using farmers markets, produce markets, CSAs, food-coops and garden plots (or allotments) can help make that easier and less expensive in the long run.  We encourage everyone to become a locavore, eat local and get engaged in community farming projects, even if you're in an urban area.

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