There's a rutabaga sitting on my kitchen counter, and I just don't have the heart to eat it. It's not one of those glossy, waxed spheres the size and weight of a 16-inch softball that could sit for a decade in my produce bin without rotting. It's a vulnerable, purple-and-brown, potato-sized root that's beginning to shrink and wrinkle because it isn't in a cool, dry cellar.
But that's not why I can't eat it. I'm sure it would still be tasty and nutritious. But it's the last vegetable from this year's season at the Wormfarm, the organic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm we subscribe to. Eating this lowly little root vegetable would be an admission that the season is over.
This was a season of agricultural discoveries for our family. Every Sunday evening, we'd go to the home of one of the Oak Park subscribers and pick up our vegetables: one of this, two of that, five small or three large of the other. At the start of the season, there were a lot of greens: arugula, spinach, lettuce. Soon we were toting home carrots, chard, herbs and summer squashes. By August our bags were heavy with beans, baby bok choy, cucumbers, eggplants, leeks and tomatoes. In September we could hardly keep up with the peppers and tomatoes, beets and broccoli. And then, as the season wound down, we were hauling home winter squash, potatoes, raddichio, garlic, potatoes and turnips.
But it was about far more than the vegetables. We visited the farm four times over the course of the summer. One visit was required because subscribers take turns bringing the produce back to the Chicago area. One visit was optional in name only: an end-of-season Harvest Fest complete with an art opening, potluck dinner and bonfire. (You wouldn't want to miss it.) The other two were more casual visits to help with farm chores and reconnect with our farmers, Donna and Jay.
Without this connection to the farmers, CSAs would be little more than a way of getting regular deliveries of fresh, locally grown, organic produce. But they are more than that. The two CSAs that I've subscribed to in Oak Park?#34;the Wormfarm and Angelic Organics?#34;emphasize the urban/rural connection. The farmers send weekly newsletters to their subscribers that combine a form of farm diary and philosophy. The farmers write about the drought and the bugs, wax poetic about pollination and irrigation, and even offer recipes for the vegetables that arrive each week. But it's during the visits that the farm and the farmers really change our urban relationship to agriculture.
That's when we come to appreciate cosmetically imperfect produce because we understand how and where it grew. It's when rows of chard, devastated by beetles, make us realize the challenges farmers face. It's when a patch of bright red tomatoes leads us to marvel at the miracles of nature. It's when we come face to face with the worms that enrich the soil and the chickens that peck in the yard. It's when we fall asleep listening to the farm dogs barking to the distant coyotes and wake to the rooster crowing.
Throughout the season, our kids remind us of the value of our connection to the farm. There are the moments of recognition at the dinner table. "I helped pick these beets!" And there is a new willingness to try foods they think they don't like. ("These beans are actually good!")
On a more profound level, there is the awareness that by taking good care of the soil and the plants, we create nourishing food?#34;a tangible way of enforcing the importance of environmentalism.
The fields are plowed under now. We won't see Donna and Jay again until next summer. I'm shopping at Jewel again and finding it hard to get excited about buying anything in the produce section.
And the rutabaga is still sitting on the counter.
Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin teaches journalism at Columbia College Chicago. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a list of local CSAs visit http://www.csacenter.org and click on "CSA Database."