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.
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 Healthy Eating with the Seasons.
Is CSA for you?
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.
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.
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.