Is This the Year You’ll Join a CSA?
How to find a CSA and be the best CSA customer you can be
If you’ve already been a member of a CSA, we hope you’ll continue. If you’ve never tried a CSA, this might be the year to give it a try. And, if you’ve participated in a CSA in the past and found it didn’t work for you, the wide variety of farms and CSA offerings might give you a reason to try again. I’ll be the first to admit that a CSA is not for everyone. If you faithfully attend a farmers market every week, if you grow a large garden, or if you simply don’t cook several times a week, you might find a CSA doesn’t fit your lifestyle. But along with the growth in the number of farms offering CSAs, there is also an increase in the flexibility of offerings. For example:
- There are single-farm CSAs offering as few as 10 weeks (bi-weekly) or as many as 42 weeks—and everything in between; some of the “aggregators,” i.e. services that offer produce procured from a variety of farms, operate truly year-round, supplementing as needed from non-local sources.
- Some farms offer flex shares, giving you the opportunity to pay only for weeks that you’ll be able to receive your produce, and many farms offer multiple sizes—including a “solo” or “mini” share meant for individuals or small households.
- While most farms offer multiple pickup sites, some offer home delivery, which can make a CSA accessible to nooks and crannies of the city and suburbs that might not be served by a pickup site.
- Flexible payment options abound, from online credit card payments to installment payments; at least one farm now offers a “buy-down” arrangement where you pay a certain amount upfront and customize boxes throughout the season, with your purchases deducted from your account.
- More farms are offering add-ons to their own farm-grown produce, giving you the option to receive extras like eggs, honey, syrup, etc., either by producing their own or augmenting with products from other local farms.
- Some farms’ offerings include fruits, while many do not. With some, it’s an available option. This year, more farms are offering fruits, meat, flowers—even tomatoes or greens—on a stand-alone basis; i.e., you can purchase a vegetable CSA from one farm and supplement that with fruit (or flowers, or extra tomatoes, or meats) from another.
The Local Beet’s 2014 CSA Guide, and the printed version produced by FamilyFarmed (pdf) provide you with a wealth of information to help you find the best fit for your household. The printed version, also available at the Good Food Festival, breaks CSAs down by geographic area, so you can pinpoint your options using the Pickup Site Legend abbreviations. The Beet’s online guide gives more information about each CSA (and includes “aggregators” in its listing) and gives you the ability to search, sort, and compare side by side. Use both guides together for the most complete picture of what’s out there. Here are some things to consider as you delve deeper:
- How many are you trying to feed with your CSA
- How convenient are the pickup sites and times, or do you need home delivery
- What options are there for missed weeks or long vacations
- Do you want certified organic produce or other third-party verification as to growing practices
- Are fruits included in the CSA; if not, is there a reasonably located stand-alone fruit option
- Can you receive eggs, honey, meat, and other add-ons as part of the CSA
- Can you spread out payments
- What if the CSA doesn’t work out for you; what are the refund policies (hint: most CSA payments are nonrefundable)
If you decide that a CSA is for you, be the best CSA customer you can be! Here are a few ways you can do that:
- Be prepared to eat seasonably from what is available in the Midwest, and expect a fair amount of overlap from week to week
- Get creative with your cooking and preserving to make the most out of your CSA box; your farm will likely provide recipes and the Internet is full of resources
- If you have concerns or complaints with the quality or variety or service/communication you’re receiving, by all means let your farmer know, but be realistic and . . .
- Read any newsletters you receive, whether hard copy or via email so you’ll know what challenges the farm may be experiencing in a given week
- Make plans to visit your farm, if allowed; either join a scheduled farm event or contact your farm ahead to arrange a visit
- Let your farmer know when you’re really happy with what you’re receiving; sometimes, it’s just the pat on the back needed to slog back out to the field on a rainy day!
We welcome your feedback on recent CSA experiences. Please submit your thoughts in the Comments below.