If you relish having a regular supply of farm-fresh produce—and knowing exactly where your food comes from—you might consider joining a CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It’s an especially good option if you don’t live near any farmers’ markets or grocery stores that carry local fruits and vegetables. Joining a CSA can also save you money and help you eat more healthfully, among other perks. But you have to be flexible and open-minded about what you eat, ready to commit to cooking at home more, and willing to take some financial risk.
CSAs vary in their specifics, but they all generally operate along the same lines. In brief, as a “shareholder,” you buy directly from a working farm, typically paying for all the produce up front, before the growing season starts. You receive a weekly basket full of fresh produce (often harvested that very morning) at below-market cost (no middle-person involved to drive up prices), while the farmer is guaranteed buyers and assured a fair wage.
The food is distributed at a designated pick-up location in your community—or at the farm itself. Visiting the farm (and even working on it) is often encouraged, and many CSAs require some volunteer work either at the farm or at the pick-up site. A season typically goes from May or June to October or November, but some CSAs offer winter shares.
A win-win (lose-lose) arrangement
If it’s a good season, everyone benefits; if some crops don’t do as well as anticipated, the financial loss to the farmer is minimized. That is, you reap the bounty but also share the risk. This mutually beneficial relationship between farmers and the community dates back at least to the 1980s in Japan, wherethe word for the concept, “teikei,” roughly translates into “food with the farmer’s face on it.” Today in the U.S., there are more than 7,000 CSAs, according to Guillermo Payet, founder and president of Local Harvest, a website that provides a directory of CSAs. That’s a big jump from about 1,000 in 2005.
There are environmental advantages of CSAs as well. By Payet’s estimation, close to 20 percent of CSAs in the U.S. are certified organic (compared to less than 1 percent of total farmland nationwide as of 2016). In organic farming, few, if any, synthetic pesticides—and no fossil fuel-based fertilizers—are used, which is better for the environment, wildlife, and farmers. Responsible organic production also helps conserve soil and water and promotes plant biodiversity, among other environmental benefits.
Many other CSAs are not certified organic (a costly and time-consuming process) but still minimize pesticide use and follow other sustainable practices that may meet or even exceed USDA organic standards. Buying locally through a CSA also likely reduces carbon emissions (though how much is debatable because so many factors are involved in calculating carbon footprints).
Joining a CSA? 3 Things to Consider
Are you shopping for a CSA to potentially sign up for? Be sure to ask how the payment works, what size shares are available, and whether the farm offers products beyond produce.
Not like supermarket shopping
Depending on what kind of a food shopper and how avid a cook you are, belonging to a CSA may mean having to make some adjustments to your usual routines. It’s a good idea to ask the farmer ahead of time what kind of produce you will receive and about how much, as well as how long the farm has been operating as a CSA. Some CSAs post previous years’ yields on their websites so you can get an idea of what to expect. Keep the following in mind before joining:
- What you get depends on which crops grow at the particular time of year in your geographical area. You may encounter vegetables you’ve never seen before, which makes it a good opportunity to expand your produce horizons. Many CSAs offer recipes and ideas for how to cook and serve them. You may also be able to swap out something you don’t care for and take more of something that you do, depending on availability and the terms of your particular CSA. While many CSAs include fruits, it’s mainly vegetables that you get, since the fruit-growing season is generally more limited.
- The produce is not sliced, diced, or “triple washed and ready to eat.” That is, be prepared to do all the washing and chopping yourself.
- During the height of the season, you might receive more produce than you can use—as much as 15 to 20 pounds a week. Feeling bad about food going to waste is one of the top reasons former CSA members cite for not renewing, according to Local Harvest. But you can also freeze many fruits and vegetables (from berries and broccoli to corn and green beans); make soups or other dishes from them that you can then freeze; or preserve extra fruits and vegetables through canning. You can find lots of other ideas for what to do with leftover CSA produce (10 pounds of kohlrabi, anyone?) on the internet. And, of course, you don’t have to take your full allotment: Some CSAs donate extra produce to food banks or offer shares of varying sizes to accommodate different needs.
- Be aware that you may still have to supplement your CSA produce with supermarket purchases, since your weekly allotment won’t consistently include staple items (like onions, potatoes, or tomatoes) or provide the variety of vegetables you may want. On the other hand, using only what your share provides can be an eye-opener in learning what is actually in season and is a good introduction to seasonal eating, if you want to try to do that. You may, for instance, be surprised to know that tomatoes are generally a late-season crop, not available until late August in many parts of the U.S.
If you want to reap the bounty of local produce, learn about how food is grown, support local economies, and build a relationship with a small-scale farmer, then joining a CSA may be for you. You’ll also get produce that probably tastes better and is of higher quality than supermarket produce that’s been shipped long distances. To find a CSA near you, Local Harvest provides a searchable database.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see 8 Recipes That Feature Summer Produce.
Published March 09, 2020