Community Supported Agriculture: How to find & join a CSA

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What is a CSA?

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a way for consumers to buy local, seasonal produce directly from a farmer in their community. It is basically a farm share. A farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public. Local consumers buy a share into the farm – they support this year’s crop with money up front for a membership, and in exchange, each week during the growing season, they will receive a box of local, fresh, and seasonal produce directly from the farm.

Why CSA?

csa veggie mosaic 2

CSA Veggies by Mamichan on Flickr

Community & Economy. CSAs help the local farmers in several ways. Since CSA subscriptions are generally marketed in January/February, the farmers get to spend their time in the fields during the growing season, instead of trying to generate business or sitting at a farmers market. The payment early in the season also helps them fund the crops that year – from seeds to improvements to the soil to new equipment.

Local farmers are small business owners. Spending money with a local business instead of at a big box retailer or chain keeps more of those dollars in your own community. Supporting local businesses does really matter. It is a way of living mindfully, supporting sustainable businesses, voting with your dollars, being an active participant in your own life. That’s what the Liberty Garden concept is all about.

CSAs are also a great way to foster local community. On your pickup days, you get to interact with the farmer that grew the food you’ll be eating that night. Learning more about their business, building these relationships, and finding out more about where food comes from: these are all good things.

Family. CSAs are an amazing opportunity to get kids involved in their “food chain” – they get to meet the farmers, ask questions, learn about new vegetables and fruits, touch, see, and smell, learn colors and tastes, and more. The more they are invested in their food, getting to pick it up, help in the kitchen, meet the farmers, the more likely they will be to actually eat the stuff. Farms usually sponsor a couple “open house” events throughout the year for their CSA subscribers, which is a great chance to get to visit the farm, meet more of the workers, and see what else is growing. It’s a fun and educational family outing too. The kids love running around the fields, seeing the farm animals, and spending time in the sun.

Seasonal & Environmental. If you’ve ever eaten a strawberry picked at the peak of its season, still warm from the early summer sun, then you know the wonderful, intoxicating deliciousness of seasonal produce. Contrast that: if you’ve ever been tempted to buy a strawberry from the grocery store in December, you remember what a bland, flavorless disappointment it was. There really is a difference when you eat produce in season.

What does eating seasonally mean? It means you buy foods that are being grown and harvested locally, right now. It does not mean buying “fresh” green beans in January when you live in New Jersey (those were shipped in from Mexico, probably) or eating “fresh” asparagus in August (asparagus is a very early Spring vegetable).

By buying seasonally, you guarantee that the food is local. You’re not harming the environment by shipping the food thousands of miles (with all the carbon footprint that entails). You also are guaranteeing that you get the freshest, most nutritious and tasty food available.

Want more info about eating seasonally? Check out How to Eat Seasonally and Healthy Eating with the Seasons.

Is CSA for you?

CSA week 1!

Greens galore - week 1 of Mattawoman Creek Farms CSA in Virginia

You might agree that CSA is a wonderful concept and fits in with your sustainable lifestyle ideas – but before you jump in, you should ask yourself a few questions. CSA shares can cost anywhere from $200-600 for a season, so it is an investment you’ll want to consider. Some questions to ponder:

Do I like vegetables? If you aren’t a veggie lover, CSA is not for you. Some weeks you can get upwards of 30 pounds of veggies. Think about that before you commit.

Do I like cooking? You’re going to get fresh, unprocessed food. Whole carrots with the green stuff still attached. Lettuce and leeks with dirt still clinging to the roots. Do you have time to prep and cook fresh produce pretty much every night of the week? If not, you may have a lot of food go to waste.

What will I do with the extra? Speaking of waste, some weeks you’ll just have extra produce. Maybe you didn’t get to cook every night, or maybe you just didn’t want to eat one more leafy green. What will you do with the extra? Do you have a neighbor or friend that would like the produce? Is there a local food bank you can make a donation to? Think about this before you subscribe.

Do I travel a lot? CSA is a weekly commitment for the entire late Spring, Summer, and early Fall. If you travel frequently, you’ll need to think about what will happen on the weeks you can’t make your pickup. Will a friend pick up for you? Will the farm donate your share to a food bank? What happens if no one picks up your share?

Am I okay with the “shared risk” in owning a share of the farm? I recently met with a local family who runs a CSA with more than 80 subscribers. It was interesting to hear their perspective on how important it is to educate subscribers about this aspect of CSA. Last summer in Virginia was brutal. We had weeks and weeks of scorching heat with no rain. The crops suffered. With a CSA, you really do own a share of the farm. If there’s a bumper crop, well then you’re golden, but if there are floods or drought or a pest problem, you get that too. It is a risk. A CSA is not a supermarket. Consider this before joining.

