For the past three years, my family has participated in a Community Supported Agriculture program, and we love it! We learn about the food we eat, keep a local farm in business, and keep the land from being turned into a development. And it's fresher than the commissary!
What is it? Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a way for people to partner with local farmers, providing the farmer with guaranteed markets for the farm's products. Individuals purchase shares of a CSA and in return, they receive a share of each week's harvest. Each CSA has its own flavor, variables include:
- organic or non-organic
- farm pick-up, delivery, or local area pick-up where the produce is delivered to a particular location and shareholder (or members) come to that location to pick up their share
- work requirement or no work requirement
- full price shares only, or half-price shares available for certain eligible families, or work-shares offered
- run by an individual farmer or a group
- up-front payment required, or payment plans offered
- how big a share is, if half-shares are available
- if you-pick crops are included and available
- can you make up missed weeks?
My CSA works like this: In February, I order my shares (we get two for 6 people) for the upcoming growing season. I pay for my shares now, guaranteeing the farmer/group the income and providing up front capital for the growing season. The farmer plants her usual of crops. Beginning in May, I go to the farm once a week and pick up my share of the week's harvest. This continues throughout the harvesting season, usually lasting until October. Throughout this time, my CSA offers us the opportunity to you-pick certain crops. We also pick tons of strawberries, sugar snap peas and tomatoes.
For my family, there are several benefits. First, my kids thoroughly understand that veggies come from farms, not from grocery stores. Second, we get a variety of vegetables throughout the season, including many that I would never consider buying. Third, all the strawberries you can pick! (Plus herbs, and flowers, and tomatoes, and other veggies.) Fourth, we're helping to keep a farm running instead of turning into McMansions. Fifth, my CSA donates about half of our harvest to the local food bank. Sixth, its organic.
There are downsides to be considered. It is not cheap: my CSA is $460 per season, per share). Half-price shares and work shares are available. It is not convenient: my CSA is a 45 minute drive through nasty suburban DC traffic. It is not guaranteed: Last year, we had a terrible drought. The harvest was poor pretty much the whole year. There are weeks that we don't pick up our share, either due to traveling or overscheduling. From a financial perspective, I've wasted that grocery money. If I were more organized, I would get together with another member and let them know to pick up my share, or figure out a pick-up pool so that I wouldn't have to drive every week. However, since my CSA donates to the food bank, I just feel altruistic instead of wasteful.
More information on CSAs can be found at Local Harvest or the USDA website. I've been pleasantly surprised to find CSAs in urban areas, and occasionally disappointed that there weren't any in traditionally agriculture parts of the country. Have a look, you might find just the right CSA near you. And if you know a good recipe for turnip greens, let me know!