Everything You Need to Know Before You Sign Up for a CSA

Feeling a little afraid of a season-long commitment? Before you dive into a CSA share, get all the facts.

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What exactly is a CSA, anyway?

For the last three decades, small farmers have offered their customers a chance to cut out the middleman and get fresh produce and other locally produced goods delivered straight from the farm. The way it works is simple: CSA (which stands for Community Supported Agriculture) members pay a farmer up front for a whole season. That cash investment helps defray the high startup costs of farming, allowing farmers to buy equipment, seeds and fertilizer. In return, customers get a box of ultra-fresh produce or other farm products every week throughout the growing season. It sounds simple — but it’s certainly a different way to approach your weekly grocery need. Here’s what you need to know before you sign up.

They’re not just about veggies.

Nowadays, many CSA farms have expanded beyond vegetables to eggs, dairy products, grains, flowers and prepared products like sauerkraut and jam. Sometimes several farms will pool their products to offer their customers a wider variety. Fisherman and ranchers have taken up the model too. You can buy part or all of a grass-fed cow or invest in a fisherman’s annual salmon catch. While the products differ, the basic premise is the same: Customers get to know their local producers while gaining access to some of the freshest food on offer.

To start searching for the CSA that’s right for you, try out a farm’s options at the farmers market, and ask the farmer about his or her growing practices, if that’s important to you. But keep in mind that not every CSA farmer sells at farmers markets. To find a list of CSA farms by state, check out localharvest.org.

When searching for a CSA, you can also visit the farm or attend a Share Fair.

Many farms invite potential CSA members to come to an open house before the season starts. Or, simply ask if you can come for a visit. "If they won’t let you visit the farm, there’s a problem," says Vicki Hertle of Sun Gold Farm in Forest Grove, Oregon. "As a CSA member, you’re making an investment in a farm, so you should be able to take a look at what you’re putting your money into."

You can also seek out CSA Share Fairs (which are starting to crop up in some cities) to interview several farmers in one day. One such event put on in Portland, Oregon, by the Portland Area CSA Coalition, has a "matchmaking booth." Genevieve Flanagan, a small farmer and one of the event organizers, says, "It’s like speed-dating for farmers." She adds: "We have a big spreadsheet that lists drop-off locations, types of farms, organic certification and other information. That way people can find the CSA that’s perfect for them."

You need to be honest without yourself about how often you cook.

"Before you sign up, you have to know yourself: How many times do you cook per week? Are you adventurous about trying new foods? Do you even have space in your refrigerator?" says Harriet Fasenfest, author of the Householder’s Guide to the Universe and an organizer of the CSA Share Fair in Portland. Even if you split a CSA share with a friend, the influx of fresh produce could feel shocking if you’re not used to it. If you’re a hoping a CSA will influence you to cook more, more power to you — but be realistic. It will take drive to keep up with your resolution all season long, and your good intentions might not pencil out in the kitchen.

And even if you do cook often, you may need to rethink your strategy.

"You need to be willing to eat seasonally," says Shari Raider of Sauvie Island Organics, a farm in Oregon. "On the plus side, sometimes the hardest part of cooking is deciding what you’re going to make that evening. With a CSA share, that decision is made for you."

Choose the right size share — and find out what’s likely to be in it.

Ask how much produce you can expect to find in your CSA box each week. For a family with a couple of kids, a full share might be just the right size. But for a single person, it might be too much. "Look into doing a half share. I’ve had everything from six adults splitting one share to a single guy who managed to make use of a full share all by himself," says Raider.

You’ll also want to ask the farmer what crops he or she grows to make sure you’ll like the offerings. Some CSA farms can give you a week-by-week preview of what you might expect to see in your box.

Still, be prepared to try unfamiliar vegetables. Repeatedly.

No matter the CSA, it won’t be the same experience as shopping at a grocery store, where you might buy the same items each week. "Expect exposure to new veggies — like celeriac, fava beans and beets," says Raider.

You may have to get creative to use up all the veggies too. "In the winter, there might be 2 pounds of turnips to deal with," says Hertle. "And don’t expect picture-perfect fruits and vegetables. It’s all going to taste better and be healthier, but there might be a crooked carrot or an eggplant with a nose or even a double tomato."

Consider the (small) risk of crop failure.

"The flip side of investing in a CSA is the risk of poor business practices," says Flanagan, who is also a board member of the Portland Area CSA Coalition. "It’s not rampant, but it happens. Sometimes a CSA will have to shut down due to catastrophic crop failure or a miscalculation in planning or simply bad luck. Luckily, there are ways to reduce that risk."

"Ask the farmer if they have a signed lease or own their own land," advises Hertle. And ask if they have plenty of irrigation water. Sometimes a farmer is not able to finish out a season because he or she ran out of water, a problem that is unfortunately becoming more common with changing climates. But perhaps the most-important question to ask a farmer is how long he or she has been operating the CSA — longevity and resilience is a good sign.

You’ll also need time to actually go pick up the food.

Funny enough, many farmers say that the biggest problem for customers is simply getting to their weekly pickup. "If a customer has to drive too far, or pick up a share at a bad time of day when traffic is heavy, they usually won’t sign up again next year," says Hertle. Luckily, some CSAs are starting to offer home delivery, and larger CSAs will often deliver to workplaces.

If you can’t commit to a veggie CSA, think about other types of shares.

If the idea of a weekly vegetable share stresses you out, consider participating in a meat or seafood share. (But first make sure you can dedicate the freezer space!)

"One of the best things about a seafood share like ours is that it’s easy. It’s simple to sign up, and you only have to pick it up one time," says Reid Ten Kley, owner of Iliamna Fish Company, which delivers frozen wild Alaskan sockeye salmon shares to customers on both coasts.

Travel often? Ask about vacation credits.

If you’re out of town a lot, a CSA share might not be for you. But don’t give up on the idea just yet. Ask farmers if they have a vacation policy. Many farms will let you double up on a delivery the week after you come back from vacation. Some will donate your share to charity if you can’t be there, so at least you don’t have to feel guilty about wasting food. Or, you might consider having a friend grab the box while you’re away.  

You may save some bucks.

"Generally, our CSA members are getting at least $100 per season above what they could buy from us at the farmers market," says Lili Tova, owner of Flying Coyote Farm in Sandy, Oregon. "They are trusting us and giving us a bonus of capital up front. As a farmer, you need that capital to invest in seeds, equipment and fertilizer at the beginning of the season. It feels good to be able to offer them more than what we would offer other customers."

There are CSA perks beyond the box.

You may get more than you bargained for when you sign up with a CSA. "We think of our members almost like family members," says Hertle. That connection to farmers, and to the land, is something that attracts many urban people to CSAs, particularly when they have kids. Beyond the touchy-feely, many farmers offer their customers discounts at their farm stand or online market. Some also celebrate the end of the season with a members-only harvest party.

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