It’s the season now: Are you considering joining a CSA this year or looking for one that works better for you than the one you previously belonged to?
Or are you not sure how to find the CSAs in your area? Look for fliers at your local farmer’s market or food co-op, or just jump online. It’s a rare farm that does not have a website and/or Facebook page. You can also search a CSA directory with over 3,000 farm listings at http://www.localharvest.org. Your area may have its own resource directory, like FairShare CSA Coalition in southern Wisconsin and PACSAC in Portland, Oregon.
Local Harvest is a good primer for people considering joining a CSA. It explains the shared risk implicit in the CSA concept, that “members share with the farmer the risk that some crops might do poorly due to bad weather, pest problems, and the like. With so many crops included in a CSA, it is expected that even if some languish, others will flourish and there will be plenty of food overall.”
Farm-to-table produce has developed a certain aura of romance, but if you’re considering joining a CSA for the first time, be realistic about whether your household is a good match for a CSA. Reality Check #1: You or someone else in your household must enjoy cooking, juicing, or eating a lot of vegetables week after week, and be willing to make time for it. Reality Check #2: Does the sight of an unfamiliar vegetable—say kohlrabi or escarole—delight or disappoint you? Are you game to try new tastes and recipes? Reality Check #3: if you hate to waste food, will you find ways to use a huge head of cabbage or winter squash, like sharing with a neighbor or making a batch of soup for the freezer?
Details to Consider
To compare CSA farms, here’s what you’ll need to consider:
Share sizes: Are the options offered a good fit for your household or do you have a neighbor or friend who might want to split a share? Some websites post photos of a typical weekly share.
Cost and payment options: It’s not easy to compare the cost of a share between one farm and another because of the many variables, but you will likely spend less and get better quality produce than you’ll find at the grocery store. CSA farms began with the idea that members pay for their share when they sign up so that farmers can buy what they need for the growing season, but many farms now offer payment options to help their customers, including “scholarship” shares, work-trade shares, or payment through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). If you’re considering a whole diet (or full diet) CSA that supplies most of your household’s food—and there are a few dozen of them—the costs are significantly higher and typically require everyone in a household to be a member.
Produce choice and add-on options: Many farms now offer some degree of free choice of produce, allowing you to switch one vegetable you’re not so keen on for one that you like a lot. How important are add-on options such as meat, chicken, eggs, flowers, honey, cheese, grains, sauerkraut, or bread produced on the farm or by nearby farms and businesses?
Understand the Farm’s Policies
U-pick and preserver share options: Does the farm offer CSA members free or low-cost U-pick items in season, such as apples, pears, or flowers? Does it offer preserver shares suitable for canning, pickling, and freezing in the fall?
Length of season/pick-up arrangements: Some farms offer a four-season CSA, while others offer summer and winter shares or just one share season. What will work best for your household and your budget? Is the farm or its nearest drop-off location convenient for you, or do you have a neighbor to alternate pickup with?
Production Practices: How important to you are a farm’s growing practices and methods of raising animals? Does it matter to you if the farm is certified organic, is transitioning to certified organic, or uses organic practices without being certified? Would you rather support a farm that uses biodynamic practices or is buying local the most important thing for you?
Opportunities at the farm: Most farms invite members to one or more on-farm event per season and some encourage members to drop by for “work parties.” Some farms offer a wide range of events designed to foster a sense of community among CSA members, from planting days and canning and pickling to hoedown dances and kid’s activities. Would such events be a plus for your household?
Make sure you understand a farm’s policies: Farms differ in their policies regarding what happens with your box if you forget to pick it up or are on vacation. If you discover that your CSA membership is not for you mid-season, you probably will not get a refund, so it is important to read up on a farm’s policies before you join. Local Harvest recommends asking farmers for references from past CSA members before signing up, or reading reviews posted on its online farm directory.
May you choose wisely and anticipate your CSA membership with relish!
Photo courtesy of Camille Storch for Gathering Together Farm, Philomath, Oregon.
About the author: This week’s blog post comes from Martha Wagner, a Portland, Oregon-based food writer, gardener, and passionate advocate for sustainable living, wellness, and organic agriculture.