Choosing The CSA That’s Right For You
Subscribing to a CSA (short for “Community Supported Agriculture”) is a worthy endeavor: Subscribers pay a farm upfront for a “share” in the farm’s future bounty. In return, subscribers will generally receive a box (or bag) of produce every week from June to October. If you subscribe to a Meat CSA, you will generally receive a pre-determined amount of meat per month.
Choice is good, but sometimes too much choice is just overwhelming. The Local Beet’s fully searchable CSA Guide for 2011 includes over eighty—yes, eighty — farms. But we’re here to help you whittle that list down to a manageable few options — with the help of suggestions from experienced CSA subscribers.
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What are some of the factors you should consider when deciding on a CSA?
# 1: Meat or Vegetables?
Decide whether you’d like a meat or vegetable CSA — or both. If you’d like both, and would like it from the same farm, Broad Branch Farm, Grass Is Greener Gardens, and Harvest Moon Organics offer shares of both vegetables and meat (typically, beef, poultry, and pork, and sometimes lamb, goat or veal). Bumblebee Acres, Green Earth Farm, Midnight Sun Organics, and New Traditions Farm offer both produce and poultry shares, but not other kinds of meat. (Walkup Heritage Farm may also make arrangements with its subscribers to its poultry and egg CSAs for a produce share.) Other meat CSAs offer product that is incredibly varied, from pasture- and forest-raised pork to Angus beef, and they include Liberty Family Farm, Mint Creek Farm, Marr’s Valley/Country Haven Farms, C&D Family Farms, Cedar Valley, Trail’s End and Walnut Acres.
Bonnie Tawse subscribed to a 3-month meat CSA with C&D Family Farms. She said: “Crystal raises pigs but she’s in a co-op, so the monthly share includes pork, chicken, beef and eggs. I can’t say enough positive things about the quality of the meats. The bacon is somewhat legendary, and has earned Crystal the nickname “The Bacon Lady . . . I was so happy with the first three months that we just signed up for 3 more. Yes, it costs more . . . but I am so happy . . . knowing I’m feeding my family meat that was raised humanely.” Tom Perrin agrees, and says that “not only is this meat raised humanely but it tastes way better than our grocery-store meat. . . [a]nd yes, the bacon is legendary.” Oda says that C&D’s monthly portion is “plenty, with different varieties of meat (plus eggs) and all the stuff [they] have tried so far tastes fantastic!” Frank has been sourcing his pork and chicken from C&D for over two years, and says, “We had a chance to visit Crystal and Dan’s farm in Knox, Indiana in May of last year, and if one thing became clear is that Dan and Crystal truly love (taking care of) animals. All animals had plenty of space to roam, yet had covered shelter for the moments they needed it.” Akeya is also pleased with their CSA, and will be rejoining for another 3 months.
Erica Smith subscribed to Cedar Valley Farm and says that “in addition to providing great quality meat, it has the BEST eggs around!”
# 2: Location
Apart from price, this is probably the second greatest consideration when looking for a produce CSA. I’d start by searching our guide for locations near you by entering the names of nearby towns or Chicago neighborhoods in the search box. Alternatively, you could search for a CSA with drop sites near your workplace – some will even deliver to the Loop. In each location, you may have several options. So you may need to narrow it down further.
# 3: Certified Organic or not?
Does it matter if the produce is certified organic, as opposed to being farmed using organic practices that are not certified by a third-party? Many local farms operate sustainably but choose, for a variety of reasons, not to go through the process of becoming certified organic. However, we recognize that whether a CSA is “certified organic” or not is a priority for many people. The best way to find CSAs offering product that is “certified organic” is to enter those words in the search box of our CSA Guide, and it will sort the farms offering only certified organic products.
