Is It Worth It to Join a CSA?

The weather is getting warmer and the CSA season is getting into high gear! When I express my excitement about this, most people ask “what’s a CSA?” Here’s my guide to what a CSA is and why I think they’re so darn fabulous.

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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