It’s that time again—when spring is just around the corner and with it the luscious, long-awaited promise of fresh greens, succulent veggies, and aromatic herbs to break the long winter months of root vegetables and squash. And right now community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms across the country and consumers alike are courting one another in this busy spring CSA sign-up season. But there are choices to be made—whether to commit to a CSA box through a single local farmer; keep things more flexible by shopping at your local farmers market, food co-op, or online through a farm aggregator; or just grow your own.
As it turns out, there are no right and wrong answers here. CSAs are not for everyone, and they are a big commitment for both subscribers and their farms. This blog post takes a look at the pros and cons of CSAs. In my next post, I’ll cover farm aggregators, farmers markets, and other sources of local, fresh food.
12 Reasons To Do a CSA
Your food is fresher (and thus better quality), usually becauseit has been picked within the past 24 hours.
Your organically grown fruits and vegetables are more nutritious, containing more antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals than produce grown on a large scale with chemicals.
It makes economic sense. Your money goes directly to the farmer (and thus the local economy), and not to distributors and shipping companies. Also, the elimination of paying these middlemen means that the farmer is able to sell below retail cost.
Organic farming benefits the environment, because the huge quantities of carcinogenic pesticides and corrosive fertilizers used in commercial, large-scale farms are not used. Also, eating local eliminates the need for so much petroleum-based fuel to be consumed in the course of shipping and distributing.
Because organic farmers grow more plant varieties than do large-scale commercial farms, consumers are exposed to fruits and vegetables that they might not otherwise discover (such as heirloom tomatoes).
You protect your health as well as that of your family by limiting your exposure to cancer-causing pesticides. Also, certain types of outbreaks, such as those caused by E. coli, are far less likely to occur because of the different growing setups of organic farming.
Having a CSA share saves time, with convenient pickup sites and prepacked boxes— no more constant running to the grocery store and trying to decide what to bring home for dinner.
Visiting a real working farm is fun and educational for children and adults alike. Most CSA farms have open houses, socials, festivals, harvest suppers, and other events when you and your family can visit and actually see how your food is grown and processed.
Having a CSA share cements the farmer-to-consumer connection. Urban CSAers especially can forge closer relationships with the rural farm, seeing the origins of their food and sharing in the process.
Organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs simply taste better! That is why discriminating chefs prefer organic foods for their recipes. In turn, the richer flavor of organic produce helps encourage you to eat your veggies. And that is always a good thing!
You get to try the new and unexpected. Chances are good that in the course of your CSA subscription, you’ll receive at least one vegetable or fruit that you might not ever have purchased in the grocery store or market, or even known existed.
CSAs are great opportunities to break out of eating “ruts” and old habits.
You get an opportunity to volunteer for the greater good. Although many CSAs do not require it, some farms ask that you volunteer time in the form of a work shift or at events. It helps to keep costs lower and more evenly distributes the immense workload. Actively participating in your CSA further cements your connection to your food and your community.
Lettuce fields of Sang Lee Farms, Peconic, New York. Courtesy of Sang Lee Farms.
Reasons Not To Do a CSA
Subscribing to a CSA may actually not be a good fit for you. Many people try CSAs every year, only to be disappointed. This is a problem not only for subscribers but also for the farms, who lose income. Before investing money in a CSA, consider whether any of these factors are true for you:
You travel frequently. CSA subscriptions are a commitment. Each week during the spring, summer, fall, and even winter months, you will typically receive a number of pounds of fruits and vegetables in your box, and the amounts can fluctuate widely depending on what’s in season that week. If you are often not home to cook and eat the produce, this is an obvious problem. And there are no refunds for missed or skipped pickups.
You’re not prepared to cook and use your bounty. If you tend to stash your veggies away in the refrigerator and forget about them, or if you don’t have time to properly cook and prepare your produce, or if you eat out a lot, having a CSA may not be for you.
You don’t do well with unpredictable supply and selection. Farms operate at the whim of weather and other environmental conditions, such as frosts, floods, droughts, or extreme heat and cold. With climate change an ever-increasing reality in today’s world, this can manifest in too few strawberries and way too much kale. If you prefer a constant, steady supply of everything, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise.
You can’t eat everything in your box before it spoils. This is probably the biggest reason why CSA subscriptions don’t work out. Getting through everything before it rots can be daunting and discouraging. This is exactly why I wrote my Bounty from the Box cookbook—it contains plenty of storage and cooking tips, as well as recipes to help you tackle this abundance, but it can still be a challenge. Some CSAs offer half or solo shares for smaller households. Or you might consider splitting a full share (and its costs) with another family. This could be a problem when deciding how to equitably split the choicest bits (such as strawberries).
You do not have time to volunteer on the farm. Although many CSAs do not require it, some ask that you volunteer time in the form of a work shift or at events. It helps keep costs lower and more evenly distributes the immense workload. But not everyone has time to get involved at this level.
You want everything available all of the time. CSAs grow and harvest what is seasonal in their local areas. If you demand eggplants in winter and you live in Maine, this could be an issue.
You cannot afford the upfront subscription cost. Different CSAs have different payment options, but many ask for the entire season’s subscription costs up front in one lump sum—typically $600 to $900 (keep in mind that length of season varies widely and some CSAs operate year-round.) Produce through a CSA is usually a bit more expensive than through a grocery store, but the quality and variety are much better. Many farms now accept monthly SNAP/EBT payments, or offer a payment plan, scholarships or a work-trade share that reduces the overall cost of subscribing. Just ask any CSA farmer if they can work with you on this—some can.