Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions, also known as CSAs or farm shares, have been growing in popularity for years now. But if you’re not quite sure what a CSA is or why you might want one, don’t stress! HOMEGROWN is here to help. Asking questions is a good thing. In fact, it’s the best thing, according to Mary Alice Reilly, the food access coordinator for New Entry Sustainable Food Project’s World PEAS CSA and a new HOMEGROWN member. Below, Mary Alice shares tips on choosing the CSA that’s right for you.
But first, some background on how CSAs work. When a family or an individual (like you!) subscribes to a CSA, you typically pay a flat rate for one growing season’s worth of food from a local farm or a co-op of farms. (Depending on where you live, a CSA’s growing season might run from early June to late October or November, although every region and every CSA is different—and more and more farms are offering winter CSAs.) Then you pick up a weekly or biweekly share of harvested goods from a set location: sometimes the farm itself, sometimes a local farmers market, sometimes another member’s porch.
There are lots of benefits to joining a CSA, for both eaters (yep, you again!) and farmers. You get to support family farmers in your neck of the woods—pretty much the epitome of eating local. Thanks to this direct relationship with your farmer, you’ll know more about what you’re feeding yourself and your family. You can experiment with all kinds of fruits, veggies, and other farm-fresh products you might not be able to find elsewhere. (Bonus: Fewer trips to the grocery store!) And by choosing a CSA that aligns with your priorities, you’ll be taking a stand on issues you care about, such as fair wages or organic growing methods.
Meanwhile, the farmer gets a guaranteed investment upfront, at the start of the season, which is invaluable insurance for the months ahead. And by selling directly to you, without going through a distributor, a grocery store, or another intermediary, the farmer gets a bigger piece of the pie. Everybody wins.
That said, choosing a CSA can be tricky. By subscribing, you’re investing in a farm’s—or a farm collective’s—future, so it’s important to seek out farmers you feel good about supporting. Plus, there’s the practical aspect: You want to like and use what you get in your share!
That’s where Mary Alice comes in. The CSA she coordinates, World PEAS (as in People Enhancing Agricultural Sustainability), is technically a food hub, meaning it combines products from multiple farmers. Sometimes food hubs can be dicey, acting as just another middleman. But World PEAS is part of New Entry Sustainable Food Project, an organization in suburban Boston that incubates and supports new farmers—many of them immigrants and refugees who wouldn’t have access to farmland or technical advice otherwise. Pretty cool, huh?
So, without further ado, here are some key things to consider when choosing the right CSA.
1. MAKE LIKE A FARMER AND EMBRACE MOTHER NATURE.
So, now that you’re all fired up for a farm share (as you should be!), you’ll also want to go in with realistic expectations. A CSA is a very different experience from trolling the stocked aisles of a supermarket. The food you receive each week is determined by what’s in season and available from your farm or farms. If summer is unusually cold and the tomatoes don’t ripen as early as usual, you’ll have to wait. If a microburst dumps a ton of rain that floods your farmer’s bean crop, you might not get beans. These are realities farmers have to deal with, and as a CSA subscriber, you’ll deal with them, too.
And then there are the more basic parameters Mother Nature lays down: “In the springtime, more greens are available,” Mary Alice says. “As the summer gets hotter, there will be more high-summer crops, like corn and peppers and eggplants and tomatoes—all those vegetables and fruits people typically expect and are accustomed to cooking. In the winter, you see a lot of fall items: squashes and root crops. So, the schedule of seasonal availability is a pretty big consideration. You really do need to be flexible and modify your cooking and your recipes to what’s available on the farm, depending on the season, depending on the weather, depending on the factors that affect growing.”
2. PICK YOUR PRIORITIES.
Did you know the average meal in the United States travels 1,500 miles before it reaches your plate? Or that 90 percent of corn is genetically modified? Oh, you already knew those? Awesome! You’re an informed consumer—a farmer’s best customer. But are you familiar with all the nitty-gritties of soil health and fair farm-labor wages?
There’s an endless list of factors that go into food production. In order to decide which are most important to you, you have to educate yourself. It can seem daunting, but the more you know, the more meaningful an impact you can make when choosing your CSA.
So, how do you get smart about food? There are endless sources out there, so if you don’t have time to take a class or to write a dissertation, you can find some pretty amazing resources online. Farm Aid’s Good Food Issues page outlines some of the most pressing considerations in food and farming. The USDA’s website also provides in-depth information about many issues that affect food and farming. With that said, no matter where you’re looking, always consider the source. In other words, keeping in mind the outlet’s motives and supporters will help you place its advice in context. Even better, you can email the CSAs you’re considering and ask them questions directly. Yep, it’s that simple.
