Have you heard of a CSA but aren’t exactly sure what it is? Are you interested in eating more local and sustainable food but don’t know where to start? If so, this article is a great place to begin. We will teach you everything you ever wanted to know about CSA’s.
Despite their growing popularity, many folks have never heard of a CSA. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. What does that mean, exactly? It means that a small farm is supported by its local community through a direct purchase program.
Belonging to a CSA is one of the best ways to begin eating more local food and less mass produced food. It’s economical and its consistent. Read on to learn what a CSA is, how it works, and what next steps you can take if you think it’s a good option for your family.
The CSA Concept
First, take a moment and imagine you owned a small family farm – maybe an acre or two – that produced multiple types of vegetables and fruits. Not a mass produced single crop, but rather more like a typical family garden, just on a larger scale. You might have sweet corn planted right next to heirloom tomatoes, garlic, or zucchini. If you owned such a “large garden” and produced far more than your own family needed, how would you sell the excess goods?
Small farms like these – biodiverse “market gardens” – are growing in popularity. And they have several market options, like farmer’s markets or selling to restaurants. But many farms choose to offer a CSA program directly to the public.
The CSA is like a Membership to one specific farm that you really like. For your membership, you get an equal “share” of food every week for the length of the season (set by the farm). Your household gets a set amount of weekly produce for a set price. It’s ideal for people who can’t grow their own vegetable garden – you’re hiring someone directly to grow, harvest and wash your veggies on your behalf. Then you simply pick them up every week or two.
The CSA program means you buy produce (or anything else offered) directly from a farm in your area – but it also means you commit to purchasing food each week for a particular season, so the farm has steady income. This is what is meant by “community supported“. This is how the CSA differs from a farmer’s market, which has more of an ala carte, multi-farm model. Think of the farmer’s market as your local grocery store, and the CSA as a membership to a particular farm. It’s very similar to joining a wine club at a particular winery.
These “Farm Memberships” are a great option for urban and suburban working families, because you get to have a direct relationship with your food and the person who grows your food. You have peace of mind knowing that not only are you supporting your local economy, but you’re eating top-quality ingredients. Your food won’t be sprayed with pesticides like Round-up, transported hundreds of miles, put in storage before its ripe, or handled by dozens of people before it gets to your kitchen. It’s picked at the peak of ripeness and simply goes from the ground to the washing station to your basket.
How Does It Work?
As we mentioned above, the CSA is not typically a “pick your own produce” model – like a grocery store or farmer’s market would be. Instead, a CSA is an equal share of food distributed equally amongst members, throughout a set growing season. Each farm determines how many families it can support.
Let’s say a farm offers 20 memberships for the summer season. This would mean each member gets 5% of whatever is grown on the farm each week, for the duration of the season. Of course, the farm owners take great care to do something called succession planting. This is so its members will have plenty of seasonal produce each week.
Everyone who purchases a share of the farm’s harvest will also share in the ups and downs of Mother Nature and the growing season. This may mean more of one thing, less of another through different weeks and years. With a CSA Membership, your family becomes a partner of the bounty with the farmer.
In a way, it’s more than just buying food – it’s leaning in to a new lifestyle. You agree to give up some a little control over what veggies are on the menu each week – although you know it’ll be seasonal, and many farms will allow you to swap items that you just really dislike. In exchange, you get pesticide and toxin-free food that is more nutritious, clean, fresh, and less likely to be contaminated with bacteria and other pathogens from mass handling. You support local business, and you support sustainable food growing practices. You opt partially out of corporate mass food production.
What Food Do I Get?
CSA’s have become so diverse. Traditional CSA’s are still very plant-forward, focused on seasonal vegetables, fruits and herbs. But many farms are now adding in optional local pastured eggs and dairy. Some partner with local meat farms for pastured poultry, pork and beef. We participate in a Salmon CSA that is offered here in our area.
Local food businesses are getting really creative. It’s exciting to have healthier, fresher options beyond mass produced food.
Farms also differ widely in the amount they grow – some may produce smaller baskets of 4-5 pieces of produce weekly, while others may have 10-12 different pieces of produce a week. Most offer a choice between a full share or a “half” share.
