Community Supported Agriculture 101
Example of a CSA Harvest

By Kaylee Helfrich

I drove down a long, dusty road. On each side, I saw fields growing tomatoes, corn, and sweet peppers.  Occasionally, I would see a tired but happy person working in the fields, and I would wave to them. The road ended at an open structure containing tables laden with food- collards, butternut squash, green peppers, arugula, potatoes, onions, and many others. After retrieving my bags, I chose a specified amount of these foods- 1 butternut squash, 3 onions, 2 pounds of collards, 5 peppers- and placed them in my bags. Then I drove back through the fields, waved to the farmers, and continued home to enjoy my fresh produce.

This was my first experience with Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA.  My college roommate and I shared this CSA from the local organic farm, which provided 15 weeks of delicious organic produce for $350. In fact, we acquired much more produce than we could reasonably consume, so we learned the delights of all-vegetable dinners, freezer bags, and neighbors who liked free food.

Each CSA is structured differently, depending on your location and the particular farm. For some CSA’s, you visit the farm to choose your produce, while in other cases you pick up your week’s veggies outside a grocery store or at a farmers’ market.  Sometimes the CSA comes directly to your house or apartment. Although every CSA is different, the basic structure consists of a farm creating “shares” of its produce so that a CSA member pays the designated price of the future food before the harvesting season begins.

One essential principle of a CSA is that you and the farm are “in this together.” In other words, if something happens to the produce (drought, flood, tornado, pests, etc.), the members will not get as much (or any) produce that year, even though they paid for the food. Although this rarely happens, it is a risk that you must consider before beginning a CSA.

Even though a CSA can sometimes result in a loss if the crop fails, the benefits far outweigh possible costs.

Benefits of a CSA:

  • Price– A CSA may seem expensive since you pay for the entire season upfront. However, at least one study finds that food from a CSA is cheaper than equivalent food from a farmers’ market, food co-op, and a natural grocery store. In addition, a CSA provides food that is fresher, local, and usually tastier than food from a grocery store.
  • Convenience– A CSA provides a week’s worth or produce in one stop, cutting down on various trips to farmers’ markets and grocery stores.
  • Health- A CSA ensures constant fresh fruits and vegetables in your refrigerator. With a CSA, you make one positive health decision at the beginning of the season, and then you have healthy food at your fingertips for weeks. Now you just need to eat it to reap the benefits!
  • Understand where food comes from– This can be especially good for children. Many children have no idea how food grows, and a CSA can allow them to travel to a farm and interact directly with the people who have produced their food. A CSA can also prevent picky eaters since children choose their food!
  • Support local farmers– Much of the money spent on produce at the grocery store pays for food transportation, packaging, and marketing. Only 10-30% of your money actually goes to the farmer. With a CSA, however, nearly all of your money goes to the farmer.
  • Expand your palate– Before a CSA, I had never tried arugula, canary melon, beets, or sprouts. Without my CSA, I would not have discovered that I despise arugula or that I really enjoy canary melon. I have found new recipes to enjoy the food in my fridge, such as eggplant fries, chocolate zucchini bread, and Mediterranean salad.
My CSA from this week (from top left): canary melon, green and red peppers, pink-eyed peas, okra, tomatoes. (Not shown: yellow potatoes)

Because of those benefits and many more, I still participate in a local CSA (see the picture for an example of this week’s produce!).

If you appreciate the myriad benefits of a CSA and want to join one, how can you get involved?  One of the best tools is Local Harvest, which can help you find a CSA in your area. You can also do simple internet searches, or join a foodie group (such as Slow Food) which can connect you to fresh food sources in your area.

Joining a CSA in your area can be beneficial for your wallet, health, and community. Good luck with finding a CSA, and bon appétite!

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