We love sharing stories and photos from CSA (community-supported agriculture) farms across the country, but we know that CSAs are not for everyone. A CSA share is probably not a good fit for you if you don’t have time to cook, don’t enjoy cooking, or are a serious gardener committed to growing as much food as you possibly can. In this blog post, we’ll look at the factors to consider in deciding whether to join a CSA.
If you live in Florida, Hawaii, or Southern California, your CSA season may have already begun. Elsewhere, If you’re considering joining a CSA for the first time or switching from one farm to another, you may be able to find CSA flyers at your farmers market or food co-op. Most every CSA farm now has a website or at least a Facebook page, so you can do a Google search for farms in your area, or go to LocalHarvest.org for a directory of more than 4,000 CSA farms across the country. Local Harvest is a good primer for people considering joining a CSA for the first time. It explains the shared risk implicit in the CSA concept—that members usually pay upfront for the whole season and share with the farmers the risks (weather, soil problems, pests, etc.) that might impact the farm’s harvest.
In areas with numerous CSAs, you can meet farmers and find the CSA that best fits your needs at a share signup event such as those scheduled in March by the Fairshare CSA Coalition in Madison, Wisconsin, and the Portland Area CSA Coalition (PACSAC) in Oregon.
People join CSAs for a long list of reasons. Among them is a desire for fresher food, a greater variety of produce, fewer trips to the grocery store, a desire to support local farmers, and an opportunity for farm visits and member activities. Whatever reasons you have for considering a CSA membership, be realistic about whether you or your household are a good fit for the farm.
Reality check #1: You and/or someone else in your household must enjoy cooking (or juicing or eating raw) a lot of vegetables, and maybe some fruit, week after week and be willing to make time for preparing 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 new recipes?
Reality check #3: If wasting food bothers you, is your fridge big enough to store items that need refrigeration? Will you find ways to use that huge head of cabbage or a hefty winter squash, like maybe sharing it with a neighbor or making a batch of soup for the freezer?
Ten years ago, there were far fewer CSA farms—and options—for subscribers. Today some market-style CSAs allow members to load their own boxes with some degree of personal choice at the farm, or give them the option of box pickup at their local farmer’s market. Other farms deliver shares to workplaces. And a growing number of farms offer add-on specialty shares produced by their farm or nearby farms and other food producers—meat, eggs, cheese, seafood, yogurt, mushrooms, preserves, breads, flowers, sauerkraut, kombucha, and more.
Here are key variables to consider when considering which CSA to join:
Share sizes: Are the sizes offered a good fit for your household, or do you have a neighbor or friend to share a subscription with? Many farm websites show photos of a sample weekly share.
Cost and payment options: The cost of a share will vary according to length of the CSA season or seasons—some farms offer two, three, or four seasons of varying length—as well as delivery choices. CSA farms began with the idea that members pay the full cost of a share when they sign up so that farmers can buy what they need for the growing season, but many farms now offer various payment options to accommodate people with limited budgets, including “scholarship” shares, work-trade shares, and payment with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) benefits.
Delivery or farm pickup: Does the farm offer a delivery location that works for you, or are you able to pick up a weekly box at the farm?
Produce choice and add-on options: Do you prefer a CSA that offers a degree of choice, allowing you to switch one vegetable you’re not so keen on for one that you like a lot? Would you prefer a CSA with add-on options for meat, eggs, cheese, baked goods, jams and honey, flowers, and more? How about stocking up for winter with an optional preserver or storage crop share (onions, garlic, winter squash, grains, etc.)?
U-pick options: Some farms invite members to come out and pick several items for no charge, such as flowers, herbs, and late-season apples and pears.
Growing practices and animals: Many CSA farms are certified organic, or use organic or biodynamic practices but choose to not go through certification. Ask questions! Some farms buy fruit, grains, or other items from farms out of the area. Is that okay with you? If you are buying eggs, meat, or chicken from the farm, ask about animal husbandry practices (use of cages, free-range, type of feed, etc.).
Sense of community: Would opportunities to visit the farm be a plus for you? Activities might include volunteer workdays, canning events, strawberry socials, cooking classes, potlucks, kid’s camps, or even a hoedown.
If you can’t get your week’s box: Farms differ widely in their policies regarding what happens if you forget to pick up your share or go on vacation. If you discover that CSA membership is not for you, you probably will not get a refund, but do read the farm’s fine print before you join its CSA.
If you decide to sign up for a CSA for the first time or plan to try a different CSA this year, choose wisely. And enjoy the anticipation as you await the first week of your farm share! It will be here before you know it.
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.
Picture credits, from top to bottom: CSA box, courtesy of Featherstone Farm, Rushford, Minnesota; man slicing up vegetables by Andy Dean, Adobe Stock; farmer talking with woman, by Pressman, Adobe Stock; kids in the greenhouse, courtesy of Teena’s Pride, Homestead, Florida.