Community Supported Agriculture seems like the perfect way to eat fresh, locally-grown food while supporting small farms. In a CSA, members pay upfront for a share of the produce from "their" farm that season. In exchange, they get a fresh box of produce each week, generally for less than they'd pay at the farmers' market or supermarket. The farmer gets a fair price for his or her crop and a predictable stream of income. And the farmer gets paid at the beginning of the growing season, when expenses are the highest, which can help minimize the amount of debt the farm has to take on.
If only it were that simple. What if bad weather wipes out your farmer's strawberry crop? If you go on vacation, does a perfectly good box of food just sit and rot? What do you do when suddenly faced with a threatening amount of rutabaga? What if your whole family decides to live off of Rice Krispies for a week? After all, life happens.
That's why it's important to do your research before signing on to a CSA. Our guide will help you choose one that's right for you – or help you determine that, for your lifestyle, maybe weekend outings to the farmers' market make more sense.
There are three components to any CSA – the member (that's you), the structure of the CSA, and the farm. Here are the questions to ask of each:
How much do you love vegetables? CSA shares are big. They'll keep a family of four well-stocked with veggies, although you will probably still have to supplement staples such as onions. The photo above shows one week's share from Claggett Farms, a well-known CSA in Maryland. Be honest: How much produce do you really eat? Is there at least one vegetable side dish at each meal? A CSA is not going to magically turn you into a healthy eater.
How much time do you have to cook? Do you cook most meals at home, or do you rely on take-out? If you don't have time to cook now, a CSA isn't going to help. And meal planning will become a lot more important.
Are you willing to experiment? As a CSA member, you don't get to pick and choose your produce. If kale's in season, you get it whether you want to eat it or not. "There's definitely a learning curve," says Sarah Scalet, a member of New Jersey's Bloomfield-Montclair CSA. "You realize a lot of the recipes you're used to eating just don't make sense, because they mix vegetables from different seasons."
Some CSAs include recipes with your share. If yours doesn't, see if you can find a veteran CSA member or a blog about seasonal eating and cooking. Scalet offers one, as do writerguy and Veggie Venture. You might also try finding a CSA blog from a writer that lives near you, and following along week-to-week. If you're a gardener or are used to buying a lot from a farmers' market, you'll be ahead of the curve.
The CSA itself
Is it convenient? This is big. For many people, the most important consideration is how close the drop-off spot is. Some farms will deliver to your door.
Is it a true CSA, or more like a coop? Some CSAs are tied directly to a farm. What the farm produces, members get. Others are run more like buying clubs, where the CSA buys from a bunch of different farmers and may be able to get fruit, meat, cheese and even wool in addition to vegetables. Some of these buying clubs have a very big geographic range. That's great if you want berries off-season, and not so great if you're adamant about supporting local agriculture.
Then there are hybrids, where a farmer runs a CSA but also sells at a farmers' market and even to grocers. Here, it's particularly important to ask current members how they like the CSA. The CSA members, not the grocers or the folks at the farmers' market, are taking on the financial risk. So they should get first dibs – or something close to it—on those fancy heirloom tomatoes.
How much time will this take? Some CSAs require everyone to work a shift packing boxes, say, or cleaning up after drop-off. Some farms also have work requirements.
How long has the CSA been around? CSAs are run by volunteers. Some CSAs are well-oiled machines, and some are... not. "There was a point after that first check cleared where I thought, wait, am I going to get anything?" says Scalet. If you have a choice, you might favor a CSA that's been around for a while, or one where you know some of the people involved in setting it up.
How much am I getting? If you're worried about produce going to waste, a few CSAs also sell half-shares. Find out what happens to your share if you go on vacation, too. Likewise, in most parts of the country, June shares are smaller than October ones. Ask the farmer how much he or she expects to deliver, and how that changes through the growing season. Some CSAs have special shares for people who want to do a lot of canning or freezing, too.
Length In Maine, CSAs generally run for about 18 weeks, but in California some are year-round. That'll affect the cost, of course, so find out in advance. CSAs that run between 22 and 24 weeks can generally cost anywhere from $500 to $650 for the season. If your CSA is seasonal, now's the time to sign up.
How long has the farm been around? Farming is notoriously tough, so think hard about investing in someone who just recently set up shop. If they can't grow it, you don't get to eat it. Similarly, if the farm floods, that may be the end of your produce for that season. And you won't get a refund.
And farms grow differently. Jessica Cicerone, the organizer of the Caldwell, New Jersey CSA (email at caldwellcsa [at] gmail [dot] com), says her farmer grows kale, "but it might not be the kale you know from the supermarket. We get a lot of heirloom varieties. Those seeds have been handed down like old recipes."
Organic? Just because you're buying from a CSA doesn't mean your eggs are coming from pastured, vegetarian-fed, bilingual chickens. It doesn't mean the farm workers are treated and paid well, or that your produce is organic. If this is important to you, ask.
Can I visit? Some farms encourage you to visit; others require you to pitch in and work. Some have free u-pick for members. Think about how much time you want to spend on the farm, and realistically, how often you'll be able to get there.
Still on the fence? You might visit Localharvest, another resource for anyone interested in joining a CSA. Happy eating! — KW
Image courtesy of flickr user thebittenword