CSA mosaic

CSA Mosaic by Mamichan on Flickr

Shopping around

Okay, so you’ve decided that CSA is the way to go and you want to subscribe to one. What should you consider when “shopping” for a CSA?

Size & Price. How big is a share? Will it feed two? Four? How much produce will you get for the cost? One CSA I’ve participated in offers a “big box” and “small box” – talk to the farmer about what a typical share looks like. Keep in mind that week 1 will look very different from week 12. The box gets bigger as the growing season progresses.

Length of season. How many weeks is the growing season where you live? Is there a CSA that does early spring greens or late fall/winter squashes? That might be something you want to look for.

Pick up & delivery day. Do you have to pick up at the farm or is there a local drop? Most CSAs offer this – it could be a refrigerated truck in a parking lot or a booth at the farmers market. What day is the pickup? Will that work with your schedule?

Where does it come from? Does the farm provide all the produce in the CSA box or do they obtain some from other sources? I never thought to ask this question, assuming that CSA = one farmer, however a really disappointing year (Oranges in my box? These aren’t from Virginia! Butternut squash in May? Huh?) made me realize this is a question worth asking.

Organic or no? Is it imperative that your CSA be certified organic? Even though some small, local farms may use totally organic and sustainable growing practices, an organic certification can be hard to obtain. The best plan is to specifically ask the farmer about growing practices. Do they use pesticides and herbicides? What kind of fertilizers do they use? How sustainable is their farm. These types of questions are more important sometimes than that USDA Organic seal.

Get started

CSA brights

CSA Brights

Ready to join a CSA? Now is the perfect time, and many farms are accepting new members for the next few weeks and months. Check out these links to get started and find a CSA.

Local Harvest – search for a CSA
Biodynamic Farming & Gardening Association – links to CSA databases
Rodale Institute Farm Locator
Eat Well Guide – find local food, farms, and more
Wilson College – Local and international CSA databases

Tell us your CSA story

Will you be joining a CSA this year? Which farm do you support? Post a link in the comments and let us know. What’s your experience with CSA. Anything we forgot? Tell us in the comments.

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  1. Kyle R
    February 9, 2011 at 10:06 am

    For anyone in the Greater Seattle or PNW area I am part of a great CSA. http://www.fullcirclefarm.com/ You are even able to edit your food options before delivery. So this is a great option for us and you know what you are getting every week so you can plan your meals.

    And right now Full Circle Farms is offering a great deal. Use promo code EATWELL and enter Kyle Roberts (My Name) in the ‘how you heard about us’ field when you sign-up and you will save $15 on your first order. Spread the word. We absolutely love getting fresh veggies delivered to our house. http://www.fullcirclefarm.com/index.html

    Amber, you can delete this if it infringes on any advertising right or what not.

    Thanks

    • Allan Balliett
      February 10, 2011 at 9:11 pm

      Amber has done a great job (I REALLY appreciate what you done with this topic, Amber!!) of laying out what you get for your money when you join a family operated, local, small farm CSA. These benefits, the super fresh food, the highly nutritious food (because a small farm can afford to give food plants all the nutrients they need for real nutrient density but a broad acre farm just can’t afford to do it), the soil building, the biodiversity building, the community building, the social and educational outreach and the tremendous beneficial ecological impact of conscious farming just don’t happen with big farms, even if they market as CSAs.

      Full Circle Farm is to real CSAs what Starbucks has been to small coffee houses. (Oh, God, Robb, I hope you don’t chug Starbucks (and think it’s good coffee (anymore))) 400 acres, cooperative farms, umpteen shares in many states. Oh, come on, this ain’t what Amber was talking about in her wonderful discussion of CSAs

      Here’s a nice write up by a small family operated CSA about how their dreams are being smashed by Full Circle Farm “CSA”

      http://theseason.persephonefarm.com/2010/04/20/

      Disclosure: I’m a CSA farmer in Washington, DC. In our area we are also being impacted by large, formerly wholesale-only farm operations that do not return either the freshness, the nutrition or the many other CSA benefits for the food dollars. We are also being hit by many ‘resellers’ who are buying wholesale produce and reselling it under the “CSA” name. (And they have the gall to ask for payment in advance, something farmers need but retailers don’t normally dare to ask for!!) Of course, an informed consumer is the best defense against these interlopers destroying the original small local ‘organic’ nutrient dense CSA farming movement, the one Amber has written about so well.