"Folks in the World PEAS CSA email me all the time, asking about what kind of production practices World PEAS farmers use, will they only receive organic produce, will they only receive non-GMO produce, how would I describe the quality of the items they’ll receive, how are those items being grown, and who these farmers are,” Mary Alice says. As with every important decision you make, a one-on-one conversation can be really helpful. To that end, some specific questions you might ask:
• Is the farm local? How local?
• How long has their CSA been in production?
• Does the farm follow sustainable growing practices? Do they use pesticides?
• Does the farm grow organically? Is it certified? (A follow-up to ask yourself: Is certification important to you?)
• If they don’t, are they working toward it? Why or why not?
• Do they grow only non-GMO crops? (Do you like their answer?)
• Is the farm in a co-op? Does it partner in any way with other farms? Who? What? Why?
• How large is the farm?
• Do the farmers own their land? If not, do they hope to?
• Does the farm have plans for expansion?
• Lots of CSAs host farm tours or open farm days. Will you have a chance to visit the farm during the season?
• What do they do with unsellable or -shareable produce?
• What do they do with shares that don’t get picked up? Do they donate them to a food pantry?
• Does the farm participate in any low-income programs? Do they offer reduced-price or free shares? Shares for seniors? A mobile food bus that visits underserved neighborhoods?
• How many employees do they have? Do those folks get fair wages? Housing?
Don’t be scared. You don’t have to tick off each and every one of these questions. You just have to figure out which are important to you.
“There are so many different levels of organizing around local food, sometimes there’s a hierarchy of values,” Mary Alice says.. “Are you prioritizing local economies? Are you really prioritizing purely certified-organic, non-GMO production? Are you prioritizing a farm that hires and employs people with fair labor practices?” You have the power to decide where your money goes!
3. CONSIDER THE LOGISTICS.
You’ve tackled the big questions. Nice job! Now you’re ready for the small but still important stuff. There are lots of practical factors that go into choosing the right CSA, including:
• Pickup: Some CSAs have tons of pickup locations on different days of the week in different places—different towns, even. And some have one pickup per week, period. You may have found the holy grail of farms that aligns perfectly with your values and desires. But if the pickup location is 45 miles away, do you really want to shuttle there and back every week? In other words, choose a CSA whose pickup location is convenient enough for you to commit to. One related note: Many CSAs offer pickups at local farmers markets, but many farmers markets are on weekends, and peak CSA season is over the summer. Ergo, are you out of town many weekends in the summer? If so, you might look for a CSA with a weekday pickup.
• Size. Many farms offer both small and large shares. While every CSA is different, a small share typically feeds about two people, whereas a large share can feed four or more. Some farms will let a couple of households split a large CSA. Some won’t, so be sure to ask. (Keep in mind that a large share isn’t necessarily two of everything. Large shares often include additional items that small shares don’t, and you might only get one of certain biggies, such as melons or winter squashes.) Are you solo? You’re not SOL! Ask around to see if a friend or a neighbor is interested in going halvsies.
• Price. There are some Jaguars of CSAs out there that are awfully tempting. But do you really need fava and flageolet beans, three kinds of specialty lettuces, and purple—not yellow—shallots? (If the answer to that question is yes, good for you! Let us know what time dinner is and what we can bring.) But if you’re OK with a slightly more modest assortment, you can find some good deals, often in the $400 range for 20-plus weeks of fresh organic veggies. That can mean less than $20 a week for oodles of fresh produce. Just because you’re doing something good for farmers and the environment doesn’t mean you can’t shop around!
Lots of CSAs will let you pay in installments, but if the financial commitment is still too steep, you might look for a CSA with a volunteer component. Some farms offer discounted shares if you commit to working a certain number of hours on the farm per month or per season. If the CSA of your choice doesn’t advertise a reduced rate in return for help on the farm, it can’t hurt to ask!
• Selection. Next up, consider the products that will be included in your share. Keep in mind that the availability of fruits and veggies ultimately depends on lots of seasonal factors—weather, in particular. Most CSAs will be able to give you a general sense of what to expect in your share over the course of the season, but specific amounts will vary based on growing conditions. (Lots of farms list the contents of a few sample weeks’ shares—from early in the season, high harvest, and late season—on their website.) Consider not only what you typically eat in a week but also what you’re willing to experiment with and what you and your household have the capacity to consume.