The length of the CSA season varies by farm as well. Membership is usually for a season, most often Spring and Summer. But some farms extend additional smaller CSA seasons in Autumn or even Winter options. Here in the Portland area, we have seen CSA programs ranging from as little as 10 weeks to as long as 26 weeks (a half year of local, economical produce!)
Because each farm structures its food growing plans and CSA programs a little differently, we recommend first assessing what type of program you would like. Do you want to start small? Biweekly or weekly pickup? A farm that sticks more to the staples, or offers more adventurous and novel items? A 10 week program or a 20 week? A meat, dairy or egg add-on option, or not?
After you know what you’re looking for, you will have a starting point to begin researching the best fit.
How Much Does It Cost?
The Farm Member investment is typically less expensive than a grocery store, despite having fresher, cleaner, higher quality produce. Many areas have CSA options in the $25-45 per week range, for a substantial amount of food. One of the most popular CSA’s in the Portland area, Working Hands Farm, calculated its offerings out to around $2.40 per pound for local, fresh, “better than organic” produce. Anyone who is familiar with organic prices at large grocery chains will know that that is a steal.
The payment options vary as well. Traditional CSA’s ask members for a one-time, up-front payment, which they use to then operate the farm (ie grow your food) for the season. Many farms still operate this way. But many more are starting to offer payment plans or monthly payment options (with discounts given for payment in full).
Where & When Do I Get My Food?
Pick up is usually done at the farm. Farms are also starting to offer other pickup locations throughout larger metro areas, for your convenience.
Pickup frequency will likely be either weekly or biweekly. This will be set by the farm before you join. Farms often offer full shares or half shares. The full shares may pick up weekly while the half shares pick up every other week.
Some farms have also started to offer delivery, usually for a small additional fee to cover gas and the driver’s time.
Regardless which pickup location and frequency you choose, a lot of people feel that their weekly or biweekly trip out to the farm and countryside is a highlight of their week. Children love to visit the countryside, especially if there are animals involved. Many farms allow you to stay and hang out awhile if you like, or take tours.
How Can I Get Started?
The best way to start is by simply finding what local farms are in your area. They are popping up more and more every day. A lot of people like us have a background in some sort of farming or gardening, and are leaving corporate America to get back into farming. And as a consumer, eating more local food is something you can literally do starting with your next meal.
Regardless where you live, you are likely to have many local vegetable farms, berry farms and fruit orchards. You likely have local meat farms too, but pastured meat can also be bought more easily than produce online because it can be frozen and shipped in ice packs.
In the Portland area, Friends of Family Farmers has a very comprehensive listing of what’s available in our area.
If you don’t live in Portland, your best bet is a simple Google search. Google your city’s name with CSA, such as “Denver CSA”, and you’re bound to find options. CSA’s are popping up everywhere. And if you’re interested in pastured sustainable meat, you have nationwide shippable options due to meat’s freezability.
We are really excited to see the new companies launching who are committed to humane animal treatment and sustainable practices for the earth. As they grow in popularity, they will eventually force the factory farms to improve their own practices. Check out our Where To Shop Guide here.
Of course, belonging to a CSA doesn’t mean you can’t supplement your diet with farmer’s markets, orchard stands, local produce at small grocers (we personally love New Seasons in Portland). The occasional big grocery store trip is going to still be necessary too, when you’re in a pinch or cooking for a crowd.
There’s no black and white rule about food that says you have to only eat what your CSA provides. Remember to look at the big picture and try to stick to the 80/20 rule as you switch over to Eating Local (but staying sane). It’s a lot more sustainable than the 100/0 rule. 🙂
If you’re feeling DIY-adventurous, you can play around with hobby homesteading- growing some of your own food. It’s super fun, and really cheap! What our family does is subscribe to a CSA, but we also supplement with some farmer’s market trips, and we grow a few extra things that we just can’t seem to get enough of: cherry tomatoes, garlic and herbs.
If you are interested in Eating Local as a lifestyle, signing up for a CSA is a great start. You can also take a look at Why Eat Local, to discover why switching from factory farmed food to locally produced food will have a huge impact on your and your family’s health.