      Time for my ad: I’m a farmer (and only farm fit, at that) I’m also Paleo and long time involved with Weston A Price but, sorry Sally, Robb is my new food guru! Rob knows a lot about food scientifically and a lot about fitness and the effects of the paleo diet. As a farmer, though, I see that he’s a little weak on how urban people can source the foods that have the nutrients (such as actual omega-3s!) that Paleo people, especially those of you in training, really need. I know a lot about that sort of stuff: where to find the good food, the REAL FOOD. My CSA is in DC We are a small family biodynamic farm that’s part of the New Agriculture movement, an explicit effort to grow food with higher nutrient content that you can find in commercial produce, be it industrial or organic produce. I’m looking for a gym or Paleo group in the DC-area to partner with this coming season. You can contact me through http://www.freshandlocalcsa.com

      Meanwhile, to everyone: please support REAL SMALL FARM FAMILY OPERATED “ORGANIC” CSAs in you area! Don’t let yourself get ripped off by ‘vegetables in a bag’ people!! (And never forget ‘grass fed’ ain’t ‘grass finsihed’ when it comes to Paleo benefits.

      • Kyle
        May 15, 2012 at 7:37 am

        Thanks Allan for trying to bash a company that is doing good. I have done a couple different CSAs and full circle is my favorite. I don’t need to tell you why. I understand they are a very large company. That alone is not going to drive me away from doing business with them just because they have succeeded at what they set out to do. They are bridging the gap between crap food and healthy organic food. I know they offer food from out of state etc, but I am responsible and always change my order to include local veggies.

        I am not here to discredit what you are doing. I love going to small farms and farmers markets, but thanks for your 2 cents.

  2. Michael
    February 9, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Hey Amber,

    We have a service at work called the fruit guys that sounds similar to a CSA. Do you know anything about them and how they rate on the “sustainability” index?

  3. Ana
    February 9, 2011 at 10:52 am

    My local CSA is awesome! I get so excited every 2 weeks when I get to pick up the new basket. BUT, it would be hard if it was only for 1 person. My roommate tends to eat the veggies WHEN I cook them, but it is hard to get her on board sometimes. It would probably be a little easier with a family for sure! Nonetheless it is a great way to get lots of veggies into the house at one time. I have also started giving some away to friends/family.

  4. Jason Sandeman
    February 9, 2011 at 11:13 am

    This is certainly an awesome post Robb! I will be checking into CSA options quickly here in Quebec, to see what I can get my mittens on! One thing I might add – for the next year, save those dollars you did not spend at the store and keep it for the next year’s CSA. That way it really ONLY is a 1 year investment that keeps going, unless you get wiped out by a bad crop year.

  5. John
    February 9, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Any chance there’s a follow up coming soon regarding choosing a local farm for grass-fed and free range livestock? Also, I think options like this exist for wild fish?

    Recently started looking at these sorts of ranches and was (pleasantly) surprised to find I was overwhelmed with options.

    • Robb Wolf
      February 9, 2011 at 1:15 pm

      John-
      This is going to be a huge feature of the site…much more to come. I am as excited, if not more so about the potential of affecting change with programs like this as I am about the whole paleo nutrition gig. If we get people to buy their food differently, we can change it all.

      • John
        February 9, 2011 at 2:06 pm

        Sounds great!

        Also, follow up to the glutamine question I had a few weeks ago:

        The glutamine worked like a charm and within days I felt healthier than I have in years, possibly ever (memory gets hazy too far back). It worked really well to give myself a baseline of health… Which largely collapsed within a weekend. We’re talking the whole shebang, including stabbing pain in my gut.

        Went and got checked out at the doc’s, and he listened to the whole story and not only agreed to, but actually suggested, a blood test for celiac. Got the blood drawn a couple days later, but started immediately taking my dietary compliance to the next level. Test came back negative, but pains and other symptoms also disappeared. Doc and I both agreed to stick with the gluten- and dairy-free permanently and completely.

        Thanks again for all the help and info, and hope the glutamine trick can be useful in your toolbox for creating a baseline in real problem cases. Looking forward to all you have coming next!

      • Allan Balliett
        February 10, 2011 at 9:13 pm

        Jeez, Robb, now you’re not just my Guru, you’re my Hero, too!

