Wildly Good CSAs
Linda Watson | 05/06/2016
I’ve long supported local farmers by shopping at farmers’ markets and choosing local at the grocery store, but joining a CSA took my support to a whole new level. CSA means food subscription group, even if it officially stands for Community Supported Agriculture. When you join a CSA program, you support a farm with a micro-loan, which helps pay for seeds, feeds, salaries, and more. In return, you get utterly fresh food direct from the farmer. You may share the risk and reward of farming, too, getting a smaller bunch of collards after a cold snap or bonus tomatoes during a peak harvest. Usually you pick up the week’s bounty at a certain time and place, but some CSAs deliver.
We’re lucky in the Carolinas to have a wide variety of CSAs. I joined Edible Earthscape’s CSA to research my book Fifty Weeks of Green. Jason and Haruka Oastis were running about the only winter CSA that was still taking members. I enjoyed it so much I joined again the next year with a friend.
Why I love belonging to a CSA:
- Plentiful, top-quality produce. Every week feels like Christmas as Jason opens the week’s box and describes each bundle before handing it to me to put in a cloth bag. Farmers tend to fill their CSA boxes first and then offer the rest for sale at the market. No worries about getting to the market too late for carrots or sugar snaps.
- Unusual and beautiful vegetables. Jason and Haruka started farming in Japan, so they grow taro roots, burdock, and a host of Asian greens. Sometimes their salad mix includes flowers.
- The weekly email. Learn what’s in each week’s share and mull over any choices. (Which salad green: arugula, mizuna, or wasabina?). Get recipes and farm news.
- Fewer decisions. My grocery list shrunk and menu planning was easier because I just cooked what I received. It nearly eliminated the label reading that can go with eating 10%-plus local diet.
- The parties! I love going to potlucks at the Edible Earthscapes and coming early to help plant. Some members host other potlucks. Most dishes include food from that week’s share. We go from being supporters to being friends.
Questions to ask before joining:
- Does this CSA offer food I will eat? Find out what will be in a typical box and, if possible, what variety is ahead for the season. Look for a selection that looks tasty and that you will actually cook. You can find CSAs for vegetables, fruit, flour, eggs, dairy, meat, fish, or a mix. Local should be a given, but look for other key words such as organic, pesticide-free, non-GMO, or pastured.
- When will it run? Most CSA sessions range from 8 to 30 weeks. Some farms run multiple sessions, so you could sign up for the spring, spend summer at the beach, and sign up again in the fall if you enjoyed being a member.
- How much food will you get? Some CSAs offer full shares or half shares. Wild Onion Farms offers a free-choice or market-style CSA, where you prepay an amount and use your credit within a year.
- What does it cost? Home cooking with local ingredients is wildly affordable compared to eating out, but the upfront cost of a CSA can take a bite out of your budget. You might pay $200, $500, or even $1000 depending on the type of food and length of the session.
- Where will you pick it up? Common choices include at farmers’ markets, restaurants that the farms supply, and even grocery stores or co-ops with a local focus. For busy people, paying a little extra for home delivery may be a good investment.
- How is the delivery handled? With some CSAs, you swap an empty box for a full one every week. With others, you bring your own box or bags. CSAs that offer highly perishable food may provide coolers and chill packs.
- Are any bonuses included? Will there be community events such as potlucks, farm tours, or farm work days? Harland’s Creek Farm offers a CSA cookbook and menu plans. Some CSAs offer cooking classes.
- What happens if you go on vacation or move? Some CSAs build in a few skipped weeks. In general, expect to have someone else pick up your box or to have it donated to a food bank. One year, I split a share a friend, which gave us flexibility.
When you join a CSA, you get fresh, local food while creating a stronger community and more resilient foodshed. I hope you will try supporting agriculture in your community in this direct and convenient way.
Get more great tips from Linda to help you eat well and wildly affordably at cookforgood.com. Her monthly newsletters are awesome or buy her fabulous book, Wildly Affordable Organic!