Friday, November 20, 2015

All About CSAs

Many, many years ago, I joined my first community supported agriculture (CSA) program. I was pretty new to the idea, but I loved the thought of getting veggies and fruits from a small, local farm. I've been a vegetarian for a long time, so getting boxes of fresh produce every week seemed like a smart idea.

So what exactly is it? CSA stands for community supported agriculture. In a CSA program, you are essentially buying a short-term share of the farm. Members pledge up front to support the farm financially for a certain period of time, and in return they receive a weekly "dividend" of locally-grown, freshly-harvested produce. The farm, on the other hand, gets capital up front to pay for plants/seeds, fertilizer, water, and other farm needs. It's a win-win situation.

People join a CSA for a number of reasons. For many, locally-grown food is a big draw; when your food hasn't traveled very far to get to you, it lessens your overall carbon footprint. Others are interested in eating seasonally. Some are specifically looking for organic goods. Some want to support a small business. Others just want the convenience of having a big box of produce packaged up for them!

Since that first CSA so many years ago, I've been a member of a number of others in various locations throughout the country. If you're considering finding a CSA of your own, there are a number of things to consider during your research.

What do they grow?
Well, they mostly grow vegetables and fruit. But what kinds, specifically? Nowadays, most CSA programs offer a general list on their website of what kinds of produce they grow. Sometimes, this is organized by season: we have apples in the fall, salad greens and citrus fruits in the winter, etc.. Sometimes, it'll be month-by-month, or with some kind of fancy chart listing their "normal" produce down the side, months at the top, and check marks for which months that particular food is usually available. Many have a link on their website (or Facebook page) listing the contents of the current week's box, so you can always check up on that for a few weeks to get an idea of what kinds of crops they have. If they don't list what they grow on their site, be sure to contact the farmer or organizer for more information! Most CSAs send out weekly emails detailing the contents of the box, and farmers are happy to compile a list of prior examples for potential members.

A lot of CSAs pride themselves on offering "unusual" types of produce. CSAs were where I was first introduced to pomegranates, kohlrabi, fennel, jujubees, mulberries, banana squash, and more. Other CSAs prefer to offer more of a "normal" selection: spinach, salad greens, apples, tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, etc. Checking out their offerings ahead of time makes it easier to determine whether or not the things they grow are a good fit for your family.

In addition to vegetables and fruits, some CSAs offer a wide variety of other goodies. Some farms might grow tree nuts and include a bag when in season. Other items I've found in my boxes in the past include dry beans, dry (local!) rice, popcorn kernels, bundles of herbs, herb seedlings to plant at home, even jams and pickles made by the farmer! Farms that offer eggs for sale might give you a free half-dozen when they have a surplus.

In the winter, your CSA just might inundate you with hard squashes.
This is a good problem to have.

Do you like what they grow?
It doesn't do any good to have all those fresh vegetables and fruits in your crisper drawers if many of them are ones your family won't actually eat! Certainly, one of the joys of CSAs is that they might introduce you to new foods and inspire you to try out new ways of cooking ones you're already familiar with. But what if your CSA sends out two or three bags of different salad greens in every box, and your family just doesn't like that much salad? What if you get a dozen oranges per delivery during citrus season, but you can't stand peeling them or having your hands smell like orange for the rest of the day? What if you're allergic to cantaloupe or watermelon or strawberries? What if you just flat-out hate okra? Some CSAs offer a certain amount of customization (and they are much more likely to be amenable to deletions or exchanges if you have food allergies), but most just pack every box with the same contents. If the farm you're looking at grows a lot of things you simply don't like or can't/won't eat, it might not be a good fit for you.

When do they operate?
In some parts of the country, CSA farms operate and offer produce boxes year-round, but in others you might only be able to find spring and summer programs. It totally depends on the climate, the size of the farm, and what all they grow. When considering different farms for CSA membership, be sure to know exactly how their growing schedule meshes with your needs.

How often do they deliver?
Most CSAs offer weekly boxes. Some offer bi-weekly (every other week), which might be a better fit depending on your family's eating habits. Almost all are perfectly happy to let you cancel or skip your box for the week (usually due to vacation), so long as you provide proper notice ahead of time.

How do you actually get your box?
While some CSAs do in fact deliver straight to your door, members usually pay a premium for this service. Much more common is the idea of a drop point or pick-up location. All the boxes for a general area are delivered to one location (sometimes a store or farmers' market, but more often a personal home, usually one with plenty of shade or an accessible garage so that the contents will stay cool and fresh until picked up). Members know when their delivery date is, and the boxes are generally guaranteed to be there by a certain time, so that you can plan for the best time to pick it up. Some CSAs prefer to have these pick-up locations staffed; you will know that your boxes are available on a particular day during a specific time period (usually a few hours), and you are expected to pick it up then.

