Is It Worth It to Join a CSA?

by in Uncategorized, April 17, 2009

Earth Month usually means green-living trends top the headlines. One thing you might be hearing about is CSAs, or community-based agricultural programs. I’m always singing the praises of my local CSA. To which most reply, “What’s that?” Well, here’s why I think they’re so darn fabulous.

CSA 101
First of all, CSA stands for “community supported agriculture.” By joining a CSA, members basically buy a portion (or share) of a local farm’s harvest for the year. You pay an initial fee in exchange for a weekly box of fresh and seasonal items. Some CSA programs also offer members the chance to work off their share by helping out on the farm. You might pick up your goodies at the farm or a designated pick-up spot (some CSAs even offer home delivery).

What you get in your share will vary depending on the specific farm, but offerings typically include fruit and vegetables as well as baked goods, dairy and eggs — even honey and flowers may be available. My CSA offers a choice of fruits, vegetables, flowers or a combination of the three. Of course, the variety depends on the seasonality; as it becomes available on the farm, it will show up in your CSA box.

To join a CSA, talk to your local farmer or look on the farm’s website to see if they offer a program (not all farms do). You can also find a local CSA by plugging your zip code into the Local Harvest website. (Read more about the growing number of CSA groups in this New York Times article.)

The Pros
Farmers really benefit from this community support. At the same time, the consumer benefits by getting the freshest local foods available throughout the year. Even though you’re putting up a significant amount of money, you get a ton of produce each week so you’ll save money in the long run.

One of my favorite things about my weekly CSA box is I never know what’s going to be in it, and I’m forced to be creative with the contents. On the rare occasion that I don’t know what something is, I just email my farmer, and she fills me in and gives me great ideas about what to do with it. A word of warning: CSA boxes can contain more food than you know what to do with. You may want to join with a friend (or 2) — this will cut down the cost too — or make time for canning and freezing (then you get the veggies year-round).

The Cons
Unfortunately, CSA programs are still hard to find in some areas. Some can be extremely expensive, so you need to do your homework to make sure you’re getting the best program for your money. I’ve seen prices vary anywhere from $300-$1000 a year. You also don’t have control over what you’ll get in your weekly box. Farmers decide what they have enough of to go around (they might save certain items for sale at the farmers’ markets). A large, weekly box of foods can get overwhelming and give you more than you know what to do with, which leads to waste.

Bottom Line: Joining a CSA is a wonderful way to support local agriculture and buy fresh and affordable produce, but it’s a big commitment. If you’re new to buying local foods, you may want to start by shopping at your local farmers’ market or farm stand weekly before signing up for a CSA. You’ll still reap all the benefits of local (and fresh!) foods and help support your community.

TELL US: Do you belong to a CSA?

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Comments (29)

  1. Krikri says:

    Though they may be still difficult to find, the benefits of joining a CSA far outweigh the costs. With looming health consequences from synthetics and over frozen foods, buying fresh from the farm is one form of insurance against ill health. A type of insurance in which we determine the premium, so to say.

  2. We belong to a CSA, though I only get a half share so that I can get more variety from our local farmers markets. Particularly in the current economy, I think it’s so important to support local farmers and CSA membership gives them more security than relying on market sales. And despite the economy, there is still so much demand for locally-grown produce – a new CSA program in our area sold out 400 spots in a matter of days.

  3. Ambitious says:

    I’ve wanted to join one for a long time, since they are availble in my area. For me, the drawback is more time related. I don’t know if I can go there every week, and the issue of wasted produce. Nothing makes me sadder than seeing great produce go to waste!!

  4. Amy Sherman says:

    Not all CSA’s require a year commitment. The one I joined didn’t. I gave it up because I was writing a cookbook and I needed the fridge space for specific recipe ingredients but I will probably sign up again soon. For me the variety was a good thing, not a negative. It forced me, in a nice way! to try new things.

  5. I long for a CSA. Even though I live in a very large metropolitan area, there isn’t a single CSA or farmers’ market anywhere near my home. Also, just to build on your point about CSAs being good for the farm community, they also help farmers better manage cash flow.

    I would look for a few things. First, Amy is correct, not all CSAs require a year-long commitment. I would also be very choosy about the production methods being used. While I’d be more concerned about meat quality and safety in a CSA (just because you know the source doesn’t mean it’s going to be great meat), I would want to know something about what methods are used to fertilize soil, weeds, etc. In other words, I’d prefer some foods, esp. the dirty dozen, to be organic in certification or in spirit than local.

    Finally, I think sharing with a neighbor or friend is a great idea. Not only will you be more efficient at using up the food but you can support each other in testing out new ways to cook it.

  6. Bee says:

    If you work at a large company ask your HR or Wellness committee to work a deal with a local CSA. My company advertised at work for the CSA and because we were able to get so many people to join, the CSA delivers to the work place. This brings convenience for you and a cheap way for your company to provide a healthy benefit at little or no cost to them.

  7. Greta says:

    I would really like to see an article about jicama. I tried it for the first time the other day and could totally see it working in alot of dishes. I would first like to know more about its nutritional value and some good recipes including it if you would…please…

  8. ali hauck says:

    If you want to know about Jicama, just Google it! You should find lots of great info. Jicama is 86% to 90% water. It’s sweet, starchy and I think that it’s awesome raw with some hummus.

  9. Laura says:

    I just joined a CSA a month ago and I am absolutely loving it. It’s wonderful to be able to count on the produce (and, right now since the ground isn’t producing a whole lot quite yet, the farmer is supplementing our shares with home-made bread, pasta, eggs, honey, and syrup) every week, and I already am eating healthier while I support our CSA’s farm. I live alone and was worried about the quantity and price, so I had someone else split a share with me, which I recommend doing if you’re not a big eater.

  10. Rory O'Neill says:

    I’ve never heard of a CSA until now… Great idea!! I’ve considered going in on half a cow from an organic grass-fed cattle farm with a neighbor. I’m going to check if there is a CSA in Mt. Lebanon (Pittsburgh)!

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