Tuesday, April 16, 2013

All About CSAs, Part One

I've talked about CSAs a few times on this blog, but usually just in passing.  Spring Clean Your Eating Habits is a good time to explain the concept more in depth...because joining a CSA definitely helped us eat more healthfully!  I'll give you the facts, and then share my experience and opinions.  

(Keep in mind, I'm sharing what has worked for our family.  It's possible that your family tries a CSA and has a completely different experience.)

CSA stands for "Community Supported Agriculture".  The idea is that farmers sell "shares" of their farm, and the shareholders get a portion of the crop in return.  Basically, you pay a fee (usually sometime in the spring) and then pick up a bunch of produce every week during the summer. 

Joining a CSA is a good idea for your family if one or more of these things is true:
  • You want to include more produce in your diet.
  • You'd like to support local farmers.
  • You're attempting to broaden your produce horizons.
  • You want to try to eat "with the seasons."
  • You don't have the space or time for a garden.  Or you just have a brown thumb.
  • You have a garden, but want to supplement with new and different produce than what you can grow yourself.
  • You don't have a garden, but you want your kids to know where their food comes from.
  • You'd like to buy more local produce, but you just can't seem to get to the farmer's market.
All CSAs are not the same!  Do your research to find one that fits your eating habits and lifestyle:
  • Some have a work requirement (i.e. 3 hours of work per summer in addition to the cost of your share)
  • Some are organic; others are "low-spray"
  • Some include mostly normal vegetables; others specialize in gourmet and odd varieties
  • Some run year-around, others are only available during summer months
  • Some include a lot of fruit, others include a small amount of fruit, and still others are only a vegetable share.
  • Some run on a point system and allow you to choose your vegetables each week; others pre-pack boxes of produce for you.
  • Some offer smaller portions (half shares); others only offer one size - and that size is usually XXL.
In all honesty, I was not super impressed with the first CSA we joined.  I liked some of the produce, but we got a lot of weird stuff.  I had to drive 30 minutes one way to pick up our share at a farmer's market, and if I came toward the end of pick-up time, sometimes they had run out of a certain type of produce that was supposed to be included in the share.  I was disappointed, but I was still sure that joining a CSA was the right thing for our family.  (Remember, my thumb is far from green.)  So, the next spring, I shopped around.

When I shopped around for a CSA, I had a checklist:
1.  Fair price/good value
2.  Low spray/natural farming practices, although not necessarily organic.
3.  Some fruit included in the share
4.  Well-managed and -organized program
5.  Mostly normal, familiar vegetables, although I didn't mind a few "weird" things.
6.  Reasonably close pick-up location.

Last year, we bought a share in Visser Family Farms.  (They have since split into two farms, so "our" farm is now Crisp Country Acres.)  I was extremely impressed.  They filled every requirement on our checklist: 
1.  Fair price/good value.  We split a whole share with another family.  This meant that our cost per week was right around $11.  I did the "if I bought this on sale at Meijer" math quite a few times last summer, and each time, I was getting more than $11 worth of produce in our half share.
2.  Low-spray/natural farming practices.  Newsletters from the farm talk about how they are working on keeping their plants healthy without using chemicals, and getting to the root of disease problems instead of covering them up with pesticides.
3.  Some fruit included in the share.  This year's program will include one fruit per week.
4.  Well-managed and -organized program.  Pick-up is a breeze:  each share is pre-packed in a crate.  We can either take our crates home and return them the following week, or transfer our produce to our own bags.  If we're out of town on pick-up day, we can put our share "on vacation" and then ask for a double portion on any other week.  We receive a newsletter each week informing us what will be in our share that week.
5.  Mostly normal stuff.  We received a variety of extremely useful produce each week, including carrots, celery, onions, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, corn, and more.  (Note:  the box was different each week, so we didn't receive all of those items every week!)  There were some "weird" things thrown in, but I could usually figure out some way to use them or cook them.  If there was an item that I wasn't willing to try, or one that I knew we didn't have a use for, I could trade it!  We were allowed to trade one item per week for something different.
6.  Reasonably close pick-up location:  Well.  Last year, the pick-up location was still a long 20 minutes from our house, but we took turns picking up the shares with some family and friends that were also shareholders...which meant that I was only making the drive every 3-4 weeks.  This year, it's really close, because I'm hosting a pick-up in our driveway.  Apparently there are more people like me who drive quite a distance to the farm...and who live closer to me than to the farm.  So, in exchange for one hour of my time each week (to supervise the pick-up of 10-20 shares), I'm getting a discount on our share.  And I don't have to drive anywhere!

Being part of a CSA has been a great experience for our family.  Does a CSA sound like a good fit for your family?  

Stay tuned for Part Two...

This article is posted as part of April's series, Spring Clean Your Eating Habits.  To find the rest of the articles in this series, head over to the Monthly Themes page.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed reading about this, Lisa. We do garden in the summer, and I can supplement with produce from the farmer's market, but I definitely like the idea of a CSA and it's interesting to read how yours works.