Is winter over yet? When does spring get here? I keep asking myself these questions as I muddle through the tail end of the winter fruits and vegetable season. There’s only so many servings of cabbage and root vegetables I can put on my plate before I start daydreaming about tender zucchini and rosy tomatoes. Fortunately, this time of year encourages that daydreaming. We look forward to spring vegetables at grocery stores and farmers’ markets and start planting our summer gardens, and for me – I sign up for my local CSA. For this month’s newsletter, I want to talk about why my CSA membership works for me, and some reasons it might work for folks curious about a CSA share.
A CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture, is a business model for farmers to deal directly with consumers and strengthen the connection between the farm and the kitchen table. Farmers offer “shares” of their farm for a harvest season, and CSA members pay for their share (around $400-$800 for the season) of the harvest upfront in early spring and then receive freshly grown produce throughout the harvest. Depending on the farm and what the farmers grow, the harvest season can last during the spring only, or run from spring through to the end of fall – my CSA season runs from early June until the first week of November. Farmers often deal directly with a core group of CSA members who arrange membership signup, collect payments, and coordinate produce deliveries or pickups, which lets the farmers focus on their fields and less on their paperwork. Members can either pick up their produce from the farm or a local community center or school, or the CSA can arrange deliveries right to their doors.
Many CSAs try to make their membership as affordable as possible by offering payment plans and options to help best fit what their members want. My CSA lets members choose the size of their share so that they are only purchasing the amount of produce they expect to use – for me, an “every other week” vegetable share is more than enough food to eat and is a little bit cheaper than the full weekly vegetable share. Customizing the size of the share not only helps make it more affordable for members, it also prevents food waste since we get to select how much food we want. While the upfront cost of a share might be startling, when I break it down by price per week, I’m only paying about $30 per pickup for all that produce (sometimes as much as 40 pounds of produce). My weekly grocery bill is much lower during the summer because I am only purchasing a few staple items at the store – the rest of my groceries are coming right from the CSA. Overall, my grocery bill, when adjusted for the cost of the CSA, is about the same as I normally spend, just spread out over the season differently. Want to get a share but worried about the cost? Talk to your roommates or neighbors and see if anyone is interested in splitting the share with you (that’s how I started three years ago!).
Why am I such a big fan of my CSA? I get fresh, local produce from a farming family I know and trust. While they aren’t organic-certified (the process of obtaining organic certification is expensive, time-consuming, and requires a lot of paperwork), the farmers who provide for my CSA use organic practices and openly discuss how they plant and harvest their produce, and how they plan to achieve organic certification in the next few years. I also get to know the hard-working farm team who help bring in the harvest, so the entire process from their farm to my kitchen is transparent. I like knowing where my food comes from and how far it has to travel before it makes its way to my kitchen, and supporting local farmers helps boost the environment and promote agricultural biodiversity. My CSA share includes more than just lettuce, tomatoes, and corn – I get heirloom peppers and herbs and leafy greens that I’ve never seen in my grocery store before. These farmers are continuing a rich tradition of growing diversity in their fields and I get to reap the benefits of delicious, local produce.
CSAs are a chance for farmers to shorten their supply chain and sell directly to their customers, helping local farmers get a boost from their community. They form relationships with their customers and establish a reliable network of people who will purchase their produce. Additionally, CSAs give farmers a chance to pull together money at a time when they need it most to buy seed and supplies for the coming growing season. CSAs also lend a little predictability to a growing season that can be anything but predictable.The risk of a bad storm or a failed crop is mitigated by CSA members, who agree to take on a portion of the “shared risk” of the season. My share last year had a peach shortage because of unusually warm weather in February meaning that the weekly pickup of produce was smaller and a little mushier – but members sign on for that risk. Farmers do the best they can because they want to make sure their customers feel like they’re getting their money’s worth of produce, but no matter how hard everyone tries to plan ahead for bad weather or crop failures, there are times when both farmers and CSA members have to make do with fewer peaches or wilted lettuce.
Being a CSA member is a great way to learn about seasonality in fruits and vegetables firsthand. My CSA starts in early June when I get lots of lettuce and spring onions and strawberries, all the signs of early summer. As the season goes along, I get kale and spinach and cherries and then zucchini and corn and peaches, and tomatoes and peppers and apples, then squash and cabbage and pears. Eating my way through my share taught me to appreciate how delicious food is when it’s in season, but also that each month has something to surprise me. I always thought that August, with its juicy tomatoes and glossy eggplants, was the height of food joy, but then I ate my way through June’s cherry season, the delicate squash blossoms in July, and butternut squash and pumpkin season in October and now I have favorite foods to look forward to for every month of the year.
Any drawbacks to becoming a CSA member? For people who don’t like to eat a lot of vegetables, or don’t have time to cook or prepare all the produce they get through their share, it might be tough to eat everything before it goes bad. Almost all CSAs include vegetables in their shares, but you can often sign up for additional shares like fruit, grains, dairy, or even fish. Another hiccup might be the food options provided through the CSA. A share includes whatever is coming out of the field or orchard that week, so you take home what the farmer has available. I am not a Swiss Chard fan, but for a week or two in the season, that’s what my farmers are growing. I may not like that particular leafy green as much as I like spinach or kale, but I have to take what the farmers give me. A new idea that my CSA is starting this year is our “swap box”, where anyone can swap out something from their pickup with another member to help everyone get more of what they love. Ideas like “swap boxes” give everyone a little more choice in their weekly pickups so that everyone goes home happy.
Being a CSA member is a commitment for the whole growing season, which means getting actively involved in the growing and distribution of your food. Memberships often include a “work” element in the share, where members help out with pickup and delivery or boxing up produce, to give the farmers another set of hands to get their produce to their customers. I help out twice a season with weighing out produce for pickups, and this past year I taught a few canning classes as my contribution for the season.
Interested in finding a CSA near you? There are several ways to learn more. Websites like localharvest.org and justfood.org can help you find farmers and CSAs near your zip code, and they also provide some more details about what to expect and what questions you might want to ask the farmers or CSA members before you sign up. Another great resource is a farmer’s market if you live near one. Strike up a conversation about your area’s farmers and see what recommendations they have. Once you have a contact to reach out to, you may want to ask what the farmers grow, or how much produce you can expect to receive per pickup/delivery. Right now is the perfect time to ask your questions – farmers aren’t yet working long days and have more time to meet and connect with their customers, and if you like what you find, you
So while spring is just beginning, I’m already getting in touch with my fellow CSA members to catch up with each other and start planning for the 2017 season. It’s easy to get carried away with excitement for the fruits and vegetables to come (and this year we’re adding a bread share from a local bakery), but it’s only a few more weeks until I pick up my first box of strawberries and some spring lettuce.
Click here for a list of tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your CSA share!