Bonus: Lots of CSAs offer more than just produce and pluck scrumptious products for you, like honey or jam or mushrooms, from their own shelves or the backrooms of local producers. Some farms also focus on a certain niche or culture. World PEAS and Flats Mentor Farm, both in Massachusetts, honor their immigrant member-farmers’ roots by growing veggies common to Africa, Asia, and South America. Want tatsoi? Don’t want tatsoi? Either way, it’s up to you, but it’s good to know what you want and what you’ll get.
On a related note, lots of farms offer add-on shares of things like eggs and flowers for an additional price. In 2014, World PEAS even offered a once-a-month fair-trade coffee share. Not sure what your farm offers—or what they might consider offering? Just ask!
And just in case we haven’t hammered this home enough, price and location aren’t everything. Every farm has its own set of values guiding its production practices. As a consumer, it’s your responsibility—your privilege, even—to decide which of those values you want to support with your dollars.
4. FIND A FARM.
So, you know what production practices are important to you. You know how much food you want each week and how far you’re willing to go to pick it up. Now, how do you actually find a farm near you? Good question!
Some neighborhoods, schools, and other organizations host farm share fairs, inviting all of the farms in a certain radius to convene for an evening and chat up potential CSA subscribers. These fairs typically take place in late winter/early spring, before the CSA season starts. If you’re on an area listserv, do a little sleuthing (or plain old Googling) and see if there’s a fair near you. If not, could you organize one? On a related note, a growing number of workplaces and schools host pickup sites. Does yours? Could it?
Another good place to find a CSA is simply by visiting your farmers market and walking around with your detective hat on. Which booths look bountiful? Whose customers look happy? At which stands are the farmers actively interacting with shoppers? Not sure if a particular farm offers a CSA? If you see a big pile of boxes behind their booth, you can bet they do—but don’t take our word for it. Ask! This is your golden opportunity to engage in a little number 2 (i.e., pick your priorities) and number 5 (more on that below)!
There are also loads of great resources online for finding a CSA. A couple of our favorites include Local Harvest and Farm Plate, but you can find lots more on HOMEGROWN’s Find Good Food and Resources by State pages. Know of another good tool, either national or local to your community? Post a comment below and we’ll add it to this 101!
Finally, if you try a CSA for one season and it isn’t a great fit, don’t sweat it. There can be some trial and error involved in finding your ideal farm, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to stick with a farm for more than one season if it doesn’t jive with your lifestyle. Or maybe you just like to switch things up and spread the support around. That’s cool, too! Above all, you want to make the most valuable impact with your dollar based on your own food and farm priorities.
5. KEEP THE DIALOGUE GOING.
This one’s easy. As a CSA member, you’ll have the chance to build a relationship with your farmer or CSA manager. Most CSAs send out weekly newsletters with an update on the week’s weather, how individual crops are coming along, maybe a fun anecdote or two, a heads-up on what to expect in your share that week, and a recipe or three for using what you get. Here’s the thing: A real, live human—often a farmer—is sending that email. You can hit “reply” and ask direct questions of the folks who are growing and packing your food! How cool is that? And this communication is a two-way street: You can get info from your farmer, but you can also give feedback about your share. Most CSAs offer an end-of-season survey, but you don’t have to wait to put in your 2 cents. The more you learn and share, the better your experience with your CSA will be.
Take it from Mary Alice: Don’t be shy. “As a CSA customer, you are investing in that CSA,” she says. “You’re investing in that business. So on many levels, it’s in the CSA’s best interest to meet their customers’ needs and to address any questions, concerns, or issues that a customer might have.”
Email isn’t the only way to connect. In addition to chatting face-to-face at your CSA pickup, “Phone calls, Facebook, and Twitter, are all important ways to stay in touch and to follow-up on anything that’s confusing or creates questions,” Mary Alice says. “Communication is key.”
6. GET READY FOR A GLUT.
“Excess can be difficult for new CSA customers to get accustomed to,” Mary Alice says. “In my experience, both as a farmer and as someone who has worked in the food system, seasonal availability is defined by short bursts of excess. A certain crop will suddenly be ready to harvest, and there will be hundreds and hundreds of pounds available. That excess means you have to come up with strategies to put away any food you can’t immediately eat.” In other words, you might not get tomatoes for weeks—until you get more tomatoes you’ve ever seen in your life. That’s where the preservation techniques that farmers, growers, families—and yep, HOMEGROWN members—have been using for generations.
