Every year, about this time, we start getting emails from the Community Support Agriculture (CSA) programs near where we live. They start talking about their plans for the upcoming year, about how their bounty will be great, any chances they made, and it makes for some interesting reading. Several of them have recently focused on being more organic (they’re not 100% organic and they’re no “officially” organic certified, but they use organic practices and are in the process of being certified), others have started partnerships for more value added items (think breads and other products from local merchants), and others have just increased their yield because they implemented best practices or got new equipment.
We’ve been part of a CSA for the last three or four years and have come a long way in understanding what a CSA is and what it isn’t. On the whole, we love the CSA we’ve been a part of the last two years and I think that’s because we learned what we like, what we didn’t, and all the little things you need to know before joining one.
It’s Community Supported, not Community Supporting
Joining a CSA isn’t cheap and on the whole you don’t really save much money, if any, on your produce needs. I liken a CSA to a Toyota Prius. The Toyota Prius will not use as much gasoline as a regular car but given the higher price tag, it won’t be “saving” you any money anytime soon. You buy a Prius because you want to use less fuel, not because you think you’ll save money because the sticker price is so much higher than a comparable conventional vehicle. With a CSA, you’ll pay a little more but you’ll get higher quality product that’s in season and tastes great. Anyone who has grown their own vegetables, especially tomatoes, knows that they taste better than what you can get at the store.
You’re supporting the farm by paying for your crops up front and that’s also part of the allure. It’s the locality of it all. Supporting local businesses and helping ensure that your local farmers can continue to do the work they’re good at. You pay a little more because you’re supporting the farm, they’re not supporting you. 🙂
Check What They Produce
The first year we joined a CSA, there was a month and a half long stretch where we picked up a lot of chard. I’d never eaten chard, whether it red chard or rainbow chard or whatever chard, but it was good and it was nutritious. It was just too much. There are only a few vegetables I can eat regularly and chard wasn’t one of them. We ended up throwing out some of it because we just couldn’t eat it.
Part of the fun of a CSA is that you get things you normally wouldn’t buy, like chard, but the risk is that you end up with a lot of it. So check your CSA’s production schedule to get a better sense of what they offer and when. They won’t be able to always predict what they get on any given week but they will be able to tell you general trends. Our first CSA was very heavy on vegetables and only had a few fruits. The CSA we’ve joined the last two years have had a more even balance of fruit and vegetables, which has helped.
Find a Friend
If you’re a family of four or more, it’s almost easy to consume a full share at a CSA on your own. We’re not a family of four so we had trouble eating all the stuff we got those first few years when we tried to take on a full share on our own. These last few years, we split a share with another family and it’s been great. We didn’t throw anything out the last two years because we only had half of the usual haul (and it was more fruits than in previous years).
We split it with friends, rather than pay for a half share, because half shares are almost never half the price of a full share. I understand why, there are logistical reasons I suppose, but it’s much easier to find a friend interested in trying out a CSA but only wants to do half.
Check Your Vacation Schedule
We always do summer shares, rather than a full season, but we also tend to go away for vacation once a year. This past year, we went on a longer three and a half week vacation to China and Taiwan. Normally we don’t go on such long vacations but we do tend to go away for at least a week, which can be significant when it comes to a CSA because that’s a week you’ve prepaid but aren’t going to be using. If you plan any long vacations, or just frequent ones that happen to coincide with pickup days, it may not make sense for you to join a CSA this year.
Last year, it worked out for us because our vacations didn’t coincide with our friends’. That meant that the weeks we were gone, they had a full share. The weeks they were gone, we had a full share. It’s not that big of a deal if they don’t even up, the big thing is just making sure it gets picked up and someone out of the two of us can enjoy it!
Check Pick-Up Locations
Picking up your CSA can be as big of a pain as trying to eat all the swiss chard and it’s crucial that your CSA drops off in a place with locations that are accessible, have lots of parking, and is convenient for you in some way (near home, near work). Our first CSA had a pick up location at the back of an organic market, which was good because you could do a little shopping but got a little crazy near peak grocery shopping times. The latest one did it at a local library parking lot which was within walking distance for me, which made it super convenient. I couldn’t do other errands but considering how close it was, it was a perfectly fair trade off!
Look for Value Added Items
I use the term “value added item” because that’s what our CSA called it but see if your CSA has partnerships with local vendors. This made a huge difference for us. Every week, we were able to pick up a loaf of bread from a local bakery and a dozen eggs. Then, once a month, there was a value added item such as honey, popcorn, cheese, or some other product that was from one of their partners. Those value added items are great, especially if you’re splitting a share, to try something new without having to commit to buying a full package.
Consider Work Shares
Work shares are shares in which you work a few hours a week at the farm in return for your share. This is usually not an option that you pick because you want to save money because the rate ends up being a little better than minimum wage. However, it’s a great way to learn about working on a farm and have a little fun if you have the time to spare. I’ve never tried it but it’s something that looks intriguing… maybe when I retire. 🙂
All in all, after a few years of “growing pains,” we’ve settled on a system we like and it involves splitting a half share of a CSA with a great production schedule and fantastic items each week. 🙂
(Photo: nicholas_t )