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Sustainable food sourceWestern Montana CSA farms provide locally-grown organic food to shareholders
Josh Slotnick, manager of Missoula's Garden City Harvest Project, works the soil around young lettuce plants last week. The Community Supported Agriculture farm in the Rattlesnake is one of a handful in western Montana.
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

For those of you who want to see where your food comes from, know that it's grown organically, and eat the freshest produce you can short of growing it yourself, then now's the time to join a CSA. CSA, short of Consumer Supported Agriculture, is one of the best ways for consumers to be linked to the land, the land we depend on to provide us with our food.

The way it works is this: You buy one or more shares by providing up front financial support to local CSA farmers. The farmers then agree to grow the quality and variety of produce the consumers want. Both agree to accept the risks (such as drought or flooding, for example), making CSAs an interactive relationship in which responsibilities are shared. And every week, for about 18 weeks beginning in early June, you go to the farm to pick up your share of produce. There's no tramping in the field or getting your hands dirty. Just take this fresh-as-fresh-can-be produce home and start cooking.

The CSA movement began in Japan in the 1970s and began to take hold in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today there are about 1,000 CSA farms nationwide.

Josh Slotnik is a man with a mission. As manager of Missoula's Garden City Harvest Project (GCHP), a Community Supported Agriculture farm located on a beautiful stretch of land up the Rattlesnake, he oversees the planting, growing and harvesting of four acres of vegetables, greens and herbs, most of which goes to feed low-income people. The entire GCHP is funded by local residents who buy shares in the project. At Garden City Harvest, 70 shares are offered each season, and it is this revenue that allows the organization to fulfill its mission of feeding low-income people.

At this writing, a few shares were still available at GCHP. They are sold on a sliding scale, depending on one's income. A low-income share, for example, costs $195, and an above-average income share costs $350. In return for this money, you'll receive 150 to 200 pounds of a large variety of fresh produce each season that will include greens such as spinach, mustard greens and lettuce; various herbs such as parsley and basil; staples of carrots, potatoes, cabbage and cauliflower; and other favorites including corn, cucumbers, scallions, summer and winter squash, kale, chard, collards and Chinese cabbage, for example. The beauty of being a CSA member is that you will eat with the seasons, enjoying each garden product at its peak of taste and nutrition.

Owning a share is flexible. If one share is more than you need, individuals or families can buy one share and split the produce. You can also opt to donate part of your share to the Missoula Food Bank. For more information or to purchase a share, call Josh at 523-3663.

A number of Missoula families are supporting the CSA concept in a unique way. Formed into a group called GrubShed, their goal is to eat foods year-round grown locally within a 250 mile radius of Missoula. GrubShed has made an agreement with Garden City Harvest to grow food specifically for them, food they'll eat fresh, freeze, dry, and can, and produce that they can store during the winter months. By doing some of the farming themselves, GrubShare members reduce the cost of a share. They've been resourceful in locating sources for various fresh meats, and they've even learned that sugar sold under the Albertsons brand is manufactured from Idaho sugar beets. GrubShed still has a few shares available. If you're interested, call Jodi Allison-Bunnell at 542-8281 or Claire Emery at 728-7910.

n Ravalli County, the fastest-growing area in Montana, is the home to Homestead Organics Farm, located in Hamilton. This 8-acre spread offers 40 CSA shares a year, and a few are still available. Laura Garber, like Slotnik, is motivated by a close connection to the land. And like him, she wants people to see where food comes from and how the food supply changes with the seasons. Several times a year she holds CSA member gatherings at the farm so that they can see how the farm is transformed during the growing season. Call Laura Garber at 363-6627 for more information. If you're in the Hamilton area on Memorial Day, Monday, May 26, stop by the farm at 11 a.m. for a tour. The farm is located at 905 Sleeping Child Road. No need to call, just show up.

n Whitefish is the home to Terrapin Farms, an organic farm that has about 45 CSA subscribers. Judy Owsowitz (pronounced AW-so-wits), is an energetic and enthusiastic farmer and will happily discuss with you her philosophy of growing and eating food. If you're interested in buying a share or sharing a share, call her at (406) 862-6362.

n Two more CSA farms I know of are located in Creston and in Kila. Swallow Crest Farm, operated by Julian Cunningham, is in Creston. The number there is (406) 756-0462. Raven Ridge Farm is owned by Kip Drobish. You can reach him at (406) 752-6837 (which, on the phone pad, spells PLA-NTER).