Kate said that “[w]e tried Angelic Organics when we moved [to Chicago] in 2008. It was great and the variety and amounts were good but we were really looking for a third party Certified Organic CSA. We felt pretty comfortable with [Angelic Organic]’s farming practices but the certification was an important factor for us. We joined Harvest Moon in 2009 and have been really pleased. We like the variety and feel the full share is more than enough for our family of 4…[o]ur pick up spot is great, too (Lush Wine store), [as] they usually have some recommended wines for the week’s share contents…” On the other hand, Emily was not as satisfied with her 2010 Harvest Moon winter and summer share, as it seemed that they “expanded to too many shareholders too fast,” and that they “certainly did not receive the range of crops that were promised to [them], some of the vegetables were not of good quality, and [they] often received such a small portion of produce that there was nothing they could do with it, like a handful of ground cherries.” Liz Barrett, however, loves the quality and variety of her CSA with Harvest Moon, which allowed her to try new things like chard, ground cherries, and garlic scapes. She also subscribed to their Winter CSA, and was happy with the dried beans, popcorn, squash and “huge” sweet potatoes that she received. Maureen Reilly agrees, and likes their “well-run program.”
# 4: Share Size
How much produce would you like to receive? Many people in small households hesitate to subscribe to a CSA because the standard size weekly box– usually 3/4 bushel — is more than enough for two primarily vegetable-eating adults per week. (Savvy, experienced CSAers will preserve, freeze or store any excess produce.) But, if you’re a single household, eat out often, or eat a lot of meat, the 3/4 bushel box is probably too much (if you don’t want to preserve). The solution: Find a CSA with smaller shares, or one that delivers a share to you every other week. Some CSAs with smaller shares are Big Head Farm, Fair Share, Fat Blossom, Four Friends Farm, Linda’s Organical Farm, M’s Organic Farm, Majestic Nursery & Farm, Midnight Sun Organics, Mike & Clare’s, Peasant’s Plot, Ready Jam Farms, Simply Wisconsin, Sweet Earth Organic Farm, Tomato Mountain, and Zanjabil Gardens. Or, you could enroll with farms that permit you to order on a week-to-week basis, such as Esther’s Place/Lamb of God, Farmer Tom’s, Growing Power, Irv’s & Shelly’s Fresh Picks, New Leaf Grocery, Tom’s Acres, or Village Organics.
# 5: CSAs that grow the food v. aggregators
Is it important to you that the farm grow the produce it includes in the CSA box? Some “non-traditional” CSAs are “aggregators,” meaning that they do not actually produce the food in the box, but rather, collect it from various, preferred sources.
If you do not mind that your CSA is “non-traditional,” then Simply Wisconsin and Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks are two such “aggregators” that source items in their CSA boxes from local farms and purveyors (although Simply Wisconsin works only with a businesses from Wisconsin). About Simply Wisconsin, Kathy says that she was “very pleased with the variety and quality of the produced. They also offer shares in eggs, meats, cheese and pantry [items], which [she] also participated in last year. The eggs were wonderful, the meats varied and tasty, the cheese was common [Wisconsin] varieties, but very fresh.” Kathy “did not find the pantry to be of her liking . . . [t]he canned goods were always too sweet and watery, but the flours and especially the beans and popcorn were great. Any problems were addressed by the nice coordinator up in [Wisconsin].” Victoria Wiedel is more enthusiastic: “Last year we chose Simply Wisconsin because it is a cooperative, and due to the quality and variety we received plus their excellent customer service we have already subscribed to a full share from them in 2011. We have tried three other CSAs and I like Simply Wisconsin the best.”
Zach said that “[w]e joined Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks in December. We love it; every other week we have two boxes that include everything from fresh veggies to delicious bread and eggs.”
If you would like a CSA from a farm that grows mostly everything they sell, Judy Aronson suggests Growing Home: “I have had a CSA share with Growing Home for the last several years. I love the mix of the predictable and occasional surprise vegetable every week. Growing Home has a dual mission of providing local, organic vegetables and job training for the previously unemployed. Through newsletters, farmers markets and open houses, everyone involved with Growing Home can share the joy of local, delicious and healthy food.”
