Are you trying to find 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 a CSA in your area? Below are eight tips for how to find a CSA that’s right for you.
Look for fliers at your local farmer’s market or food co-op, or jump online. It’s rare to find a CSA farm without a website or Facebook page. You can also search a CSA directory with over 3,000 farm listings at localharvest.org. Your area may have a resource directory, like FairShare CSA Coalition in southern Wisconsin and Portland Area CSA in Portland, Oregon.
Local Harvest is a good primer for people trying to find 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 CSA crops, expect that others will flourish even if some languish, 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?
8 Tips for How to Find a CSA
To find a CSA that’s right for you, here’s what you’ll need to consider:
#1 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 crop.
#2: 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. Still, 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.
#3: 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 vital are add-on options such as meat, chicken, eggs, flowers, honey, cheese, grains, sauerkraut, or bread produced on the farm or nearby farms and businesses?
Before You Find a CSA, Understand the Farm’s Policies
#4: 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?
#5: Length of season/pick-up arrangements
Some farms offer a four-season CSA, while others provide 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 pick-ups?
#6: Production Practices
How important to you are a farm’s growing practices and raising animals’ methods? Does it matter to you if the farm is certified organic, is transitioning to certified organic, or uses organic techniques without being certified? Would you instead support a farm that uses biodynamic practices, or is buying local the more important for you?
#7 Opportunities at the farm
Most farms invite members to one or more on-farm events 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?
#8: 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 essential to read up on a farm’s policies before joining. Local Harvest recommends asking farmers for past CSA members’ references before signing up or reading reviews posted on its online farm directory.
If you are trying to find a CSA this year or looking for one that works better for you, remember these eight tips to help you choose your new CSA wisely and anticipate expectations.
- 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.