TWO WINTERS AGO there was snow on the ground in Portland—Snowpocalypse!!! We laughed at all the hyperbole, and took a couple days off work.

Over the hill in North Plains, however, a couple of farmers were actually experiencing something like the devastation our weathermen so often invent (and milk) that time of year. Pumpkin Ridge Gardens, a small family farm, was buried under several feet of snow and ice. Their hoop houses (plastic-roofed greenhouses built over flexible piping) collapsed under the weight, and with it, so did their ability to grow any vegetables until the spring.

Pumpkin Ridge operates a year-round CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture), a subscription-based service in which customers pay at the beginning of the season for a weekly allotment of produce. James Just and Polly Gottesman started the farm in 1990 after reading about Japanese housewives that banded together to buy a farm's entire production. It sounded like a good sustainable model for a small-scale farm. Their first year, Pumpkin Ridge sold four shares.

By the winter of 2009, Just and Gottesman were feeding 170 families. But without the hoop houses, they'd have no way to fill the weekly boxes. "The members are understanding," Just says. "They know they're shouldering some of the risk, and know what they've signed on for." That's been the business model ever since CSAs began catching on in the states 20-some years ago. In an age of industrialized food production, engineered produce, and monolithic corporate farms, that connection to the land, the elements, and the people who grow your food is part of the appeal.

That winter, Just and Gottesman put out word to their members, and soon they had 30 or 40 sets of hands out on the farm helping with the repairs and construction. They were able to salvage the season and thrive in the spring. But even when times are good, it's not uncommon to see members volunteering on the farm.

That enthusiasm has helped CSAs grow exponentially in the US over the last 20 years, from a few dozen to over 4,000. Members pay a lump sum, and each week they pick up their box of produce at a designated drop site (though some farms offer home delivery). Your box will vary from week to week, depending on what's in season and what's growing well.

For instance, had you picked up an August box from Wealth Underground Farm last year, you'd be eating tomatoes, summer squash, cucumbers, beans, a salad mix, a head of lettuce, torpedo onions, swiss chard, hot peppers, and more. Two months later, your box would look very different—more carrots, potatoes, and turnips. (If you're worried you don't know what to do with those particular vegetables, Wealth Underground's proprietors, Nolan Calisch and Chris Seigel, offer box-specific recipes on their website).

Brian Martin started Working Hands Farm last year, selling his produce at farmers' markets and building a subscriber-base at a local architecture firm. The CSA model has been especially important, he says, because it keeps him from having to borrow large sums of money at the beginning of the season, for seeds, compost, and inevitable repairs. It allows him to budget accordingly, and do a little extra for his members. He likes to surprise customers with fresh-roasted coffee, local honey, and cut flowers from his farm.

It's important to find a CSA that fits your needs (consider price, the range of fruits and vegetables, and the drop-off locations), and there are many in the area to choose from. Localharvest.com is a great resource, and we'll be running mini-profiles/Q&As all week on Blogtown at portlandmercury.com, but here are a few safe bets:

Pumpkin Ridge Gardens

(pumpkinridgegardens.com)

Length of Season: year round

Size: 80 full shares, 90 half shares

Cost: $1,390 full share/$855 half share (52 weeks)

Highlights: purple sprouting broccoli, arugula, purple tomatoes

Wealth Underground Farm

(wealthunderground.blogspot.com)

Length of Season: June-November

Size: 30 shares

Cost: $600 (25 weeks)

Highlights: Hakurei turnips, a special mix of salad greens

Working Hands Farm

(workinghandsfarm.com)

Length of Season: June-November

Size: 50 shares

Cost: $603 (21 weeks)

Highlights: kohlrobi, sun gold tomatoes

Winter Green Farm

(wintergreenfarm.com)

Length of Season: June-November

Size: 600 shares

Cost: $505 (19 weeks)/$190 (late-season share)

Highlights: strawberries, blueberries, kale,

broccoli (all biodynamically grown)

Sauvie Island Organics

(sauvieislandorganics.com)

Length of Season: May-December

Size: 400 shares

Cost: $495 individual share/$875 family share (30 weeks/share)

Highlights: tomatoes, corn, winter squash, salad greens