Take, for example, blueberries, which only have a harvest of about three weeks. In order to avoid wasting the crop, the berries need to be either eaten quickly or preserved. Canning techniques, like making jams or jellies, are a great way to enjoy your blueberries long after the harvest has passed. (Read more about canning basics, small-batch canning, pickling, and dehydrating in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.) Don’t have time this year to can—or to learn to can? Plain old freezing works well, too, and is especially good for spring greens. Some things you’ll want to give a quick blanch before freezing to keep them meal-ready year round—after a quick thaw, that is. Read more about blanching from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
For other typical CSA items, like herbs and veggies, you might make sauces or pestos. Speaking of herbs, things like rosemary and dill can also be dried—a cheap way to pack your spice rack with flavor while preserving the goodies your CSA has to offer.
For more tutorials on preservation tactics, check out HOMEGROWN’s Cook and Preserve 101s. Can’t find what you’re looking for? Shoot HOMEGROWN an email, and we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction—or maybe we’ll ask (beg?!) you to write a new 101.
Finally, remember that you might also receive items beyond the typical blueberries and tomatoes and herbs. Some things may be foreign to your palate or a different variety than you’ve seen before. Try to approach your share with an open mind. A CSA is an exciting adventure—especially if you start out eager to try new things!
That said, if you can’t take another week of squash, tell your farmer. Feedback is key! And if you just can’t stomach collards or you’re allergic to asparagus, many CSAs have a “no” box, where you leave an unwanted item and choose something someone else has left behind to take its place. Voila! Problem solved.
7. REAP THE BENEFITS.
A CSA is a beautiful way to support local agriculture, experiment with new foods and new recipes, and take a stand on food and farm issues you believe in. But most importantly, it tastes good! For more ideas on making the most of your CSA, don't miss the ongoing CSA Cookoff, outlining what HOMEGROWN's flock tender, Jennifer, receives in her CSA each week it's in season and how she uses it up—recipes, included.
One last note: It can take some effort to find the CSA that’s right for you, but at the end of the journey, there will be a big old box of produce waiting for you, week after week! Now that’s a happy ending—or a beginning, really. For more on the topic of choosing a CSA, check out the following resources:
JOIN THE CONVERSATION!
Got a CSA or a CSA-finding tool to recommend? Have other points to ponder when looking for farms or do you want to pass along an anecdote from your own experiences as a CSA subscriber—or as a farmer? Post a comment below and share the farm share love! You can find good food near you here on HOMEGROWN, as well as oodles of farm-share-friendly recipes in the CSA Cookoff. You might also be interested in 101s on meal planning, starting a CSA (even if you don't have a farm), creating a food recovery program, and building community, and you can always find more things to cook, bake, make, craft, plant, grow, and browse in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.
PHOTOS, IN ORDER: (WORLD PEAS PICKUP) JENNIFER; (TEMPEL FARMS ORGANICS FARMERS) JENNIFER; (WORLD PEAS SHARE) JENNIFER; (FARMER DAN BERUBE) COURTESY OF WORLD PEAS; (FARMER NASRIN MOROVATY) COURTESY OF WORLD PEAS; (TEMPEL FARMS ORGANICS FIELD) JENNIFER; (CSA PICKUP) THE WHATLEYS; (TEMPEL FARMS ORGANICS SHARE) JENNIFER; (NEW ENTRY GREENHOUSE) JENNIFER; (BARN) JENNIFER; (FARM HAND WITH CHICKEN) JENNIFER; (VERRILL FARM) JENNIFER; (POTATOES) JENNIFER; (ONIONS) JENNIFER; (STRAWBERRIES) JENNIFER
Toni and Jennifer, great article!
Mary Alice is spot on with her assessment. The first year we joined a CSA was very eye opening--and I'd read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and was ready to embrace the whole seasonal/local eating thing, but still--greens! I learned so much and made so many changes in the way I cook and store and shop for food.
Come to think of it, it was much like my first job as an RN--huge learning curve that served me well for the rest of the jobs.
I'm glad to read this tonight--it reminds me to get my check in the mail for the upcoming season. Even though I've still got plenty in the Strategic Winter Squash Reserve, freezer, pantry--and some stray celeriac and kohlrabi in the fridge from the last Winter box--I'm anticipating the start of the 2015 CSA season in June.
Kirsten: I love the comparison of learning how to fully appreciate a CSA with your work as an RN. Beautiful! I got so excited about CSA season while working on this 101 with Toni that I went and found a winter substitute to tide me over. More on that to come—although nothing compares to the anticipation and excitement of the real deal in June! In the meantime, I'm thrilled to hear we got this right! I'll make sure Mary Alice hears your kind words, too. Much appreciated.