Spinach lovers unite. For those who would covet cucumbers, squeeze squash, or argue the nutritional value of arugula, there are alternatives to the local supermarket.
Early in the morning, from spring to fall, folks are gathering in cul-de-sacs and parking lots all over Northern Virginia to receive weekly deliveries of just-picked, farm-fresh produce. Increasingly, suburban Virginia families are finding a connection to fresh, often organic, vegetables, fruit, herbs, and dairy grown on regional farms through programs called "Community Supported Agriculture" or CSA.
Fran Jonesi of Reston signed up for the program last year by forming a group of local consumers in her area. She receives weekly deliveries from Piedmont Organic Farm, a 220-acre, USDA certified organic farm in Linden, Va. run by Susan Trumpetto and her husband Jonathan.
"It's nice to try to eat seasonally," Jonesi said.
"I love squash. I didn't know there were so many kinds of squash," said Jonesi's 9-year-old son, Alexander. "I tried vegetables my parents never could get me to try before because it was fun to get our surprise box each week."
Brother Ian, 7, craves carrots. A new survey of program participants means carrots have recently been added to the list of available vegetables.
Each week the produce is different. The Trumpettos pick the best of their crop, and the freshest produce of the day is delivered. For Jonesi, this adds an element of fun to the daily dinner grind. "Whatever we get, we make," she said. Jonesi enjoys the challenge of incorporating the surprise ingredient into that night's dinner. For younger children, the program promotes the understanding that "food doesn't just come from a grocery store," Jonesi said.
PARTICIPANTS in a CSA program receive a crate stuffed with that morning's harvest. In the spring, CSA participants might look forward to weekly delivery crates packed with lettuces and greens. In the summer, their bounty is tomatoes with names like "Black Brandywine" and "Mortgage Lifter", and watermelons called "Sugarbaby" still cool from the morning field. In the fall, the harvest might be "Autumn Gold" pumpkins, the last of the summer's "Tiburon" chiles, and a bouquet of wine-red chrysanthemums. The Trumpettos grow 20 different varieties of tomatoes, a farm might offer peppers in shades of lilac, ivory, and gold.
There are 1,000 CSAs nation-wide, and at least 20 in Virginia and Maryland serving Northern Virginia. Harvest seasons for most stretch from May to the end of October, some to Thanksgiving. According to the Accokeek Farm, a Maryland CSA, a "full share" is designed to feed "two vegetarian adults, or a family of four meat-eaters." The portion of the harvest that a CSA participant gets is called a "share", since CSA membership costs defray the cost of raising food in a peri-urban region.
That element of surprise in each week's crate also requires participants to be flexible and adventurous when faced with unusual vegetables. Of the variety, another CSA participant, Deborah Jann said, "I'd never tried a lot of this great stuff before. Purple Cherokee peppers, purple beans, and little, yellow, heirloom tomatoes … and it's picked the day you get it, so the flavor's unlike anything I'd every had."
MANY CSA FARMS offer an educational aspect, encouraging CSA participants to visit. The Trumpettos, who have owned their farm for four years, believe children will benefit from learning about food grown on a farm.
"We want to promote more than just getting a box of organic food," Trumpetto said. Toward that end, the Trumpettos created Indian Pipe Outdoor Technical School, located on the farm, an environmental education program for youth. The school holds summer programs and welcomes visitors year-round. The farm offers organic seedlings and plant sales for local community group fund-raisers, and for two days in the summer, families can come down to the farm to pick wine berries (which are like a seedless raspberry) and pumpkins. "We want the consumer to be connected to the farm, to share the experience."
"My favorite part was getting to go to the farm and seeing where our vegetables go," said Ian.
WHAT'S THE BOTTOM LINE for consumers? The CSA program at Piedmont Organic Farm delivers fresh organically grown produce, culinary herbs and optional fresh flowers plus recipes, cooking tips, and a monthly newsletter in a box once a week for 18 weeks at a cost of $470.25. If a new customer contacts the farm before Jan. 31, a $50 discount will apply.
Members receive a wide variety of foods harvested at their peak of ripeness, flavor and vitamin and mineral content (picked around 5:30 a.m.). In return, the farmer receives the financial support that allows many small- to moderate-scale organic family farms to stay in business.
There must be eight or more people signed up at a particular location for delivery.
To sign up for the CSA, or to inquire about the various other programs offered by Piedmont Organic Farm and the Indian Pipe Outdoor Technical School, contact Susan Trumpetto at 364-9996, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the farm's Web site at www.piedmontorganics.com.
To inquire about joining Jonesi's Reston-based drop-off group, call 703-478-0594.