The Basics of Community-Supported Agriculture
How to get farm-fresh food from a local grower
It's no secret that the fruits and vegetables you find at the average grocery store aren't always fresh. Asparagus spears wither and droop. Lettuce leaves go limp. Apples and pears are a mess of bumps and bruises. And tomatoes? Don't even start with the tomatoes.
While you could grow fresher food in a garden, most people don't have the kind of expansive plot or the time—or the green thumb—necessary to feed an entire family on a regular basis. That's why more and more are joining farm membership programs known as CSAs.
Community-supported agriculture (or CSA, as it's more commonly known) is a bit of a catchall name, but typically it works like this: Members purchase a subscription, and in return a farmer agrees to supply a box of food each week for a growing season. "They're getting a share of the farm," says Susan Ujcic, co-owner of Helsing Junction Farm in Rochester, Wash. "They're paying us to grow their food."
Each CSA is different from the next, but pretty much all of them offer seasonal vegetables. Depending on the farm, boxes may also contain fruit, cheese, meat, or homemade bread as well as a recipe or two. Likewise, some CSAs deliver to your home or drop-off locations around town, while others require that you visit the farm.
Some people join a CSA to support local farmers or to eat locally. But the most obvious reason to join is for the farm-fresh produce. If your grocery store lacks imagination in that department, there's a good chance your weekly CSA box will introduce you to new vegetables. Aside from the fact that eating a wide range of produce will keep mealtime exciting, it's also a great way to make sure you get a variety of nutrients. "[Members] are getting nutrient-rich, fresh foods," says Ujcic. "Once you start eating fresh food like that, there's a difference and you can't go back."
Finding the Right CSA
Farms across the country offer CSA subscriptions. To find one in your area, go to www.localharvest.org. Before you jump at the first CSA, consider your options. For some people, home delivery may be the deciding factor. Others might choose a CSA that offers half shares—fewer vegetables for a cheaper price. Research each option to find out how long the CSA runs (in colder climates, they usually start around May and end in November), how much a share costs, and whether it includes meat or dairy.
Once you've narrowed down your decision, speak with the farmer. "It's good to talk to the farmer about the quantity of food to expect and if that works within your eating habits," says Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest.org, which is a directory of farms, farmers markets, and restaurants that rely on local farmers. "Some people have a very narrow range of food they like to eat, and it's important to check whether those things will be available." The farmer should be able to tell you what to expect over the course of the season. While crop availability is never set in stone, you'll be able to gauge whether the farmer's bounty is one you can cook with regularly.
You'll want to find out how long a farm's been running a CSA (longer isn't always better, but it does mean the major kinks will probably have been ironed out) and whether the farm grows all of the produce you'll be receiving or if it includes items grown by other farms. It's OK to ask the farmer for a referral so you can get a member's opinion on the CSA. And you should always ask about the farmer's policy on cancellations and vacations, says Barnett.
It's Not for Everyone
If you think joining a CSA will magically make you a gourmet chef, think again. "People who don't cook are not suited to CSAs," Barnett says. Ujcic agrees: "You're going to need to cook to get through the box."
The same thing goes for people who aren't comfortable trying new foods. "People need to be really honest with themselves," she adds. "If you're not eating it, you're going to end up wasting it." A better option: Visit your local farmers market or join a farm delivery service that allows you to pick and choose which produce you'd like delivered from area farms.
Part of belonging to a CSA is being able to eat with the seasons. Since the items you receive each week are straight from the farm, you'll need to be flexible if, say, the lettuce is destroyed by a freak spring snowstorm. "The weather is going to affect crops in some way," Ujcic says. You may get plenty of lettuce and broccoli but only a small amount of tomatoes. "If you want to eat tomatoes out of season, you'll have to go and get them" at a supermarket, says Barnett. For colder areas, that may mean a CSA closes for the winter or only delivers milk, cheese, and root vegetables at that time. Regardless of where you live, you'll probably have to supplement each delivery with fruit from the grocery store.
But if you're open to trying new foods, joining a CSA may give you the push you need to get creative. "People tend to value being part of a farm. When they feel very connected to a farm, it can be very far-reaching in our lives," says Barnett. "People tend to feel more rooted in their community."