Victoria likes Bob’s Fresh and Local: “I usually bought my veggies and fruit from the farmer’s market in federal plaza – picking up a variety box was a bit scary . . . until I opened the first box and fell immediately in love. OK, actually I was in love on the drive home as I could smell REAL vegetables and not the wax or plastic! The variety was wonderful, the weekly newsletters were great, and I loved figuring out how to use vegetables I wouldn’t have normally bought at the farmer’s market . . .[w]e have already signed up for 2011 . . .”
Joanna “highly recommends” Iron Creek: “I was a regular buyer at Green City Market and have always loved Iron Creek’s produce. In their CSA, their variety was very broad and their organic heirloom seeds appealed to my own sensibilities . . . [i]n fact I have already sent in my check to Iron Creek for the 2011 season . . .[a]s a current student at Kendall College, Iron Creek provided me [with] a good, steady flow of common ingredients that I used regularly, and some new product to experiment with. Plus their farm day in the fall was a blast.”
Ruth has “subscribed to Angelic Organics for years . . .[g]ood variety but they seemed to have smaller content in their boxes last year.” Kristen is going back to Angelic Organics in 2011, where she can share a half-share every other week (new this year), after subscribing to Peasant’s Plot in 2010. Frank agrees that AO’s boxes were less full in 2010. He has been a drop site host for Angelic Organics for four years, and although he likes the variety, and is subscribing again in 2011, he notes that the return of Farmer John to the farm in 2010 led to some “well-documented personnel issues and a loss of focus of focus on farming activities.”
Erica Smith gets their veggies from Scotch Hill Farm in Wisconsin, which she described as a “vocal advocate for sustainable agriculture.” 2011 will be Erica’s third year with Scotch Hill, and has been “thrilled with the quality and variety of their vegetables and herbs,” and that they “even offer a flower share!”
Finally, Peasant’s Plot seems to have garnered the most comments. Whitney says that Julia (of Peasant’s Plot) is “great, remembers everyone’s name, and always has cute hand-drawn recipe cards and announcements.” Juliette B. says that “she was very impressed” with her Peasant’s Plot CSA last year, and that the “quantities were perfect” for her and her boyfriend, even though “she wasn’t crazy about the abundance of squash last year.” Carrie Waller says that the “produce was great – the best arugula” she’s ever had, and that “Julia and Todd . . . hold two events at the farm so the CSA members get a chance to see their work . . .” Kristen was not as enthusiastic, saying that she “understand[s] that rain is unpredictable . . . but [she] was expecting more varieties having been an Angelic Organics subscriber before . . . and went back to Angelic Organics in 2011 . . .” Bert and Diane “were pleasantly surprised by the quantity and variety of fresh organic produce,” and Molly said “Peasant’s Plot is the best!” and “the clear winner of the three [CSAs] they have tried”, even though she “understand[s]” Kristen’s issue with the variety of produce offered.
# 6: What about fruit only CSAs?
Most CSAs will permit you to subscribe to a separate fruit CSA if you are already a subscriber to a vegetable CSA. However, if you only want a fruit CSA, are there any options for you?
Mary says yes, and is “signing up again” with Earth First Farms. “Although not a vegetable or meat CSA . . . they offer an apple share with fabulous cider! Last year their crop failed, but I think they handled the situation with great professionalism and [in] keeping us informed of the situation and ultimately refunding our full fee.” Big Head Farm and Crème de la Crop also offer fruit-only shares.
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Finally, the most important factor to remember when subscribing to a CSA is to be ready for some unpredictability, good or bad. With most CSAs operating more like regular businesses than ever, customer service is generally available, and ready to address any problems with your CSA. Most farms, however, fail to disappoint, and even though there is shared risk, it is rare that a farm will not be able to produce enough food to satisfy its CSA members. And if the weather isn’t the greatest, all subscribers are in it together. If there’s not enough heirloom tomatoes to your liking in this year’s box, for instance, you just supplement it at the farmer’s market. During the occasional “off year,” experienced subscribers will take the long view, and like a lifelong Cubs fan, will “wait ’til next year.” However, you may not always get everything you thought you would, so keeping an open mind is part of the fun, and managing expectations is necessary.
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them here. Special thanks to our readers who contributed valuable insight into their CSA experience!