How often do you pay?
For many small farmers, one of the biggest appeal of having a CSA program is getting money up-front to pay the bills, as it were. Your dues pay for the costs of operating a farm. For this reason, many CSAs require members to pay seasonally or quarterly. At the very least, you can expect to be required to pay monthly; week-to-week is not particularly sustainable for the farmer, and it makes planning and packing boxes hard. Some may offer yearly or bi-yearly (six months at a time) memberships. In general, the price-per-box is less when you pay for longer periods of time up-front.

How much does it cost? And how much do you get for your money?
Some CSAs offer only one size of box, usually enough to feed an average family (4-ish people). Some might offer a smaller box, suitable for a married couple without kids, or larger boxes for larger families. I have even seen "individual" CSA boxes.

Some CSAs will give you the dimensions of the different box sizes, while others might compare them to a standard-size paper grocery bag (or two). Others might instead give an estimated number of items in each week's box.

Encourage your entire family to eat more veggies! Join a CSA today!

Do I have to return the empty box? 
Those cardboard delivery boxes can be expensive, and different CSAs handle delivery boxes in different ways. Some might send the box home with you, but ask that you bring back the empty box from the prior week with each new delivery. If this is the case, they will ask you to do your best to treat the box gently so that it can be reused over and over again.  Others might expect you to transfer your produce to a box or bag of your own on the spot, leaving the initial delivery box behind so that they'll be able to reuse them right away. Your CSA should make it clear from the beginning what their expectations are. (And it is worth your while to obey these directives! When too many boxes are lost or destroyed too quickly, it may drive up your CSA dues in the future.)

Are there add-ons available?
Many small farms also have chickens, and a weekly egg share is a common add-on to many CSA boxes; for an additional fee, you can add a dozen or half dozen eggs to every box, or every other box. Some farms also can provide meat or milk, so be sure to look into this if it interests you! Some might simply offer turkeys at Thanksgiving, while others might have cow-share programs or offer raw dairy (either openly or on the down-low, depending on what the laws are like in your state).

I have been a member of a number of CSAs that offer additional items for an additional fee, paid either ahead of time (they'll come in your next scheduled box) or at the site of pick-up. Perhaps you can get extra bags of blueberries or strawberries when they're in season, or nuts, or local honey. These items might be grown on your CSA farm, or they might be for sale through a collaborative effort with another local farm. If you're interested in preserving, many farms will offer bulk discounts on certain items when they're in season; think of tomatoes for canning, berries for jams, cucumbers for pickling.

Do they offer community events?
Many small farms delight in hosting community events for their members. These may include seasonal potlucks or parties, you-pick style harvest events, family pumpkin patches, or regular farm tours. If you are interested in your membership going beyond just getting your box of goodies every week, then see what kinds of events go on at your farm! These kinds of events may be member-only, while others may be open to others by invitation. Some might even be public events, open to anyone who is interested in checking out the farm.

One CSA I was a member of hosts an annual winter vendor festival, where you can pick up extra produce and holiday gifts at the same time!

Are they certified organic?
For many people interested in CSAs, one of the biggest draws is getting produce that is organic. Many small farms know this. If organic is important to you, it is definitely worth asking about about up front. But it's also important to know that being certified USDA organic by the government is an expensive and time-consuming process. Many small farms might not have the resources to actually be certified, or they might not yet have had the time to work through all the requisite paperwork, but that doesn't necessarily mean they don't use organic practices on their farm. Ask! Most farmers are happy to discuss their farming practices with you. Do they use pesticides? Is it indiscriminately sprayed on everything, or is it a last-resort-type of option? Do they stick to herbicides that are acceptable within organic practices? Do they avoid GMO crops? (For many, this might be one of the biggest reasons to go organic!) Get to know your farmer and they way they manage their fields!

So how do I find one?
Hands down, the best way to find a CSA near you is through Local Harvest. This handy website allows you to search for farms and other sources of local food by zip code or city. You can find basic information about the farm and their CSA program here, as well as reviews; follow through to the farm's own website for more details.

Another great way to find CSA programs near you is to check out the local farmers' market; many small farms will have a weekly market booth, and you can find out information about their CSA and even interview the farmer on the spot, if you desire. And there's always Google, of course; a search for "CSA +yourcity" will no doubt give you some options.


Have you ever been a member of a CSA? What did you like (or dislike) about it?


This post is shared at the Happy, Healthy, Green, & Natural Party Blog Hop on 11/16/2015.

No comments:

Post a Comment