The bottom line in supporting a CSA is knowing you are part of a collaborative effort to build a more locally based, self-reliant, healthful food supply. The foods are fresher and tastier because they travel only a few yards instead of over 1,000 miles; you are helping to preserve precious farmland, land that would otherwise likely be turned into strip malls; you are helping the local economy; and you are helping to provide a stable economic base to local farmers. In the process you contribute to a system that will assure sustainable agriculture for our future.

Greg Patent writes a monthly food column for the Missoulian.

The following recipes take full advantage of first-of-the season garden greens and produce. I've adapted them from "Local Flavors" by Deborah Madison (Broadway Books, 2002), which won the 2003 James Beard Award as Best General Cookbook of the Year.

Radish Salad with Vella's Dry Jack Cheese

Radishes are one of the growing season's first bountiful crops. They're plentiful in farmers' markets right now, and they'll soon be available from CSAs. Vella's Dry Monterey Jack cheese, from Sonoma County, Calif., has no equal. It has a rich, nutty taste, and is superb in this colorful and slightly spicy radish salad. You can find Vella at the Good Food Store in Missoula and in area specialty food shops. If you can't find it, use Parmigiano-Reggiano. Do not substitute domestic Parmesan.

2 bunches radishes with their greens (use a mixture of white and red or a bicolored radish)

2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives

Extra-virgin olive oil

One 2 to 4 ounce chunk of Dry Jack Cheese or Parmigiano-Reggiano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Radish sprouts, leaves or arugula (optional)

Set aside a handful of the most tender radish greens.

Trim the radish roots, leaving just a bit of the stem, and wash the radishes well. Pat dry gently with a paper towel, then slice the radishes thinly, either lengthwise or crosswise. Put them in a bowl and toss with the chives, radish greens, and enough oil to coat lightly.

Put the radish mixture on a platter, shave the cheese over them, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Scatter on the optional sprouts or greens, and serve.

- Makes 6 servings.

Mustard Greens Braised with Ginger, Cilantro and Rice

Bunches of tender baby mustard greens are at their peak right now in area farmers' markets. Cooking removes their "sting" and makes the greens tender and silky.

4 bunches baby mustard greens, coarse stems removed

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 yellow onion, diced

1/4 cup raw white rice

2 tablespoons finely chopped peeled fresh ginger

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 cup chopped cilantro stems and leaves

1/2 cup water, plus more if needed

Salt to taste

Plain yogurt or lemon wedges

Wash the mustard greens well; then chop, but don't dry them.

Heat the oil in a wide, heavy pot over medium heat. Add the onion, rice, ginger, cumin and paprika. Stir to coat with the oil. Cook for 2 minutes, then add the cilantro, the mustard greens and water. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, cover the pan, and cook until the volume has reduced, 10 to 15 minutes.

Give everything a stir, then reduce the heat to low, recover the pot, and cook slowly for until the greens are very tender and the rice is cooked, anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes more, depending on the age of the greens.

There should be ample moisture in the pot, but check once or twice to make sure that nothing is sticking on the bottom. If the pan seems dry, add a few tablespoons of water.

The greens must be tender before serving. Taste to make sure and adjust the seasoning with salt, if necessary. Cook a few minutes more, if necessary. Serve warm or at room temperature, with yogurt spooned over the top or a squeeze of fresh lemon.

- Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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