Guide to Joining a CSA

Posted on February 3, 2013

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PYO basil

As a workshare receiving produce for volunteer work at a CSA-based farm in my city, I find it hard to tell anyone to NOT join a CSA, an acronym for Community Supported Agriculture (a business model in which shareholders pay in advance for a produce “share” they receive in installments over the growing season or selected season). But like any other investment, there are many factors to consider before making the commitment, and some aren’t as obvious as others. February and March are BIG months for most CSA programs up here in the Northeast; this is the time when farms are beginning to offer shares, assuming their program isn’t already booked! Here I outline how to find farms in your area offering CSA programming and what to think about before registering as a shareholder at a local farm.

Waltham Fields, April 2012

Find a Farm with a CSA Program

If you do not know of any farms in your area, are not sure which local farms in your area offer CSA shares, or simply want to examine your programmatic options to ensure the most reasonable choice for you, a few easy Internet searches will help steer you towards some viable options. The following resources are great for finding CSA and non-CSA farms alike, using information regarding your approximate location and product preferences to best match you with local farms you may want to check out. Their search optimization tools are particularly helpful when trying to differentiate between those farms offering seasonal shares and those only selling items at a farmers market or as a farm stand.

Garlic plants at Waltham Fields, May 2012

For Your Consideration

PAST & PRESENT

A catchall category, these are some of the most basic details concerning the farm and CSA program you are scoping out. How has the land been used in the past, and what practices are being used now? Who owns the property, and is it open to use by the public? How is the farm generally received within the community? Are there specific sustainability or land preservation initiatives? How experienced are the growers and what is the track record of the business?  You’ll be hard pressed to find a privately-owned farm that releases its financial records, but non-profits are required to. Look for information regarding these subjects on official farm websites first, if possible. If the farm does not have an active website displaying such information, call, email, or stop by and ask someone.

OFFERINGS, TWO WAYS

Much like the details concerning the history of the farm’s land, staff, and business, most farms offering CSA shares have product information already posted on their website. Even so, most farms are more than happy to clarify any details, to the best of their ability, regarding the expected contents of an upcoming season’s share in addition to other goods or services offered by the organization.

{ CSA }

First, consider the essentials, including: what types and amounts of products are typically or expected to be available during the program’s season; distribution dates, times, and locations; pick-up frequency (most farms are once per week during the selected season); distribution style (some CSA programs only offer pre-sorted boxes while others let you pick from a selection of available crops each week); pick-your-own crop availability (often includes: berries, beans, peas, flowers, and/or herbs); and retail products made available through partnerships with other farms or vendors (last year at Waltham Fields, this included items like local cheeses, meats, eggs, maple syrup, raw honey, baked goods, seed oils, sauces, and dried goods like beans, whole grains, and flours).

{ non-CSA }

Then think about other goods or services you might also want: accessibility to other local foodshare programs (local meat, fish, raw dairy, orchard fruit programs); field or administrative volunteer opportunities; educational workshops for children or adults; special fundraising or charitable events; seed or seedling products; and community-based initiatives, like farm site compost or yard waste dumping.

PRICE

Depending on how you ordinarily shop for food, the price of a typical “summer” CSA share (often June – October in the Northeast) may or may not overwhelm you. In my experience, it seems that the up front cost is one of the biggest deterrents preventing people from joining a CSA. While there are sometimes workshare opportunities, in which you trade volunteer hours for a share, those looking to register as a paying shareholder should check in with the CSA(s) of interest to get information about seasonal or weekly estimated share values based off of previous harvests and crop plans. Established farms and CSAs often have this type of information already posted on their websites, though newer farms and new CSA programs may only have rough estimates of future produce availability and share valuation for prospective clients.

EQUITABLE FOOD ACCESS

One of the less obvious but incredibly important aspects of local agriculture and its future in social entrepreneurship is its equitability. A friend all the way up in Fairbanks, AK shared this article about the perceived and sometimes very-real exclusivity of yoga programs, which I then immediately, in my mind, related to the local food movement. I think most of us can agree that eating healthy and buying local isn’t always as easy as health gurus tend to make it seem, though that argument splinters off into all sorts of discussions concerning why people eat what they eat. Don’t have a car or license? You are instantly incapable of accessing many CSAs. Un- or underemployed? Paying for food that doesn’t yet exist probably seems down-right crazy, and rightfully so if you are experiencing economic hardship or are adjusting to eating a vegetable-rich diet. Many non-profit farms have equitable food access initiatives and programs, like Waltham Fields’ low-income market, farm-to-school program, reduced-cost or workshare CSA shares, food donations, and gleaning opportunities for organizations like Boston Area Gleaners, who donate their harvests to nearby food access organizations. So while it may not be a top priority for you when selecting a CSA, recognizing that local food CAN be more equitably distributed and supporting organizations who contribute to these efforts is certainly something to consider.

ALL OF THE ABOVE

What does being part of a farm or CSA mean to you? Local food does not start and end at the CSA distribution, nor do most people seeking out a CSA share want it to. Because of the oft-added inconvenience (subjectively defined, of course) or initial cost of becoming a CSA shareholder, those looking to eat local foods are more likely invested in the idea of local food and farms as the greater part of a healthy and balanced diet lifestyle. Identify what kind of experience you want when joining a local farm and select the CSA that best aligns with your needs, preferences, and schedule when possible to avoid a regretful investment.

Freshly-harvested radishes from the Learning Garden

MY FINAL TWO CENTS:

Paying up-front for a season’s worth of produce is risky… but intentionally so; it is the underlying purpose of the CSA model, helping to cover input costs and spreading the inherent risk of farming across all shareholders and the organization. Things can go wrong, whether a result of nature or poor farming practices; however, if the farm you’ve set your eye on is well-established and already known to be successful, it’s not usually worth dwelling on the potential negatives.

Being an active part of a local farm and its CSA program has quite literally changed my life. I know my farmers and the practices they use. I know the incredible amount of time and effort they give to make the farm successful. I have a little nature sanctuary that I visit multiple times a week for a majority of the year. And to top it all off, I get organically-grown foods that were JUST PICKED, and right across town, no less. I can say with complete sincerity that since experiencing community agriculture firsthand, I can’t imagine my life without local food and farms.

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