Deciding Whether to Join a CSA

It's that time of year again. An email just popped up in my inbox from the farm where we've been members of summer CSA telling me that it's time to register for another several months of fresh, local fruits and veggies. Since it's -7 degrees while I write this, it's hard to imagine the day when I'll be tromping around a farm field in shorts and a t-shirt. But assuming that the weather pattern doesn't fall apart completely, I suppose that's exactly what I'll be doing on Thursday evenings in June, July, August, and September (though I'll probably add some layers by the end).

We've been members of several different CSAs, but how do you know if joining a CSA is right for you?

First off, what is a CSA?

CSA = Community Supported Agriculture. A CSA is essentially a symbiotic relationship between a farm and the members of its community. The farm gets a stable, predictable stream of income for its produce, and the members of the community get farm-fresh fruits and vegetables every week, usually at a somewhat discounted price. A CSA can work in any number of different ways, but generally each member pays a membership fee (sometimes monthly, sometimes in a chunk) and then picks up a bag of "groceries" once a week at a designated location - either somewhere convenient in the community or at the farm.

Sounds pretty good. But before you pull out your checkbook, asking yourself a few questions might help ensure that you're making a good investment and won't end up with a refrigerator full of rotten produce that you don't know what to do with.

So here are four questions that can help you decide whether joining a CSA is right for you:

1. Are you at home during the summer?

Being a member of a CSA means coming home with vegetables and fruits (and sometimes maybe even bread, eggs, etc) every week for a significant chunk of time. Our summer CSA is 17 weeks long. If you're out of town half the summer, your CSA will go to waste. If you travel a lot but are dead set on joining a CSA, you may be able to find another person or family who would be willing to split with you and take the weeks when you're away. There's a lot of sharing with CSAs, which brings me to question #2.

2. How big is your vegetable tooth?

Get it? Vegetable tooth? Anyway... Most CSAs have options for the size of the farm share you take home with you. For instance, ours has full shares and half shares, and they'll make recommendations about how many people a share will feed (half for 2 people; full for 4 people). But even a share that fits the size of your family can sometimes be overwhelming, and what about if you're a household of one? No matter the number of people you're feeding, if you don't like a fairly wide variety of vegetables, you might end up with a lot more than you can or want to eat. Sharing can be a great option here. Some people share with another individual or family and just split the week's offerings in half. This can require some negotiating - for instance, if the share includes a watermelon one week, you'll have to decide whether you cut it in half or one person walks away with the whole thing (lucky dog). You may also need to coordinate schedules so that you can split up the produce, conveniently bringing us to question #3.

3. How flexible is your schedule? 

Because a CSA is providing many people fresh produce direct from the farm (aka, no grocery store middle man), the farmers have to find a way to get all that produce to those people. Some larger farms deliver CSA shares to multiple drop-off locations with particular sign-up days for members. Our winter share this year dropped off in our town on Tuesday nights in the community room of a local church. I showed up between 3:00 and 6:00, crossed my name off a list, and picked up a bag with an assortment of veggies. And that farm - Pete's Greens - delivers to drop-off locations like ours in many surrounding towns.

Others, like Intervale Community Farm where we are summer CSA members, provide produce only by offering pick-up from the farm. During the summer, I go to the farm every Thursday evening and pick my produce from bins based on weight. When I arrive, message boards tell me what the options are for the week and how much I can get of each thing (2 lbs of root vegetables, any assortment; 4 zucchini and 2 peppers; etc). The benefit of picking up directly from the farm is that I get to choose exactly what I want from the bins as well as an assortment of pick-your-own fruits, vegetables, and flowers. I'll say right now that I'd sign up for our CSA just for the flowers. Well, that and the watermelon.

If your schedule allows you to be at a farm or at a drop-off location at a designated pick-up time once a week, then a CSA might be a great fit. But if you have a work schedule with long or unpredictable hours, making it to the weekly pick-up might be challenging. One helpful piece of information is that many farms can be flexible on their end about pick-up. At Intervale Community Farm, there are two pick-up days: Monday and Thursday. While all the members sign up for a particular day, if you need to change your day during any particular week, you can do that without a lot of difficulty. Finding out whether the farm you're interested in provides similar flexibility might help you decide whether you can manage a CSA.

4. Do you enjoy (and have time for) cooking?

This might be the most important of the four questions. Depending on the size of your CSA, you could come home each week with anywhere from 2 to 10 pounds of veggies (and perhaps eggs, bread, etc if your CSA offers those items). If you normally eat out at restaurants more than at home, you might find yourself trying to cram a new bag of vegetables into an already overcrowded refrigerator week after week. The same goes if your dinner is usually a bowl of cereal eaten while standing at the counter. A CSA share is a commitment to cooking or preparing a lot of vegetables during the week. Some are easy - you can simply cut and eat carrots and tomatoes. And some will store well for a while - hard squashes, for instance. But when you walk into your kitchen with a bag that includes 3 tomatoes, 4 zucchini, 4 cucumbers, a pound of green beans, a bunch of kale, a head of cabbage, one pound of carrots, one pound of onions, 2 green peppers, a bag of salad greens, and a watermelon, and you know that you'll come home with just as many veggies next week, then you're going to have to spend at least some time cooking or preparing vegetables. The good news is that a lot of the produce available in a summer CSA works perfectly in big salads or alongside something fresh off the grill.

If you've answered those four questions and you think joining a CSA would be a good fit for you, congratulations. I absolutely love being a member of ours. I look forward to Thursday afternoons down at the farm all week. I enjoy heading out into the fields to pick green beans or herbs or flowers (which are never picked by the farmers but are available to members), and my food preferences fall squarely in the summer fruits and veggies camp (+ cheese). I also generally like spending time in the kitchen coming up with delicious meals. So a CSA is great for us.

Of course, if you decide that you would like to join a CSA, there's the question of which one.

Local Harvest provides an on-line CSA directory where you can find farms near you that provide farm shares. As you decide which CSA to join, here are a few things to think about:

  • Location - how local is the farm? Convenience is helpful, but you also might be interested in supporting a farm that is part of your local community. 
  • Size - how big are the shares? If you're getting a share for just yourself, a farm that only offers full shares for a family of four might not be a good fit. 
  • Member services - what perks does your membership offer? These might be advance emails with the produce that week (so you can meal plan) or things like pick-your-own options at the farm. 
  • Reliability - how has the farm done in the past? A CSA membership involves some level of risk sharing. As a member, you agree to take what they produce. If they have a bad year or their tomato crop fails, that could be disappointing (though it's rare). 
  • Cost - how much will you be paying? Farm shares can range in price from a few hundred for a summer of veggies to more than $800 or $900 for a bit more bounty (fruits and vegetables + bread, eggs, meat, etc). 
  • Access - will you get to meet the farmer? Some people don't care about shaking hands with the person who grew their food, but for many, that's partly the appeal of a farm share. Some farms will provide local drop-off but are too far away for you to visit or don't provide on-farm pick-up. 
As an annual CSA member, I think it's a great way to get connected to your community and enjoy incredible fresh food. But it's a financial and time commitment, so making an informed decision is important. If you're a member of a CSA and have other suggestions for how to decide whether a CSA is right for you or which CSA is a good fit, please share those in the comments. 

p.s. One of my favorite ways to deal with veggie overload during the summer is to throw everything into a pot for a chunky vegetable spaghetti

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