We’re in the dead of winter, and planning where you purchase your food this summer is probably the last thing on your mind. However, if you’re considering joining a CSA, this is the best time of year to join. Many farms offer early-bird discounts in January and February, and oftentimes shares will sell out during the spring.
You may be asking, what exactly is a CSA? CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Typically, farmers sell a certain number of “shares” to people in their community, and it is like a vegetable subscription. Each week the farm will fill a bag or box with fresh produce, or other items like eggs or meat, to distribute to their shareholders. It is a great way for farmers to generate cash flow early in the year, and there are many benefits to the shareholders as well.
Last year was our first time trying a CSA, and we loved it! We talked about joining one for a couple years before we finally decided to make the commitment. We had three major hesitations before joining one, so we did lots of research before selecting a CSA and mostly avoided those issues.
- We spend many summer weekends at the lake or taking other weekend or Saturday trips, and many CSAs require that you pick up your share at the weekend farmers’ market. We didn't want to join and then not receive our share each week. - This was the most inconvenient part of having a CSA, but we worked around it a couple of ways. If we were out of town for the weekend, we would try to rearrange the pickup with our farm. They were usually flexible, but it wasn't always the most seamless process. If we were on a longer trip and wouldn't be home eat the produce, we gave our share away to friends.
- All of the CSAs I've looked into cost several hundred dollars up front. I wasn't sure if we would get our money's worth, and it seemed like a lot of money to spend all at once. - While it is a large one-time cost, we found that it was a good value. In your research, I recommend dividing the total cost by the number of weeks you'll receive a share (most last 20-22 weeks), and think about how much your normally spend on produce at the farmers' market. Chances are, you can find some CSAs in your area that are a good deal. Last year, I believe ours came to about $15/week, and other than the first week or two when there wasn't much being harvested, we received an overflowing box of fresh vegetables every week.
- Several of our friends who were members of a CSA shared that they received more food than they could eat and would waste food. We also heard that people received some weird stuff that they didn't know what to do with. - We shopped around for a share that was designed for 2 adults instead of one designed for a large family, so we wouldn't get more food than we could eat. If we had more than we could handle during the week, we shared it with friends and neighbors. We did receive some things that we had never tried before, like kohlrabi. We had fun making new dishes and once we tried new vegetables, we started noticing them on ingredient lists at restaurants. There are some things we just don't like. I don't like beets, and Jay doesn't like eggplant. If these were included in the weekly share, we asked our farmers if they would give ours to the next shareholder, and they always obliged and often offered to substitute extra of something else we did like.
There were several advantages to the CSA, and we had such a great experience, we joined another one this year.
- Affordable - Like I mentioned earlier, it ended up saving us money on fresh produce. We also had a meat share last year, and we received some really nice cuts of meat for the price. In years prior, it wouldn't have been unusual for us to spend $40-50 during a single trip to the farmers market. We usually picked up a few other items, like fresh pasta, bread, flowers, or seasonal fruit, in addition to our CSA box, but we didn't spend nearly as much week to week.
- Fun - It was exciting to see what was included in our share each week and to try new recipes. Luckily in the age of Pinterest, it is easy to find recipes for obscure vegetables, and we often asked our farmers their favorite way to prepare different things.
- Interact with Farmers - We got to know our farmers pretty well last year and learn more about the farming process. It was enjoyable to chat with them each week and know about the food we ate.
- Fresh - The vegetables were always very fresh and were usually picked within a day or two of our pickup. Fresh produce makes for the best meals.
- Support the Community - Joining a CSA or frequenting the local farmers' market helps the community in so many ways. Cutting out the middleman allows farmers to generate more revenue, and building personal connections with local farmers is so much more enjoyable than going to the grocery store.
Let me know you still have questions about CSAs or whether one would be a good fit for you! I'm happy to share more of my personal experiences.