Community-supported agriculture, or CSA, provides a way to get local foods while also supporting a food-production system that you believe in. The most common CSA programs are subscription-based or farm-direct. You pay a fee in return for a portion of food made available on a regular basis.
Know Your Options
There are many types of CSA programs. When most people think of CSAs, they think of seasonal produce. While the majority of subscriptions do offer fruits and vegetables, product options have expanded over recent years. If you think a CSA isn’t a good fit for you, you might be surprised to learn the variety of foods that are available using this type of system. Here’s a sampling of what you might find.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, many farms provide products that have undergone some processing to make them easier for meal prep. These products are often called “value added,” and they include combined lettuces and other greens for salad mixes, chopped vegetables that are ready to cook, jams and jellies, relishes, sauerkraut, fresh baked bread, and granola.
Meat and Seafood
Some farms include meat products with their fruit and vegetable boxes, but other memberships are devoted solely to meats. Sometimes they are mixed and include beef, pork, chicken and lamb. Each option outlines the types of cuts or ground meat you can expect to receive in each box. There are also single-variety programs, like a chicken CSA where members receive whole chickens, chicken cuts and eggs. If you are fortunate enough to have access to water, whether it is the ocean coast or aquaculture, there are many options for seafood CSA programs. These subscriptions often include whole fish, fish fillets and shellfish.
Fruits and Nuts
Boxes don’t always have to include vegetables. Many orchards provide CSA memberships that are fruit-only or fruit and nuts. Apples, peaches, pears and berries are all available depending on the specialty of the orchard. These memberships might also include prepared products like jams and dried fruits.
Dairy CSA programs are available for both cow and goat products. These memberships may provide only milk (usually a quart or two a week), but some are much more diverse and include kefir, butter, cream, cheese and yogurt.
In addition to milk, more beverages are becoming available through the CSA model. Some programs connect coffee drinkers to farmers around the world through memberships that allot you a specific amount of coffee beans each month. The fermented tea, called kombucha, is also an optional item with some farm CSA memberships. Some local breweries now offer a beer CSA (also called Community Supported Breweries) that get you a bottle or two of their current brew each month in exchange for a membership fee.
Ask the Right Questions
There are a lot of things to consider when deciding what is the best CSA for you. Whether you begin your research online or by word of mouth, these are a few questions that you should know the answer to before making the investment.
What are the membership options?
There are as many options for CSA memberships as there are fruits and vegetables, so be sure you have a clear understanding of what each box will include. Some items are standard and you know you will receive them in each share; others may vary depending on the growing season.
Most farmers provide either a full or a half share and they should be able to break this down to either the pounds of food you will receive or the number of people it should feed. Fruit and vegetable CSA programs most often measure in number of people, but many meat and seafood programs are based on a specific number of pounds in each delivery. Also, determine if you can select any of the items that are provided or make substitutions.
You will also want to ask how often you receive food. Some memberships provide food weekly, some every two weeks and others provide items only once a month. Ask how easy it is to switch memberships once you sign up. For example, you may be confident that you need a half share only to find that after a few deliveries, your family needs a full share.
How long does the membership last?
The growing season often determines the length of a CSA membership. Some farms offer memberships May through October, but others provide food year-round. When you compare pricing, also compare how many weeks you will be receiving food for the price.
What is the price and how is it paid?
According to the North Carolina State Cooperative Extension Service, an average local CSA membership costs $400 to $700 for a full share per year. The exact weekly price will depend on your location, the farm and how often you receive food. Most range from $20 to $40 per week. Single-item CSA programs, such as those that provide dairy or bread, are usually a little less expensive at $5 to $10 per week.
Along with the total price, you should also know when and how you will have to pay it. Many programs require one flat fee to cover the entire membership, while others may let you pay in monthly or weekly installments.
How much risk is involved?
Everyone assumes some risk when investing in a CSA. If it turns out to be a bad season for tomatoes or lettuce, this will be reflected in your box. You may get more of one item over another based on availability. Weather and farming can be unpredictable, but talk with the farmer about patterns in growing and production in previous years and how problems were handled. Also inquire about the diversity of products offered—if it’s an off-season for potatoes, for example, they might be able to make up for it in squash.
What are the pick-up and drop-off options?
Find out specific information for how you will get your CSA share. Some farms are farm pick-up only, while others take the food to specific drop-off locations for pick-up. Still others may even deliver food to your door—learn the locations and times when your box will be available and any fees associated with delivery.
Can you put your membership on hold?
Summer is prime growing season, but it’s also vacation season for many people. Ask what options are available if you will be out of town for a week or two during the course of your membership. Can you put the delivery on hold for a week? Can someone else pick it up for you while you are away?
Locate CSAs Near You
The best place to start your CSA research is at your local farmers’ market. Many of the vendors likely also offer CSA memberships or they can help you find a program that includes the kinds of foods you seek. LocalHarvest.org is one of the best databases for searching for farms and CSA programs near you. It allows you to put in your zip code and provides a list of farms to research in your area. The USDA also provides an information page with more resources for locating CSA programs.
A CSA is a great way to support a local farmer and experiment with cooking and eating a variety of new-to-you foods. With this guide, you should be well on your way to a great season of local eating.
About the Author: Lori Rice is a nutritionist, writer, recipe developer and author of The Everything Guide to Food Remedies (Adams Media, 2011). She shares her recipes, food photography and travel adventures on her blog, www.fakefoodfree.com.