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Published on May 1st, 2019 | by Sarah Dephillips

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What is a CSA, and Is It Right For Me?

You may have heard the term CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture as the model grows in popularity. But what is a CSA, and how to you know if CSA membership is right for you? Well, if you’d  like to improve the quality of your produce, decrease your personal environmental impact, and build a stronger connection to your community, you may want to read on to learn more about joining a CSA in your area.

What are CSAs?

CSA farms operate as partnerships between farmers and community members. You essentially buy a “share” in the farmer’s crops that year. Each share contributes to cover the farm’s yearly operating costs and buys you a share of the yearly harvest.  That typically looks like a weekly supply of produce at the peak of ripeness and freshness, although some CSA boxes also include flowers, fruits, eggs, milk, or coffee. The fun part is that no two are alike!

How do they work?

A typical CSA is a small, independent family farm.  After community members sign up to purchase shares, a core group of members draws up a budget to determine the production costs for the year.  Then they divide the budget by the number of members who signed up. They devise a detailed plan, stating the types and varieties of produce to be planted according to the preferences of the CSA subscribers.  Members can either buy their shares up front or arrange to pay in installments throughout the season. Having the farm and the CSA members in the same community strengthens the local economy. This financial investment from its shareholders creates a stable market for the farm, so they can focus on producing high-quality food.

As crops rotate during the season, the community produce boxes vary in size and contents.  Each week they are distributed to neighborhood locations, brought to the farmer’s market for pickup, or delivered directly to members’ homes.  Some CSAs offer different share sizes to accommodate smaller families and single people, and some even offer the option of working on the farm in exchange of part of their share.  

Benefits of CSAs

So why would you pay for a season’s worth of veggies up front to get a different box every week? Here’s some of the benefits of a CSA:

For the consumer:

  • Know where your food comes from, how it’s produced, and that it’s fresh! Knowing your farmer takes all the guesswork out of trying to juggle buying local, organic, in-season, fresh, and good price at the grocery store.
  • It’s convenient and reliable. You know you’re picking up (or getting delivered) a box of fresh veggies and/or fruits the same time each week all season. It’s already paid for, you just have to take it home and enjoy
  • Each box is fun, colorful, and a surprise! By taking what’s in season, you get different produce throughout the year. Many members love getting something they’ve never had before and learning how to cook and eat something new.

For the small scale farmer:

  • Steady revenue and guaranteed market so they’re not as susceptible to market shocks.
  • Direct feedback from the community so they know what’s in demand.
  • Easy and direct distribution so they don’t have to worry about how to get their produce to market and whether or not it will sell.

For the environment:

  • Organic/regenerative agriculture, although more costly, is WAY  better for the environment. Joining a CSA supports agriculture that’s good for the planet. 
  • Buying local food in season cuts fossil fuel use back significantly over the conventional model of growing things and shipping them all over the world.
  • Many CSAs will take back the packaging they use week to week, like egg cartons or cardboard boxes. More reusing means less waste!

When a CSA might NOT be for you

CSAs aren’t for everybody. Here are some scenarios where it might be better to skip the CSA membership and just shop at the local farmer’s market instead:

  • You’re gone for large portions of your region’s growing season and couldn’t get a friend to pick up and use your produce each week while you’re away.
  • Cooking isn’t your thing and you don’t plan to start.
  • You don’t eat many fresh fruits and veggies and don’t plan to start.
  • You have picky tastes or a limited number of things you know how to cook and don’t plan to expand that.

Other than these exceptions, most people can find a way to make a CSA work for them. If you occasionally get too much or get things you don’t like, you can always give some to friends or neighbors and share the local produce love.

Localharvest.org is a good nationwide resource to find a local CSA. Or, you can employ my favorite method – go to the farmer’s market in the spring and ask the vendors if they’re offering one! Knowing your farmer is the first step in getting the most out of your CSA.

Attribution-free images courtesy of Pixabay





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