At some point, every CSA member will open their box to find something that’s not what they were expecting. Perhaps they’ve never seen or eaten a kohlrabi, Paloma eggplant, or persimmon. Or it could be because the size or shape of the produce is not what they’re used to seeing.
Produce in a CSA box can be larger, smaller, or differently shaped because CSAs are not governed by all of the strict rules and expectations of the wholesale produce world about size and appearance. It makes sense for the industry to have a set of norms and accompanying vocabulary to help farmers, wholesalers, and customers communicate what we (the farms) have and make sure that buyers are getting what they expect. Some of that language describes size or appearance and you’ve probably seen some of this: Size A, Extra Fancy, No 1, etc. Most produce also has an expected pack size, usually a combination of weight and count that is expected in each box. There is a recognition of variation, but each order is expected to be fairly uniform and having to follow certain grades and pack sizes leaves out a lot of what we, and other farms, produce.
In the past few years, there’s been plenty of news coverage about the problem of food waste. The methane generated from food waste at landfills coming from our stores and houses, contributes to climate change and there is a high level of food insecurity in our communities despite there being plenty of food grown and harvested. There’s a lot of finger pointing at farmers who don’t get every melon or tomato out of the field. It’s sad that this produce doesn’t get eaten but there are very legitimate financial reasons that would lead a farmer to till those crops back into the soil instead of harvesting, or to dump them instead of delivering them to customers. If crop size, appearance, or just too much already in the market means that there’s no customer for the crop, or that the price they’ll have to accept is too low to cover their costs, why pay to harvest, clean, store, pack, and transport it?
Fortunately, at Full Belly, we don’t just sell produce wholesale. We sell directly to restaurants and smaller stores where we have the ability to talk with them about appearance, size, and ripeness. And we have our CSA and farmers market customers, much more tolerant folks, who are rewarded for that tolerance by receiving some really suburb produce that could never find the wholesale world. Just focusing on melons, some of our market customers will specifically ask for a Goddess or Galia melon with minor cracking because they know that’s a sign that it’s ripe. Just recently, many of our orange honeydew melons had a lot of scars, so we knew not to offer them to wholesale buyers, even though the scaring is just on the surface and is purely cosmetic. These were some of the best melons I’ve ever had, good enough to elicit a “wow, that is so good” from all of us who sampled them. So I’m glad that they went to our CSA.
We’ve got other melons that are equally delicious but are too large, or too small, to make sense for a wholesale customer who is expecting a 30 pound box containing 5 or 6 melons, the industry standard. Just this past week, a friend sent me a text with the photo below and a glowing review of the enormous Sharlyn melon from her box that she’d jokingly texted was “too small, a tiny melon” and my parents gave similarly good reviews of their two small Piel de Sapo melons in their box. You’d never be able to find these melons at a store!
We’ve grown a lot of amazing melons this year and we want each and every one to find a loving home. Our diverse customer base helps us achieve that goal. When we put produce in the CSA boxes, we’re still following the cardinal rules and commandments of the produce world regarding quality and taste (commandment number one is: “thou shall not give people dull, enormous zucchini the size of baseball bats”), but we don’t have to follow all of the rigid, and sometimes ridiculous, rules about uniformity, appearance, and size. And I think it generally works out. A CSA member just wrote to us and said “Joining the Full Belly CSA was such a highlight of 2020 for me, I have gotten more adventurous with my cooking over the last year and a half. I don’t think I can ever go back to store bought melons!”
This week, Thom, a long-time member who picks up at the Berkeley Market opened his box to find one of our enormous melons and was surprised enough to mention it to us. I followed up with him and loved what he had to say:
“We have been Full Belly CSA members for over 25 years, and usually very little surprises me when I pick up our box. This week was different! Much to my surprise when I opened our box, a gigantic Sharlyn took over. We were in awe. I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to show Judith; she explained about sizing for restaurants and wholesalers. So often we CSA members get the unusual produce and fruits. How blessed we are to have this wonderful nourishment. Last Tuesday was a WOW Moment at the Farmers Market. Thank you Full Belly.”
Creating “WOW moments” is one of the most gratifying parts of our work, whether it’s a wow like mine when I tried those honeydew or like Thom’s. If you haven’t had a WOW moment of your own recently, I hope for one very soon!
– Elaine Swiedler, CSA Manager