Best Sources for Summer Produce

The summer harvest season has finally begun here in Boston. Near my house, Farmers' markets are popping up, brimming with fresh greens, ripe strawberries, and luscious radishes. Our first CSA share delivery of the season arrived last week. And my garden has started to cough up a few plump berries and herbs.

Make friends with the farmers
My family loves vegetables. The kids love kale chips and fresh strawberries. We all eat sugar snap peas by the fistful. Later in the summer, my husband and I will haul in the tomatoes that are just starting to grow in our yard and make as much salsa as we can.

Since we love vegetables so much, every summer I look for ways to economize on our fresh vegetables. There are two main aspects to this project: getting a good deal on the veggies, and making good use of them.

To get your veggies, you have several options:

Grow Your Own
J.D. has written extensively about the benefits, financial and otherwise, of growing a vegetable garden. Growing your own veggies is awesome. The more DIY you can be about it, the better deal you'll get. For example, I paid about twenty-five cents for a packet of tomato seeds this spring that I grew half a dozen tomato plants from. When a few of them failed to thrive, I bought seedlings from my local garden shop. They cost $4 for a flat of six. Still a lot cheaper than buying fresh tomatoes, but much, much more expensive than starting from seed.

I find that growing your own vegetables is the most economical way to enjoy fresh summer produce, once you have a garden in place. Setting up your garden beds, buying tools and learning the ropes can be pricey the first year. After that, you're looking at relatively small expenses for a lot of very high-quality produce.

If you have the time to invest in gardening. As one of my gardening guru friends likes to say, you can't do half the work and get half the benefit. I'm a bit of a slacker gardener, and I still grow great veggies. But I don't get nearly the haul my friend gets from the same amount of space, because I don't put as much work into it as she does. I just plant some stuff and let it grow.

Not everyone can maintain a vegetable garden. Some people don't have the space. Some don't have the time. Some just really don't enjoy gardening. If you're not going to grow your own garden, you may want to get creative about how you buy your veggies.

Sign Up For A CSA
A CSA, or community-supported agriculture, is a program where a local farm sells shares of its summer produce directly to consumers. You buy a share for the season, paying up front. Then you get a weekly delivery of vegetables straight from the farm. You're participating in the fortunes of the farm. If they have a great harvest, you get an abundance of produce at a great price. If it's a lean growing season, you'll get less.

It's a great way to get fresh, local produce, but there are a few caveats.

For one thing, you need to be adventurous in your love of vegetables. You'll get not only fresh heads of lettuce and juicy tomatoes, but a little of everything your farm grows. Kohlrabi. Brussels sprouts. Garlic. Sometimes we get vegetables in our share that I can't even identify. This works for me because no one in my house is a particularly picky eater. We like trying new foods, and find a wide variety of vegetables exciting. But if you'd prefer to stick with your two or three favorites, a farm share might not be for you.

In addition to the adventuresome nature of a CSA, you want to be sure a farm share is a good value for you. I've experimented with several CSAs over the years. I found that they vary widely in value. They all cost different amounts, and you get different quantities of vegetables. Find out what the rough size of your share will be each week and do some math to compare those prices to your local farmer's market or grocery store. Are you really getting the better deal?

The answer seems to be “usually”. Organic CSAs tend to be more expensive than conventional ones, but also a better bargain: you pay less for your organic produce getting it from a CSA than you would buying it at Whole Foods. At least in my neighborhood. Again, each farm share varies. The important thing is to do the math. Don't assume it's a good deal just because you're getting it in bulk.

For a farm share to be a really good deal, you have to be sure you'll use your full share of veggies each week. It's like buying anything in bulk: it's only a bargain if you use it. Seriously consider how many vegetables your family will eat, and how much time you're willing to spend preparing and preserving your goodies. A farm share is a big commitment. If you let the produce go to waste, you're wasting your grocery money as well.

Shop Farmers' Markets
Farmers' markets aren't exactly a cheap source of summer produce, but they're still often a great value. You may pay a little more for your food at a farmers' market than you would at the local supermarket, but you're getting much fresher, higher-quality produce. Often you'll get things you just can't find in the store.

To get the best deals at your farmers' market, get to know the farmers who sell there each week. Ask about buying seconds quality produce, like bruised peaches or tomatoes. They're not as pretty as the premium stuff, but they make great jams and sauces.

However you decide to get your summer produce, you'll want to take care with how you use it. Getting a good deal on fruit and vegetables is just the first part of the equation. Next week I'll talk about money-saving strategies for using and preserving your summer bounty so you can enjoy it all year long.

More about...Food, Frugality

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