Ask the Readers: Joining a CSA

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As I get more into hunting down fresh and local food, I’ve been looking into joining a CSA this summer. It seems like the perfect way to get really fresh vegetables and support local farms.

What is a CSA? While us city-folk foodies may be familiar with the concept of a CSA, there are a bunch of people who probably don’t know what they are or what it even stands for. Take for example, 95% of the people in my home state of Wyoming. The concept of a CSA is probably very foreign to them because there are not a ton of local farms in Wyoming.

CSA stands for community supported agriculture. As someone who dabbles in investing, I like to think of it as a stock except it’s with food. So every year, you buy a “share” of a farm. The price of this share could be dependent on a number of things, but basically you are investing up front and over the course of a season or two, you will get some food dividends every week for that investment.

Honestly, this is the first year I’ve really considered joining one, but it seems like something that may be right up my alley. I did some research on Local Harvest and this is what I found out about CSAs. There seems to be a lot of benefits, but possibly one or two deal-breakers.

What’s good for you is good for them. There are a lot of advantages to a program like this. For the farmers, they shift some of their marketing type work to before the harvesting season. All of their produce is already sold basically. In the summer, they can just focus on growing and harvesting and then in the winter they can work on selling it. This spreads the work out over the year.

They also get money earlier. If you are a business-minded person you’ll know that it is always better to have money now rather than later.

As for the consumer, well, you get to know exactly where your food is coming from and get ultra-fresh local produce. In fact, most CSAs encourage (and some require) that you travel out to the farm a few times during the growing season. Also, you are supporting a local business and not buying food that has been shipped across the world.

But the best advantage by far is that programs like this put the farmer in touch with the eater. It’s something that has become completely removed from most people’s daily food experiences. I think that it is a huge advantage though and very important.

Share the reward. Share the risk. So the stock analogy I was making earlier works both ways. If the farm does well, you will be showered with lovely fresh produce all summer long. However, if the farm fails for any number of reasons (drought, family problems, bad business) then you are out the money and get very little or no produce.

Now, it is rare that something so drastic happens that you would get nothing out of the deal and obviously it is in the farm’s best interest to provide you with the best quality food possible so you will invest again next year, but if you’re on a very tight budget, it might be hard to justify as it could happen that you invest the money on the front end, and get no food out of the deal.

The cost. The cost of these “shares” varies greatly depending on the farm and what kind of stuff you get out of it. Some include dairy or meat or flowers or bread, and some are just fresh veggies. In general though, I found even the more expensive ones to be a good investment. Say the season for the farm lasts 20 weeks (that seemed to be about the average), and it costs $1000. That was the very high end of prices I researched. That is still only $50/week for really amazing, fresh, local produce.

In my mind, you can’t beat that.

But, I’ve just started researching these deals so I would love to hear from some Macheesmo readers. What do you all think? Are these worth the risk? Does anyone who reads Macheesmo participate? Any tips for selection given the huge number of farms available in some areas?

I plan to select one and update everyone on my choice. Of course, I’ll be using a lot of the food I get on Macheesmo recipes, so you’ll see the end results.

Photo by Burpee Gardens.

14 comments on “Ask the Readers: Joining a CSA

  1. The Pasta Burner and I belong to a great little CSA in Philadelphia — we get a half-bushel of veggies, two pounds of meat, a half-pound of cheese, a pound of granola, and two dozen eggs, every week! It's so much, we have to share it with our neighbors!

    I'm a big fan. My only advisement is to consider issues of your local climate and weather when considering whether or not to participate; while you'll get gorgeous corn and tomatoes in August, by October, you may be looking at a box that's 80% potatoes and gourds. Just something to keep in mind. (On the other side of the coin, a friend of mine in Los Angeles gets fresh avocados in her farmshare year-round, so, there you go.)

    CSAs aren't for everyone in the long-haul, but I'd certainly suggest giving it a try, at least once.

  2. I just signed up for my first CSA this year after discovering the idea too late last summer. Twenty weeks of produce for $325 works out to about $16 a week, and since I spend at LEAST that much on produce at the farmer’s markets over the summer it seemed like a good idea to me. Hopefully I’ll get introduced to some vegetables I don’t already know, plus I like supporting a local farm directly.

  3. I’ve been talking to my co-worker about different CSA’s. A real nice resource is http://www.buylocalvirginia.org. You can figure out all the farms that are 50-75 miles out and see if they do local pick ups. Most I’ve been looking at also offer half-shares for people who don’t need 2 boxes full of produce a week. I’m hoping I can find one for $325 like Adrienne up there!

  4. The two most common disadvantages to joining a CSA are (1) the variety of foods you receive each week is out of your control, and (2) even a half-share can deliver too much food to avoid spoilage.

    I think your interest in working with seasonal ingredients negates the first disadvantage, though if you’ve ever had a neighbor with an over-active zucchini patch, you might already anticipate the frustration of receiving a box full of the same for a few consecutive weeks in August.

    The second disadvantage is of much greater concern. I live alone, so I usually can’t eat enough produce in a week to avoid having some food go to waste. If I were in for a couple hundred bucks up front, I would want to make sure I got the most out of it. That said, I would guess that if you were proactive about preserving some food – freezing, drying, canning, etc. – this would less of a disadvantage.

