CSAs, where you buy a share at the beginning of the season and pick up weekly vegetable “shares” of the farm, have been growing in popularity for the past several years now. But is it right for you?
For me, the answer is yes. Some years the answer was no. How does one decide?
If you’re thinking about joining a CSA. You have probably heard that it’s good for the environment, good for your health, good for local business, and sometimes a good deal.
Before you sign on the dotted line, take a moment to think— really think—about whether you’re ready for this type of commitment. Here are the top 10 questions to ask:
1. Are you an adventurous eater?
Every week, you will be getting more vegetables than you have probably ever purchased at one time, many of which you may not even know existed. If you eat a lot of processed foods, this sudden change in diet will make you, um, very regular.
2. Are you committed?
Did I mention the pickups are every week? If you spend weeks on end vacationing at the cottage, you will have to forgo your investment or find someone to pick up your vegetables for you. You may find yourself running late for sporting events and company picnics because you have to pick up the vegetables.
3. Are you willing to take a risk?
See the fine print at the bottom of your contract? The line that says, “The shareholder realizes that natural conditions of weather may influence the availability of some crops in any given year”? That means that a flood may come along and you won’t get any potatoes. Or the Great Northern Blight strikes and you only get three weeks of tomatoes and the canning class is cancelled. Welcome to farming.
4. Are you ready for the rewards?
Being part of a CSA is incredibly rewarding. You will meet new people. You will learn how to cook. You will feel connected to your food in a way you never thought possible. You will have better skin and feel healthier. You will learn what “in season” means and how vegetables are supposed to taste.
5. Are you willing to put in the work?
In order to reap those rewards, you’ll need to put in some serious work. Once you get the vegetables home, there is cleaning, storage, prep, and cooking.
Which CSA should I join?
If you’ve decided to take the plunge after answering the above questions, in order to make this the best experience possible, you’re going to need to do some homework. Otherwise, you may find yourself like my friend Kate, who paid for an entire season, received one pickup, and then the farmer vanished. Packed up and moved to Mississippi. She saw his equipment on Craigslist. True story.
The absolute best way to find a good CSA is through word of mouth. Start asking around—does anyone you know belong to a CSA? Have they heard of any? If you’re in West Michigan, a good starting point is the list right here on Eat Local West Michigan. Once you have a list of potential farms, you’ll want to consider the following:
6. Is the pickup location convenient?
Remember, you will be picking up the vegetables every week. Also, if you have to drive an hour each way, that kind of defeats the environmentally-friendly reason for joining.
7. What do their current members say about it?
Try to find someone who was a member the year before. Were they happy with their experience? Another clue is how fast their shares sell out, and how long they’ve been in business.
8. What produce do they offer? At what cost?
Most offer very similar vegetables, at comparable prices.However, some offer special options that let you pay extra for more of a certain type of vegetable (one CSA that I know of offers a “salad doubler” option, for example, or a “canning package.”) Others offer fruit, either grown by them or through a partnership with another farm. You’ll need to weigh your options.
*A note about “organic.” One of the reasons many people choose to participate in a CSA is because they want organic vegetables. This might be obvious, as most people don’t want chemicals in their food—at least the people who are considering joining a CSA in the first place. However, many farmers practice organic farming methods but have not spent the money to become officially certified organic. Yes, there are politics in farming too.
9. Do they require or offer working shares?
Some CSAs require members to work a certain number of hours. That’s the deal. Others don’t require it, but do offer discounts on a limited basis if you agree to work a certain number of hours; something to consider if you have more time than money.
10. Is there a sense of community?
There will obviously be some mingling as you stand in line for your pickups, but some CSAs intentionally provide opportunities for members to learn from one another; for example, a Facebook Group, website forum, special events on the farm, cooking classes, etc.
Each of the above may or may not be important to you; you’ll want to prioritize the factors and rank each accordingly. Don’t worry too much about being precise, though—usually you’ll feel drawn to one. Once you’ve weighed the pros and cons, made your choice, and signed on the dotted line, ensuring your place among the members, congratulations! Now the real work begins.
Words of Wisdom:
“Not all CSAs are created equal. While every community farm I have observed seems to have sprung out of a divine spark, some are run extremely well with a bent toward education and community-building. The CSA we picked is a force unto itself – it was something like hitching a ride with a Mack truck that didn’t slow down to pick me up. We jumped, and held on for dear life! So many events and recipes and ideas and opportunities… I constantly have to remind myself that there is always next year for the one that got away.”
– Tina Folkertsma, a member of Trillium Haven Farm CSA.
P.S. Worried if you’ll be able to use all those vegetables?
Consider subscribing to Simple Seasonal Meal plans, which provides 5 weeknights’ worth of recipes plus a shopping list and weekend prep tips–all based on what’s in season in West Michigan! You’ll also get access to a Facebook group where I share tips and answer questions about how to use and store some of the more unusual items. Head on over to the site and download a free sample!