Spring is on its way, and for a lot of us, it can be an inspiring time to think about our eating habits and how we might try to improve them, or make them more eco-friendly. One option that has become trendy over the past few years is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). This model of food production and acquisition involves joining an association of people who have financially pledged to support one or more local farms, with growers and consumers sharing the risks and benefits of the harvest each year. The spring harvest in April/May is usually the cut-off for joining a CSA, so now is the time to educate yourself and sign up with one if it’s something you’re interested in.
This article is just a short overview of the topic, but hopefully it will be a good starting point for you to begin learning about this fantastic method of supporting eco-friendly and organic farms that are local to you.
What exactly is involved in being part of a CSA?
Members of a CSA, in exchange for their financial contributions, receive weekly (or other regularly scheduled) shares of food from a farm/group of farms in their region. As a member, you’re supporting local agriculture directly, instead of going through the middle-man of a retailer or market. Designated community spaces serve as pickup locations — these can be schools, parks, or friendly neighborhood cafés.
Being part of a CSA is a commitment, and you can’t just join last minute to come and pick out your produce. You have to sign up for at least a year’s commitment by a certain date. That way you’re with the farmers regardless of what happens over the seasons, or how plentiful (or not) the harvest may be that year. Before joining one, you need to really consider whether the program is right for you. Making the leap to a whole new way of doing your grocery “shopping” involves a long list of both pros and cons to weigh.
Because you’re financially tied to the farm or group of farms supported by your CSA, you may have less choice over what kinds of produce you get, and will definitely be eating what is seasonally available! Although some CSAs allow for flexibility in choice of food, you’re still beholden to some extent to the types of food that the farm grows or sets aside for your shares. It’s not a great system if you’re a picky eater, but can be a lot of fun for more adventurous home cooks. While differing throughout the season, your weekly share will usually contain at least four different vegetable varieties, in a generous quantity.
Why you might consider joining a CSA
As an environmentally minded person, joining a CSA means you know exactly where your food is coming from, and how it’s being produced. Most CSAs receive all their produce from one farm, and there are often options to buy additional shares of eggs, meat, fruit, or cheese, depending on what the farm focuses on. You get to support a local business, and have a window into what is involved in the typical growing season for a small, usually family-run farm business. It’s a fantastic learning experience!
Many CSAs organize trips for members to visit their principle farm, where you may get the chance to meet the farm’s staff and ask them about their work. In addition, your contribution means a lot to the farm’s financial security — everything from weather conditions to pest outbreaks to slow days at the farmers market can make a small farm vulnerable and their financial stability a fragile thing. Paying for your food shares up front (or via regular installments, depending on what kind of payment plans are offered), ensures them sales throughout the season, and some amount of predictable income.
Thinking about living green, you can choose to support a local farm which follows environmentally friendly growing practices or which raises meat ethically, if you choose to go that route. It’s one of the best ways of ensuring that your food is healthy and meets your “green” expectations. Buying local is also a great way to reduce the carbon emissions produced by transporting your food long distances. You know your food is always going to be fresh and in season!
So how can you get involved in a CSA?
The best place to start is by searching online for a local CSA. Thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to find CSAs operating in your area, learn about them, and decide whether to throw your lot in with a local farmer. There are many state-wide directories of CSAs that you can search, and a wealth of information available about the experience of being part of one.
A CSA usually runs like a co-op, so there may be a required volunteer shift or two. This is a time commitment, but lowers the administrative cost of the CSA for everyone who is a part of it. You can also take the opportunity to get more involved, if you like organizing group activities or have suggestions for improvements to the pickup process, etc. If you want to get more active in a good food cause, this is a great opportunity, and you’ll often also get to chat with your neighbors during pick-up times and make more bonds in your community.
It doesn’t have to be expensive, either. In fact, often a CSA or similar food share program can be very cost effective for those shopping on a budget. Generally a single share of produce in a large city will cost around $300-$400 in total, and runs from May or June to the end of October. That’s approximately $12-$18 per week. Unfortunately, depending on how your local CSAs run, they may require all the money up front to join, though many do now offer installment-based payment systems. Some CSAs may also offer sliding-scale prices for lower-income families. Overall, the experience is a worthwhile one to consider for this year.
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Jennie Lyon is a green lifestyle writer and the owner of Sweet Greens, the award-winning green lifestyle blog. She posts on simple, fun ways families can go green together – starting with her own. When she isn’t blogging, you will find her paddleboarding, sailing, beach-combing, camping, or spending time with her amazing husband and 14-year old son.