  6. Melissa "Melicious" Joulwan
    February 9, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    When I was a Weight Watchers member (ahem!), joining a CSA didn’t seem like a good idea. I planned every meal every week and was dead set against the idea that I didn’t know what would be in my basket.

    LAME!

    When I started eating palo, I joined TWO CSAs and compare them… fun! I decided to go with Farmhouse Delivery because the owners are totally cool, they love food and publish a recipe blog every week, and the baskets are HUGE: lots of variety and big servings of each item.

    Thanks to Farmhouse Delivery I learned that I love fennel, like turnips, that butternut squash tastes AWESOME cooked on a grill, and that the green tops of just about anything (beets, turnips, radishes) are really tasty if steamed then sauteed in olive oil with garlic. It’s like bonus vegetables… eat the main veggie AND the tops.

    Farmhouse Delivery (Austin, TX area)
    http://www.farmhousedelivery.com

    • Lucy Goodman
      February 11, 2011 at 3:54 am

      Farmhouse is not a CSA in that it sources the food from both local and non local sources and the members are not taking on risk as you can buy by the week and do not have to commit to an entire season. i would call this a food delivery service and the people who run it are not farmers but rather brokers.

      this is not a bad thing necessarily as local farms are used so they have a market but do not confuse this with a real farmer driven CSA

      • Ravi
        February 13, 2011 at 2:34 pm

        a very good point – we have one here in Albuquerque that does the same – and reports are not good – just to fill the baskets, the quality of the imported (from california) produce is NOT up to snuff much less organic – stick with local- know your farmers – CSAs
        Ravi @ DaiaSolGaia.com

      • Jessica
        September 28, 2013 at 9:11 am

        I likewise use a company like Farmhouse. The company I use is called The Farm Table and only sources its food from local farms in our state. They are devoted to GMO-free, as close to organic as possible, sustainable farming. This company has saved some farms from shutting down due to lack of business. While they may be brokers, some of these companies do a great job. The Farm Table acts just like a CSA in that they take a certain percentage of the membership fees and box fees and devotes it to the farms in the case that there are natural disasters that would cause them financial problems. Be careful judging these companies because some of them are doing a great job.

  7. Adah
    February 9, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    I use Eating with the Seasons in the SF Bay Area. It’s less of a traditional CSA and more like a local veggie mail order subscription — you pay up front, then go online and order a number of items, and they’re delivered to a drop-off point once a week. They occasionally have meat, plus eggs, extra strawberries and sometimes treats like Arkansas black apples and romanesco. I like the fact that they support a bunch of local farms and I like getting a choice.

    One thing I’ve discovered is that if you wind up with wilted vegetables — and among the piles of lettuce, this seems to be a chief complaint with CSAs — they’re rarely unsalvageable. I got some soft carrots once and put them in a bowl of water in the fridge to give to my birds later, and when I went back for them they were fresh and crisp. I’ve had beets keep for weeks in a container of cold water.

    • Allan Balliett
      February 10, 2011 at 9:47 pm

      Hi, Adah -

      Essentially, if a “CSA” doesn’t have a farmer and a farm, it isn’t a CSA. If produce is being aggragated from a lot of sources, it will never be as fresh as the food you get from a CSA, which is normally harvested the same day you receive it. Aggragation takes time. Wholesaling farms think nothing of keeping greens for 3 weeks or so in their walk-in coolers before distribution. Eating with the Seasons may have had a farm and a farmer once, but it appears they have moved into exploiting the demand small family CSAs have created for fresh local food. Most damning: they do not list the farms that supply them! Transparency is everything in an box scheme like this. If there isn’t transparency, then you pretty much have to accept that what you get may be the same things you’d get if you bought your produce from Safeway. I don’t know these people, of course, but based on their website, and my poor reading skills!, this appears to be the case.

      As far as your wilted produce goes (or, actually, someone else’s since you seem to have solved the problem!), most food-for-health people I’ve read consider ‘freshly wilted produce’ to still be nutritionally sound. That is ‘only water has been lost.’ In my experience, most produce can be re-hydrated by placing it for about 1/2 hour in aluke warm or ice cold (both seem to work) water in your kitchen sink. Texture and flavor and, I assume nutrition seem to be as good as ever.