    One CSA I DO “belong” to here in Iowa City does only eggs. A share is $2 and entitles you to one dozen eggs, and you can buy more shares as you need them. Kind of like penny stocks.

  5. I’d give it a go as well. I like some of the above tips about being aware of what you’ll get at what time of the year, but that is one really good way to reconnect with your food. Eating seasonally can be quite a challenge at first, but it gets more and more rewarding each year. It also helps you learn more about putting food by. That is something else that seems to get more and more rewarding each year.
    We’re urban homesteaders, so we grow our own. If you have any space to grow, I’d encourage you to try it as well, even if it is only a couple plants. You can splurge and go for some heirloom (exotic to our mono-cultured food minds) varities as well. We’ve become truly addicted to Cherokee Chocolate tomatoes. :)

  6. Last year we picked a CSA and loved it. We chose Sun Gold Farm because they had a good selection of the types of foods we wanted. There were several to choose from, each with different food type options, food quantity options, delivery options, and prices. So you really have to pick what is most important to you. We love that we pick ours up at the local farmer’s market every weekend. The price, $375 for 18 weeks works out to about $21/week. This is more than we would spend in one week on produce from Mexico and Peru in any given week, but it sure feels good to support your local agriculture, sustainable farming, and get fresh produce in return. Plus, during the peak produce season, we come home with much more vegetable than we would ever buy at the grocery store. So some days in the summer, our family goes vegetarian. We eat like kings. Some of the items that store well, we will preserve, and those that don’t have get priority access to our menu. We also love that we get 10% off any other produce that Sun Gold Farm sells at the farmers market. Last year, at the end of the season, I stocked up on winter squash, something I really missed from my childhood when we grew it ourselves. Last year, we had zucchini and rhubarb coming out our ears, so we ate lots of both and put some in the freezer so we can have zucchini bread and strawberry rhubarb crisp in the dead of winter. Mmmmmm.

    Support your local CSA and add some veg to your life.

  7. I checked into these a month or so ago, and read mixed reviews about the local DC CSA’s. Are you going to pick one with a local pick up or delivery or are you willing to go to the actual farms? (most are kind of far from the city I think) You can be the guinea pig – keep us posted!

  8. I was looking into joining a CSA in the Raleigh area and talked to a few friends who had been in them. Ultimately, I chose not to.

    The quantity of food you receive can be overwhelming. My friends cook a lot but could not keep up with the pace of food coming in. They hated to see food spoil, but it seemed inevitable (they gave a lot away).

    Also, the lack of control over what you receive became annoying. At first they thought it was fun because they were forced to use a seemingly random assortment of ultra fresh produce. But that quickly got old as planning meals in advance, organizing a dinner party with a specific menu, or even satisfying a random craving meant they had to go out and get ingredients at the expense of letting something they already paid for sit around unused.

    I love the concept, but for a single guy or a couple it seemed to be hard to effectively use all the food. Perhaps if you had a family to feed or if you did it with a few friends it may be a better deal.

    Really, the deal breaker for me was that I’d likely have food in my house spoil before I used it. I’d rather just go to my local farmers market (or directly to the farm) and get what I need as I need it.

  9. I say they are definitely worth it. We love our CSA. The one we use is 100% certified organic and of course it means you are always eating local and in season. We pay $20 per week for a “small” box, and they have a large one for $36. The small box is good for my wife and I and our two kids. As the kids get older we’ll move to the large box. In about a month, between the CSA and our own garden, I will be swimming in veggies. The farmers tend to put their best stuff in the boxes because they are more reliable customers than the farmers market.

  10. My sister tried one in Virginia last year, but opted not to do it again. She got things that she was not familiar with, such as sorrel and green garlic, and other things that they found hard to use up. Way too many greens and herbs, and not enough tomatos and peppers she said. She did enjoy the eggs, flowers, and farm visits, and overall, considered it a positive experience.
    I enjoy the challenges of too much fresh produce, but here in South Florida, I can grow my own garden all winter, which I do, so I guess I don’t really need a CSA right now, but would definitely join one if I were in a different situation. Many of the farms have websites with recipes, and the farmers will be glad to suggest ways to use and preserve the produce.

  11. Wow. This is all wonderful everyone. Tons of information. I’ll keep everyone updated on how this project goes.

    Thanks everyone!

  12. We live in a rural agricultural area that, frustratingly, is entirely focused on “big ag” and large commercial crops (alfalfa, barley, feed corn, potatoes for big processors) rather than food. It was with great pleasure that we signed up for the first CSA to open in the area (last year). We split the shares with another couple.

    The mixed lettuce and greens was wonderful and kept far longer than store bought. The carrots were wonderful. The garlic shoots and garlic were great. On the other hand, even though we’re big veggies eaters, we got too much food, and the same thing for too many weeks. I’m a fairly picky eater, and there are only so many times a year I’m willing to eat beets, red cabbage, radishes, kohlrabi, rutabaga and very bitter salad greens. Likewise, since we are big gardeners, there were a couple of months in there when we had more food than we could preserve/freeze/can.

    I love the idea of sharing the risk and reward directly with the grower, but I’d prefer to pick the products I get in a Farmer’s Market type setting – except our cold-climate market doesn’t open until June and it is sparsely attended by growers.

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