The weather may still feel reminiscent of winter, but folks in Milwaukee are already gearing up for summer and dreaming of fresh, local produce from area farms. And the Urban Ecology Center is helping consumers connect the dots when it comes to sourcing more of their produce locally.
On Saturday, March 17 the Center at Riverside Park will host its 10th annual Local Farmer Open House. Guests at the event will have an opportunity to sign up for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, gather resources about local food sourcing, purchase locally grown and produced products from local farmers, and participate in educational workshops.
When I found out that three area food bloggers would be attending the event and sharing their experiences choosing and taking part in CSA programs, I decided to chat with them about their plans.
Kate Oscarson is new to the world of CSAs, and she's looking forward to attending the open house to ask plenty of questions.
"I'm very curious about the process in general," she explains. "I've already developed a list of questions for the farmers at the Open House. Where are they located? What kinds of products will be in the CSA? What kinds of options are there? Are there any benefits to CSA members outside of the actual weekly produce basket? I have no idea what farm I'm going to go with, so the Open House is where I intend to get most of the information I will need to make an informed decision."
But, just because she's never belonged to a CSA program before, doesn't mean Oscarson is new to the concept of local eating. She's a regular at her local farmer's market, and has a dedicated interest in knowing where her food is coming from.
"I've spent the last year living as a 'locavore' – only eating locally grown or produced food – as much as possible," she tells me. "There are important portions of a healthy diet that you just can't grow in Wisconsin, like oranges ... and things that I just personally cannot live without, like French wine ... but, there's a lot more here even in the middle of the winter than I was aware of."
Despite her initial concerns about cost, Oscarson also found out that eating more locally can also be affordable, even for someone on a budget.
"Joining a CSA or purchasing a one-quarter beef or one-half pig might seem like it costs a lot, and they certainly can up front, but when you factor it out over the length of time you're actually receiving and eating the food, it's probably less than you would spend at the grocery store," she says.
Nicole Adrian, author of the On My Table blog, views the CSA experience as a way to inspire more creativity in the kitchen.
"Two years ago my husband and I had a CSA through Tipi Produce, which we shared with another couple. Our experience was great – the produce was fresh and delicious, delivery was always on time and it was so nice and easy to be able to pick up the boxes at our local Outpost, as that's where we shop anyway. I really enjoyed the weekly emails the farmer would send, too, with short stories, information about the produce we had coming and at least one recipe."
For Adrian, the experience was about more than just the produce.
"While I enjoyed going to the farmers market last year – something we didn't do so much when we had the CSA – I missed experimenting with foods that were new to me. I also liked the sense of community that came with belonging to a CSA."
Kris Collett, a recent culinary school graduate who records her cooking and baking adventures on her blog, is looking forward to getting her box of produce again every week this summer.
"(The CSA share) was a challenge and a treat. I enjoyed getting vegetables in my box that I wouldn't normally choose at a farmer's market – a couple of times I didn't even know what they were! – and trying to come up with interesting ways to prepare and eat them. But it can be challenging in terms of minimizing food waste, especially with a husband who will try anything once, but if he doesn't like it, he definitely won't help out in the leftover department!"
In fact, for Collett, the challenge of using up the produce that came in her weekly CSA box, is part of the thrill.
"Last summer was the first summer in three years that I didn't join a CSA," she recalls. "While it was the right choice for me at the time, I definitely missed it. I enjoy going to farmers markets, but I do tend to get a little overwhelmed by the selection (especially at West Allis), and then end up choosing the same old things every time. I tried to be better about choosing at least one thing out of my comfort zone at the markets last summer, but with a CSA, you don't have a choice, or you have a limited choice, so you're forced to be creative. I need that push."
Adrian agrees. "I'm looking forward to being surprised by new produce that I have not tried in the past," she says. "Last summer was my first experience with beets, and they have become quite possibly my favorite vegetable. I'm hoping for another experience like that."
All the bloggers seem to agree that sourcing food locally is an important reason for them to consider joining a CSA.
"While there are a lot of reasons that locally grown food is important, the one that is most important to me is knowledge of what goes into my body," Oscarson explains. "The concept of eating pesticides, chemical fertilizer, meat that has been fed antibiotics, fruit that has been painted to be pretty, and any of the other scary things that happen to grocery store food makes me feel - for lack of a better term – itchy. I want to know the people that are growing my food and where my food is coming from."
Adrian agrees. "I think it's important to support local farmers, businesspeople and shops as much as possible," she says. "I like also being able to directly talk to or ask questions to the people who grew my food – it's very cool to be able to have such direct contact!"
"Fresh, locally grown food simply tastes better," Collett remarks as she explains her reasons for buying locally. "And most of all, I think connecting with the food we eat, learning about the farmers, the growing season, and how a vegetable doesn't have to always look beautiful to taste great – these are all really important things to learn about."
But, you don't need to be a food blogger to enjoy the Local Farmer Open House. All attendees will have the opportunity to:
- Sign up for a CSA: Consumers will have the opportunity to talk with a variety of area farmers about their specific CSA offerings, which vary in size, duration, product offerings, and drop-off locations.
- Take home some valuable resources: Farm-to-table experts will provide information on cooking and food preservation classes and how to find farmers and local food in the area. Experienced "locavores" will also be available to help guests make decisions about joining a CSA.
- Purchase locally grown and produced products: In addition to CSA farmers, many other local farmers sell directly to the public at farmers markets, on their farms, and through home delivery. Consumers can chat with these farmers at the Open House and find out how to buy other foods directly from them (meat, honey, mushrooms, etc.). Food products will also be available for purchase.
- Participate in a workshop, or three: Workshops will include an Introduction to CSA programs, a lesson in Cooking from your CSA Box, and a discussion of How Pesticides & Food Choice Affect Our Health & Water Quality.
The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit the event's webpage.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.