Imagine coming home with a big box of seasonal produce every week.
This week, your box contains oranges, strawberries, apriums, avocados, carrots, onions, mixed salad greens, mint, kale, spinach, broccoli greens, radishes, and beets, plus two new recipes to try.
The 100% organic food was picked yesterday, and the whole box cost you less than half of what you would have paid for conventional produce at the grocery store.
And yum, are those early strawberries sweet!
So how exactly do you get in on this deal?
What is Community Supported Agriculture?
Over the last 20 years, CSA or Community Supported Agriculture has become an increasingly popular way for people to buy local, seasonal—often organic—food directly from a farmer at a great price.
CSAs are popping up all over the country as the demand for local, farm-fresh food grows. These days, if you live within 100 miles of a farm, you probably live within 100 miles of a CSA!
The basics are simple: In a CSA, a farmer offers “shares” of farm produce for sale to the public. Interested buyers purchase a share, becoming CSA members, and in return receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce harvested each week throughout the growing season.
This arrangement has many advantages for both the farmer and the buyer.
- Marketing the food early in the year, before the long days in the field begin
- Receiving payment early in the season, which the farmer needs cash flow the most
- Having an opportunity to get to know the people who eat the food they grow
- A higher return than is typical for selling produce to brokers, grocery stores or other wholesale outlets
CSA Members enjoy:
- Eating just-picked, local food, with maximum flavor and vitamin content
- Food that has less environmental impact because it was grown and sold locally
- Often lower cost for organic produce than at retail stores or even the farmer’s market, while spending your money within your own community
- Exposure to new vegetables, new recipes, and new ways of cooking
- An opportunity to get to visit the farm at least once a season and sometimes socialize with other members.
- Developing a relationship with the farmer who grows their food and learning more about how food is grown
CSAs aren’t confined to produce. Some farmers also offer members shares of eggs, jam, homemade bread, meat, cheese, flowers or other farm products along with vegetables and fruit. Sometimes, like Garden of Eden, several farmers will offer their products together, to offer the widest variety to their members.
Building Local Food Communities
While the structure of a CSA is simple, there is an important concept woven into the CSA model that makes it a little different from the usual commercial transaction: the notion of shared risk.
Shared risk is part of what creates a sense of community among members, and between members and the farmers. As a CSA shareholder, you have a stake in the success of the farm, so if a hailstorm takes out all the squash, everyone is disappointed together, and together you all rally for the tomatoes and peppers.
Most CSA farmers feel a great sense of responsibility to their members, and when certain crops are scarce, they make sure the CSA gets served first. Still, very occasionally things go wrong on a farm—like they do in any kind of business. If this potential makes you feel anxious, then the shared risk of a CSA may not be for you, and you should shop at your farmers’ market.
Local Harvest—a national non-profit connecting people with the small family farmers in their community—reports that they get complaint calls on between 2 and 9 CSA farms every year—out of several thousand nationwide. Usually the cause of the complaint comes down to a failure to deliver as promised because of a catastrophic divorce, major illness, extreme weather, or a new farmer that got in over his or her head. Sometimes, however, the CSA member simply did not do his or her due diligence and had unreasonable expectations.
Here are some great tips for having a successful and rewarding CSA membership. But, ultimately, nothing beats a personal conversation with the farmer. Here are the questions Local Harvest recommends you might ask before joining a CSA:
- How long have you been farming?
- How long have you been doing a CSA?
- Are there items in your box grown by other farms, and if so, which farms?
- How did last season go?
- How many members do you have?
- What percentage of the food you deliver annually is grown on your farm? If the answer is less than 100%, ask where the rest of the food comes from, whether it’s certified organic (if that is important to you), and whether members are told which items come from off-farm.
- I’d like to talk with a couple of your members before I commit. Could you give me contact info for a couple of “references”?
Taking the time to vet your CSA farmer will help ensure a long-lasting and rewarding relationship between you, the farmer, your community and your food.
Local Acts with National Impact
Community Supported Agriculture is a simple idea, but its impact has been profound. Tens of thousands of families across the country have joined CSAs, and the numbers are growing exponentially every year. In some areas of the U.S., there is more demand for Community Supported Agriculture than there are farms to fill it!
In the burgeoning market for whole, organic food, CSA offers an outstanding way for new farmers, small farmers and even homesteaders to provide a secure, diversified living for themselves on a small parcel of land.
If CSA sounds like an ideal way to enjoy local, fresh produce to you, then Local Harvest has the most comprehensive directory of CSA farms in the United States, with over 4,000 farms listed in their database, so you can easily find and join a CSA in your community.
I hope for the sake of your wallet, your health, your community, and the planet that you will!
This article was excerpted from my book Sustainability Starts at Home – How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. For more money-saving, planet-friendly tips, pick up a copy today!
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