Last year we had the pleasure of joining a local, certified organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). It is by far one of the best "green" thing I have ever done. We were on the waiting list for two years but finally got the call last year and believe me, it was well worth the wait. I was absolutely floored by how much food I would come home with. The picture you see below is just a sampling of the goodies I picked up one weekend. Of course you can read more about how much I love my CSA.
We split our share with my brother and sister-in-law to help keep the cost affordable for both of our families. Since joining many people have started asking us about what Community Supported Agriculture is. So I put together some basic info on what CSA's are all about.
What is Community Supported Agriculture / CSA?
Community Supported Agriculture or CSA is a farming system where the farmers and consumers share both the benefits and risks of food production. The farmer will set up a certain number of "shares" and sell each one to the public. The consumer then gets to pick up their "share" of produce every week during the allotted season. Shares are usually either in the format of a pre-done box of produce or mix and match style where the shareholder can pick and choose, with limits, on what they want that week. If its a great growing season than the consumer benefits from the plentiful harvests. If it is a bad growing season then unfortunately the consumer may not get as much as they had hoped for.
What are the benefits for the consumer?
The number one reason, in my opinion, to join a CSA is because you get the freshest and tastiest produce possible. Plus fresh produce has more nutrients. From the moment a tomato is picked at a farm, then shipped to your grocery store and then bought by you, it actually loses some of its nutrients. You can also find a lot of organic CSA'a so in addition to fresh, you are getting pesticide-free fruits and veggies. It is also great to get your kids involved and bring them with you to the farm so they can understand where their food comes from. Last year the very first thing we got to do was pick our own strawberries. I am telling you they were the best tasting strawberries I had ever had in my life. And my son loved being able to help me pick them.
What are the benefits to the farmer?
Collecting money for shares in advance, usually a few months before the season begins, gives them the cash flow they need to get the plantings and farming going. If it happens to be a horrible growing season, then it is not a total loss for them financially. It is also a great way for them to build relationships with members of the community and gain life long customers.
How much does it cost?
There may be a bit of sticker shock when you first start to look into a CSA in your area. Yes usually hey have a large upfront cost. Obviously this will vary depending on your area and length of the growing season. I would expect that a year-round CSA is more money then a 5 month CSA. For our farm, the cost of a single share is between $560 to $660 depending on which type you choose. The mix and match shares are usually less expensive because you are putting it together yourself and in many instances picking the produce fresh from the fields yourself, so the farm saves on the cost and time of having staff do it for you. I highly recommend this type of share as well because it is so much fun and you really feel connected to the farm and food. Believe me the cost is more than worth it. I walked out with so much stuff some weeks that I felt like I was robbing them!
How long is the growing season?
Obviously this will vary depending on your region and climate. Up here in Connecticut where we have long winters, the season is usually June through october. However if you go down South to warmer areas then you can find year-round CSA's. Oh how I envy you in the warmer climates.
What kind of food will I get?
Again, this will vary by region and climate. All CSA's are going to have typical produce like tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries, carrots, potatoes, and so on. I even know people who purchase locally raised, grass fed beef through their CSA. Our CSA also has herbs and fresh flowers that you can cut every week. It is such a nice touch being able to put some fresh flowers in my kitchen.
I have all of this produce, now what do I do?
Start searching for recipes! This would be a great time to talk with the farm staff and utilize their knowledge. Chances are, they have eaten and cooked almost everything grown on that farm and can help you find a recipe. Many CSA farms also have websites and will list their favorite recipes on it. If all else fails, Google it. You'll find something!
How can I be more involved?
If you fall in love with your CSA and want to find a way to be even more involved, ask them about any volunteer opportunities. On our farm, all of the staff are volunteer's and I know they can always use an extra set of hands!
How do I find a CSA near me?
The first place I would check is LocalHarvest.org. You can search for a CSA by zip code or city, state and it will give you a listing of the closest ones. If you can't find anything there, you may want to check to see if your state's department of agriculture has any type of listings for farms. For my fellow Connecticut residents, I am compiling a list of all Connecticut CSA's which I hope to have up in the next week or two.
I hope this helped answer some basic questions on CSA's and how they work. Did I forget anything? If you have more questions please ask them and I will do my best to answer them or point you in the right direction!
If you already participate in a CSA, I'd love to hear about your experiences!