Eat Fresh, Eat Local: How to Choose a CSA
Anna Villarruel Apr 30, 2012 Real Food 4 comments
According to the USDA, CSAs, farmers' markets, and other direct farm-to-consumer sales are spreading like wildfire. And now is the time of year when farms are signing up people to participate. For the uninitiated, CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture,” where customers essentially pay up front for a share of a given farm’s annual produce.
It’s important to do your research before signing on to a CSA, so here are some things to consider:
Variations on the CSA Theme
Some CSAs are tied directly to the farm, but others are run more like buying clubs where the CSA organizers buy from a number of different farmers, and you may be able to get fruit, meat, cheese and even fibers, like wool, in addition to vegetables. Some of these programs have a huge geographic range, which can be convenient if you want berries in the off season, but not all of the offerings always fit into a localvore's diet.
Then there are Shareholder CSAs, Pick-Your-Own options and CSA workshares. Make sure you understand their policies so you don't overcommit without knowing it!
Increasingly, CSAs aren’t confined to produce. Some non-farming options include community supported baking, fishing, edible gardening, food production and cooking, food retailers, restaurants, and even foraging. (Click on the links above for definitions from the FarmPlate glossary.)
Each CSA farm grows a different mix of produce. Some focus on a small number of more popular items, while others provide a wider range of produce. To figure out which farm is best for you, think about what you like to eat. Many farms have a list of what they grow on their websites, and some even include recipes with your share. No matter how cheap the produce or how convenient the drop-off site, you don’t want a box of produce rotting in your fridge each week! CSAs often allow you to be creative and try new varieties of produce, which is part of the fun.
Share Size & Price
CSA farm shares vary quite a bit in price. Some are upwards of $500 while many are quite a bit less, especially if you have the option to purchase a half-size share. Do the math and figure out the per-week costs. How many people are you feeding? How often do you cook? What do you like to cook? And how does it compare to your grocery bill?
Talk to the farmer about how much food is included on a given week if you’re not sure, and ask if there are any changes throughout the season that you should be aware of (when kale season comes, will your refrigerator be full of the stuff?). You should always feel like you’re getting a good value.
Tip: If a farm only offers whole shares, split yours with a friend!
Pick-up/delivery days and times vary by CSA farm. Think about how far you would be willing to travel on a weekly basis to get your share and what pick-up option would be most convenient and enjoyable for you. Choose the option that best fits your life as you live it. Convenience (or lack thereof) will have a huge impact on your experience throughout the entire CSA season.
Another thing to consider is how much time you want to spend on the farm. Some CSA farms offer a variety of ways to keep in touch with farmers through on-farm activities, newsletters and interactions during pick-up. If seeing the farm and participating in farm activities is important to you, then choose one that is close to your home; the likelihood of you actually making it to the farm is far greater when it's nearby.
Whatever you do, find a way to get some local produce into your house this summer, whether from a CSA, farmers' market, farm stand or grocery store. Your diet, your dinner and your community will be all the better for it! USE FARMPLATE TO FIND A GREAT CSA NEAR YOU >
CSA share photo courtesy of Maxwell Creek Farm Share
Photo of English breakfast radishes by Lucy Senesac
Anna Villarruel is senior at Dartmouth College and an Editorial Intern at Farmplate. She is particularly fond of baking pastries from scratch, sketching and devouring information about almost anything.