Community Supported Agriculture or CSA has been a popular option for eating fresh food for many people. It’s also a disappointment if one enters it without the right research and asking the right questions.
Generally speaking a CSA member pays a flat fee and shares the risk and reward of the farmer. This fee covers expenses – seed, equipment, land and yes labor – up front, reducing some of the risk for the farmer. It also can save you money and introduce you to foods you may not find at the local grocery. The members pay a flat fee up front and split the crop. If there’s 40 members and a bumper crop of tomatoes there is enough to preserve for beyond the season.
There are also some things to be aware of. One comment said they wouldn’t take the risk of crop failure and getting nothing – they’d just buy at the store. (Apparently the store is immune from crop failure!) Another opposed the idea of having to participate in some of the labor involved in harvesting the crop, something that some CSA’s require and others don’t.
There are some farms that will custom grow for you with a different spin on a CSA. The same principles in up front fee, but instead of splitting with 40 members you get a certain square footage of garden space. This can be an advantage for those who don’t like surprises in eating to know you have particular items growing for you. You can choose from management types and get an active part in the decision making without having to do the work.
Communication is a big factor in determining if a CSA is a fit for you. Listening to complaints alone from both sides it can go very wrong. Here are five ways to help your experience be a good one, whether from a traditional CSA or a custom venture as above:
1.Have reasonable expectations. Choosing heirloom vegetables means they will look different than you’re used to. If you want cookie cutter look alike tomatoes this may not be an option. If you want no pesticides be prepared to share your crop with the bugs, and keep in mind they don’t share so that could mean your crop feeds the bugs! An alternative is having a plan to spray if bugs are found or using other methods.
2.Communicate about what you’ll get. Depending on regulations some may get eggs or meats with the produce. Are you opposed to receiving value added or off farm products? This might be a jar of honey or jam or crafts. It might be potpourri or edible flowers. What happens when you leave for vacation? How do you handle your produce then – will it keep or will it spoil before you get home? This is also the time to bring up any allergies – if you or someone in the family is allergic to nuts speak up before you get two pounds of pecans or walnuts!
3.Is work required? Some depend on participation in tending the crop while others don’t. Remember as a farm work is dictated by nature and can be extremely busy one month and not so much the next.
4. How involved do you want to be in the decision making? Do you want to decide varieties or is just “tomatoes, beans and salad fixin’s” good enough for you? The more you are involved the more research you’ll need to do but also the more you’ll learn. This can be invaluable for homeschoolers as well as for those thinking about growing their own food but not quite ready to make that step. Learning by doing is a good way to take part and benefit from mistakes others make!
5.Be realistic about the amount of food you’ll get. If you’re paying $30 per week don’t be surprised if you have to supplement with other food. One CSA did offer to provide everything – including meats, eggs, produce and other farm products – but the up front cost deterred people even though it was cheaper than “the store.” Too much or too little is part of the risk in growing for yourself as well as with a CSA. Crops can look great one week and be storm damaged the next.
The quality and often quantity of a CSA or CSA style farm products is usually very good. .It will bring additional awareness of the struggles all in agriculture face in bringing a safe, healthy food supply to the public.
The time to choose a CSA is fall/winter when they’re making plans for the new season. Remember with a CSA you need to allow time to grow the food. If you want a heritage turkey for Thanksgiving the farmer needs to know in the spring! Growing pork, turkey, lamb and other products doesn’t just “happen” instantly when you put an order in. Those with eggs have six months of work raising laying hens before the eggs start coming!
A CSA is a great way to take an active part in the food supply. It’s a chance to truly know your farmer and know exactly where and how your food was grown. Be realistic, support farmers and strengthen communities with your food dollars!