The Tragic Optimist

Farm share and shared risk

We’ve been members of a CSA (community supported agriculture, also called farm shares) for 3 years now, though this year we changed to a new farm.  Our share gets us a weekly delivery of whatever fresh produce the farm happens to have harvested throughout the summer and early fall.  Or that’s the theory.  When I’ve talked about having a CSA, one of the things I’ve always mentioned, but never really paid much mind to, is that as a farm share member, you’re not just sharing in the produce, you’re also sharing in the risk.  You pay your share up front, to make sure the farmer is paid for their work regardless of how the season’s harvest goes.

This spring and summer have been strange weather-wise.  Spring was very cold through April, then very dry through May (the third driest on record, in fact).  June was a weird jumble of extremely hot, sunny days, tossed with just a few frosty days, and still not nearly enough rain.  Our new farm is quite communicative, the farmer sends us regular emails about what’s been going on at the farm, starting back in early spring.  Already by the end of May, we’d been told that the crops weren’t growing as quickly as expected and our first delivery was pushed back a couple of weeks.  I’ll admit I was annoyed hearing about other people getting their first deliveries of farm fresh veggies while we still waited.   Jealous of the fresh salad greens and sugar snap peas and green onions.  The day of the first delivery, the farm’s brand new delivery truck broke down.  We were able to get our box, but some people missed theirs.

We’ve gotten two deliveries so far this season.  They’ve been good, but small, but we live in Minnesota, you can’t really expect a whole lot in early summer in the way of produce.  But today we got a heart-breaking email explaining just how bad things had gotten.  Beyond the delivery truck problem – with all the expense involved in resolving that – their irrigation pump had failed, and the weather, drought on top of very late frosts had ruined quite a few crops.

Our farmer wrote, “I think back to the winter and the many conversations I had with so many of you; the descriptions of the many vegetables we would be growing and what you might expect in your boxes each week and, even though we also mention the “risk” asscociated with CSA, it really is not at the forefront of our minds.  The weight of knowing what many of you have expected and what the reality looks as though it will be is awful; Even though we have worked just as hard as we always have, perhaps harder, we still are coming up short.”  Accordingly, the current plan is that they’ll take a week or two off from harvesting and deliveries and focus on re-planting and irrigating, so we’ll miss a couple of our planned deliveries.

So I’m disappointed.  Of course, I am.  After two years of good CSA experiences, I really expected that this year would be the same.  I love getting the veggies.  I love the surprise of opening that box and seeing what we get.  The random salads that we end up eating so much of to use up the vegetables.  The pizzas that end up with crazy improv toppings from that week’s share.  But I feel like I’ve learned a lot more this year about what goes on with farming, and how interconnected things can be, and how easy it is for things to go wrong.  That was what I signed on for.  I think I’m more upset with the idea that some of the farm share holders might want their money back.  It is pretty clearly spelled out on the website that there is risk involved, and that the size of the shares can’t be guaranteed.  If you value small farms and sustainable agriculture, I still think this is one of the better models to encourage that type of farming, which really is riddled with risk.

I ended up sending our farmer the following:

I’ve participated in CSAs because I wanted to know more about where my food is coming from, and because I believe that small farms are a good thing, but I know they’re risky, and if I value that, then I need to take on some of the risk myself.  I’ll miss the veggies for the week or two that you need to take off, but I want you and the farm to succeed.   I don’t want you to reimburse the shares, to plough the fields under, or get a different job.

Wishing you luck and good harvests.

With support,

And now, just to end on a happy note, a recipe that we’ve made twice now this summer with our farm share kale.  It makes a really nice side dish for potlucks or barbecues.  I have to imagine that this general recipe could be adapted to add any number of other greens or herbs or other vegetables that could stand up to the polenta.

Kale and Polenta Pie
from Jack Bishop’s Vegetables Every Day – which by the way, is a fantastic cook book for anyone with a farm share, or who has a tendency to home with too many veggies from the farmer’s market.

  • 1/2 pound Kale, washed and chopped, with the center vein of the leaf removed
  • Salt
  • 1 Tblsp Olive oil, plus extra for greasing the pan
  • 1 cup instant polenta
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Grease a 9 inch round cake pan with olive oil.
  2. Bring 3 1/2 cups of water to boil.  Add the kale and 1/2 tsp salt.  Cover and cook for about 6 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Reduce heat to low.  Very slowly add in the polenta while stirring constantly until smooth.  May take about 1 minute, and it may still have some lumps.  Just make sure it’s mostly smooth.  Partially cover and cook another 2 minutes.  The polenta should be thick.
  4. Remove the pot from heat and stir in the cheese.  Taste and add more salt if necessary.  Scrape the polenta-kale mixture into the cake pan.
  5. Bake until the pie is firm and golden brown – about 20 minutes.  It won’t get browned like bread does, it’s really more of a bright golden color.  Let the pie cool for at least 30 minutes, though it’s perfectly lovely fully cooled.
  6. Cut into wedges and serve.


  1. We have two other Jack Bishop cookbooks and they’re both excellent: Pasta e Verdura is full of great vegetable-based pasta sauces, and Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen has lots of good stuff. I’ll have to keep an eye out for the one you mentioned.

    Last year it was really wet in midsummer, and our organic CSA developed a fungus infestation that ruined a lot of the squash and peppers. They ended up having to plow them under to prevent the disease spreading to the rest of the fields. That too was a reminder of how chancy farming can be.

  2. LeAnn

    As the daughter of a retired farmer, your letter to the farmer warms my heart and makes me smile.

  3. I’m sorry for the poor farmer and you guys for missing your veggies. You did a really nice thing by sending that email.

  4. How sad. I think it’s always sad when a person who loves their work and is passionate about it, gives it their all and comes up short due to circumstances beyond their control. My FIL grew some strawberries this spring and they were less than great and the grapes have some weird disease affecting them this summer and the edamame were riddled with bugs and basically inedible….Spending the last 9 months with my FIL and his farm(s) certainly gave me a whole new appreciation for how unpredictable things can be and how hard it is to be a mostly organic (or at least low-spray) operation. I think it’s great that you sent the message directly to the farmers to let them know not everyone is ready to jump ship.

  5. Annie

    Ann – I also really appreciate your concern for the farmer. My Dad is a farmer in central IL and I’m truly a farm kid. He raises the typical soybeans, corn, wheat, sorghum, and cattle. I know that he is one of the hardest working men that I have ever met. He doesn’t work 8-5 but whatever is needed, and from him it’s unbelievable the work ethic! Some years are amazing, and some aren’t so great. It’s good to see you spreading the word though. I think family farms are quickly melting away into huge farms and it makes me sad. It’s awesome to see someone appreciating the work that goes in. You truly reap what you sow when you farm! Thanks again! Annie

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