      About the beets in water, though: I’ve been told that soaking vegetables in water destroys some nutrients (like Vit C) and leaches others (like minerals), so I’ve always tried to keep produce in a relatively dry state in a crisper (after re-hydrating, if necessary)

  8. ahklein
    February 10, 2011 at 8:10 am

    My in-laws are in one so when I house-sit for them (they travel a lot) I get to experience theirs. Their CSA is locally very respected; I hear it mentioned a lot as being one of the best in our area, but I’m not totally confident it’s a “true” CSA. *checks* It’s a Co-Op who preferentially buys from local farmers (and buys from further out in the winter). So they are less buying a farm share and more pooling their buying power with a heavy preference for local farms when available. Well, here are my thoughts anyway, since I suspect they’re similar to a CSA in most respects:

    1. In the winter anyway, they slant heavily towards the starchy tubers. I’m trying to limit those. So those weren’t all that helpful to me personally.

    2. The interesting variety of things one gets can be quite delightful. I would never have known cauliflower COULD be purple. Who knew?

    3. The freshness factor is a little variable, but that might be because it’s a Co-Op, and some of the goods in their basket were coming from further away. I also have only seen winter baskets, since they joined in mid-fall.

    4. The quantity for the price I know they’re paying for their share? Very good. I get “Alicia, come here and take some of this stuff” e-mails on a pretty regular basis, and that’s saying something: my in-laws eat a LOT of vegetables.

    This is their Co-Op:
    http://www.purpledragon.com/index.html

    I have to say that most of my friends are in CSAs and they all love theirs.

  9. Dave Secondino
    February 10, 2011 at 8:22 am

    One more note: CSAs aren’t limited to veggies and fruit. Some of the farms in my area do CSAs for eggs, chickens, and even pork. Check http://www.eatwild.com to find these in your area.

  10. My Paleo Life
    February 10, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    The CSA that we use in the Toronto (Canada) area raises, as well as veggies, pastured ducks, chickens and beef…they also have eggs on a regular basis throughout the year. We just signed up for another year early to get a 10% discount…W00T!!

    http://www.svetecfarms.com (east of Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

  11. Squatchy
    February 10, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    If anyone needs any info on this stuff (CSA, veggies, farmers markets, pastured/grass-fed meats) for upstate South Carolina, feel free to contact me
    for the sake of spam I won’t write out my email address, its my user name here @gmail.com

  12. Allan Balliett
    February 10, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    I should have mentioned this in my post above.

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/If-You-Dont-Know-Your-Farmer-You-Are-Not-in-a-Csa/112456405475352

    This is a facebook page set up by small family farm CSAs in an attempt to educate consumers who are possibly underinformed on how to get the real value for their food dollars that membership in a real CSA returns and is completely lost when they mistakenly sign up with a reseller produce scam.

  13. Diane @ Balanced Bites
    February 11, 2011 at 1:19 am

    A great, small CSA here in San Francisco is Green Hearts Family Farm- check them out!
    http://www.greenheartsfamilyfarm.com/

  14. nom nom paleo
    February 11, 2011 at 3:12 am

    Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, our family subscribes to Marin Sun Farms meat CSA (http://www.marinsunfarms.com/) and two vegetable CSAs: Two Small Farms (http://www.twosmallfarms.com/) and Full Belly Farm (http://www.fullbellyfarm.com/).

    Before I started eating Paleo, I used to waste a lot of my haul. Now, I can’t get enough meat and veggies! I’m an adventurous eater so I love the variety and quality that’s provided from my CSA boxes.

  15. Larry Schmidt
    February 14, 2011 at 9:34 am

    My wife and I put together a video about what to expect when you join a CSA. Feel free to pass it around if you think it’s useful.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-e7asz-XE0

  16. Gary Deagle
    February 21, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    I did my first csa last year and absolutely loved it. I found a buddy and split it with him since the one I did was a certain amount of food. The one I did starts back up in the spring and im itching for it. The best part is it forces you to eat with better variety and try out different recipes.

  17. E. Thornton
    February 22, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    If anyone is in the Charleston, SC area, we have been with the Ambrose Farm CSA (www.stonofarmmarket.com) for just over a year now. Both the Spring and Fall seasons have been excellent (although a little too much eggplant for our taste in the Fall). I would highly recommend checking them out.

  18. Pat
    February 25, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Do not really have any CSA’s near me that I can get to during the pickup window. Although I did see this discussed today and it seems like an interesting option. http://www.wholeshare.com/

  19. CSA while you travel
    March 6, 2011 at 4:25 am

    I really liked your site and the detailed knowledge behind the writing. I love the notion of CSA and support it whenever I can! Cheers, England!

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  21. permaculture vines
    January 7, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    In a way, it’s kind of like bribing garden invaders (whether they’re deer, rabbits or insects) with something yummy instead of what you’re trying to grow for yourself.

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