Choosing a CSA
Many of us want to make healthier choices going into the New Year. We also want to support local businesses and farms. Coincidentally, local food buzz about CSAs begins to fill the air in February.
To the uninitiated, “CSA” stands for “Community Supported Agriculture.” Coming up are two CSA days at the Seacoast Eat Local Winter Markets, where farms set up informational booths to talk about their programs. Maybe you are a long-standing member of a farm’s CSA, and if that’s the case, then good for you!
Most of us, however, are still looking for the perfect way to support local farms. Joining a CSA is a great way to get involved on a deeper level with food production. It is a way to get know the farmer growing the food, and get in touch with the fickle rhythms, challenges, and delights inherent in small-scale food production.
Like any relationship, clear expectations, and good communication are key, so it is important to find a farm (or farmer) that really speaks your language. When in doubt, ask questions! There are two main types of CSAs that most farmers offer: traditional and market style. Most farmers generally fall into one category or the other. Some offer both types, or a hybrid. Some offer extras like meat and eggs from the farm, or from other farms that they work with collaboratively to round out the foods offered.Many farms still closely follow the model of these early CSAs, which I will refer to as “traditional CSAs.” The consumer pays up front for a “share” in the harvest. The farmer then, in turn, plants a wide variety of vegetables and divides the harvest among the shareholders. The shareholders pick up generally on a weekly basis, and receive a box of whatever is harvested that week. The consumer also agrees to “share in the risk” of vegetable production alongside the farmer. This means, that if the crops do poorly (due to pests, weather, etc) the shareholder realizes that this may affect the quantity, appearance, or variety of vegetables they receive.
A traditional CSA work best if you:
- cook at home regularly, and are ready for the challenge of eating seasonally
- are willing to take on more of the risk with the farmer, as a partner in the growing season
- really want be part of the farm; often these farms have “work shares” or volunteer opportunities that allow consumers to get their hands dirty and really participate in food production.
- can commit to picking up weekly, or have a friend or neighbor that you collaborate with in order to pick up your box
Many farms have taken the idea of traditional CSA and modified it to suit consumer preferences. These are often called “market style” or “subscription” CSAs. These work in much the same way in that consumers pay a set price up front to help the farmer with early season costs in exchange for a share in the harvest. In many cases that is where similarities end. The consumer, rather than receiving a boxed assortment of veggies, is given a choice as to what they would like to pick up. Often these are set up so that the shareholder can pick up at farmers’ market or a farmstead. More and more farms are offering these types of CSAs, instead of or in addition to a “traditional CSA.” This is a great way to get your feet wet, especially if you feel some trepidation around the idea of getting a big box of mixed vegetables every week. Also, often these types of arrangements end up with you receiving discount from the market price.
A “market style” CSA is for you if you:
- have a few favorite standard vegetables, and definitely know your vegetable adventure limits
- are a frequent farmers’ market customer who purchases a lot from a particular farm
- travel, or have an erratic schedule that does not allow you to pick up at the same time every week
Either way, there are a few things to remember when considering a CSA.
- Farming is full of unknowns, but be sure that you fully understand what is expected of you, and what the farm, in turn, has agreed to provide. Is everything grown on the farm? Or do they bring in items from other farms (or…further afield?)
- What are the farm’s practices? Maybe you want to buy Organic, but the farm closest to you isn’t. There are a number of reasons for farms not to certify; don’t rule out a good grower just because of a piece of paper.
- It involves not just the financial commitment, but also a commitment of time and creativity. Showing up to pick up your share every week, is half the battle. The other half is time in the kitchen preparing these (sometimes alien) ingredients, whose quantities may not fit neatly into a recipe. Many of the best cooks will tell you that the first step to making good food is using good ingredients, and if you are getting farm fresh veggies, you already have a huge leg up! When in doubt, go simple…steam or saute in a little bit of olive oil and serve with rice. Let the fresh flavors shine!
- If you are someone who already does a lot of cooking at home, you should have no problem incorporating copious amounts of seasonal vegetables into your meals. If you are newbie, or someone (like me) who tends to get into ruts in the kitchen, your farmer is the best person to talk to. Most farmers I know are passionate about food, and are amazing cooks as well as growers. They will often happily provide cooking suggestions, recipe cards, or even cooking demonstrations. Some utilize blogs, or social media sites like Pinterest to educate and inspire. Also, there are a number of local organizations that offer advice, and inspiration. Check out the resources below, and happy CSA hunting!
- Seacoast Eat Local’s website is an amazing resource for everything from finding a cooking class to guidelines for choosing a CSA. Also, their Pinterest page has a huge collection of recipes arranged by vegetable.
- Seacoast Harvest is a project of Seacoast Eat Local. It is a fully searchable database of farms in the area. This is a great place to get started when looking into farms.
- Slow Food Seacoast has a number of ways to get involved, particularly their monthly potlucks, which are open all and a great way to share recipe ideas and get inspired.
- Seacoast Food Swap has regular meeting where attendees are encouraged to bring anything they made, grew or foraged.