Heard the term CSA but not too sure what it means? Here’s what to know about CSAs and how to find the best CSA near you.
Spoiler alert: Not all CSAs are the same, and if you’ve worried about getting a CSA box filled with kale and kohlrabi, you need to know how to find a CSA farm that lets you choose your own favorite vegetables. Read on for details.
WHAT IS A CSA, ANYWAY?
CSA stands for Community-Supported Agriculture, a system where members of a farm buy a share in the year’s harvest. This means that if there’s a great season and a bountiful harvest, members get an astonishing amount of fresh-grown produce, and if the harvest is only so-so or a crop is wiped out by blight, they get less.
The important thing is that the farmers still get money to live on, without worrying that difficult weather or disease will leave them without an income for the season.
In most cases a CSA farm share saves you money on unbelievably fresh and delicious produce while providing steady incomes for farmers. Not all CSAs work the same way. Find out what you need to know to pick a CSA that’s right for you.
In the depths of winter, I find thinking about the coming summer’s bounty of fruits and vegetables helps me survive the extended deep freeze that is the reality of winter in Minnesota. The snow and cold weather starts by early November and lasts all the way through April. We need all the help we can get!
We mark the beginning of summer in our house with the first of many CSA pickups at our beloved farm, Open Hands, run by Erin Johnson and Ben Doherty. I learned about CSAs from Erin and Ben, who moved from selling at our farmers’ market to this community-supported model of farming more than a decade ago.
HOW A CSA SHARE WORKS
CSA members give their farmers a fixed amount of money sometime before the season begins, and then get a share of whatever their farmers harvest each week. The cost can vary widely from farm to farm, and some farms have a sliding scale to make farm-fresh food affordable to those on lower incomes.
CSA farmers then have money when they need it — to buy seeds and fertilizer and to cover repairs and improvements.
In return, CSA shareholders are given a share of whatever’s coming in that week. That means spring greens in the early part of the season, piles of ripe tomatoes, melons, and eggplants in the height of summer, and enormous squash and sweet root veggies in fall. (And soooo many other crops — snap peas, strawberries, herbs, and flowers. Our farm grows over 200 varieties of fruits and veggies!)
But it’s important to note that not all CSAs work the same way. CSA farms charge varying fees and structure the way members get their vegetables differently; some deliver weekly boxes, while others allow members to come out and choose their own vegetables.
This is an important feature to note — many people don’t realize that they have a choice in what comes home each week. Being able to choose is very important to me, so when sweet peppers come in I can get a ton of those and skip some of the other veggies our family is less wild about.
WHY JOIN A CSA?
If you love fresh local produce and don’t like spending a fortune on it, a CSA share is an incredible way to make the healthiest, freshest food affordable.
Our CSA farm, (like a number of other CSAs near me) has several crops that members can pick themselves, like cherry tomatoes, strawberries, herbs, green beans, and snap peas. Depending on how much is in the field, we get to take a pint or a quart, or as much as we can use (unlimited strawberries, herbs, and cherry tomatoes–A-MAAAA-ZING!!!!). I pick and dry large quantities of herbs like thyme and oregano for use in winter, and use the bountiful cilantro all season long.
Each summer I spend most of a day picking, washing, and prepping basil to become little jars of pesto we enjoy all winter. Bags of roasted cherry tomatoes and sliced bell peppers come out of the freezer to top winter pizzas, and frozen ratatouilles are lovely reminders of summer. (Here’s the mouth-watering easy ratatouille I make in huge quantities once the eggplants start rolling in.)
Here in Minnesota, where winter is 5 or 6 months long instead of the 3 our calendar claims, these tasty treats are an important part of my coping strategy.
Here’s what to know about getting started with beginner food preservation projects to extend your local food season.
HOW TO FIND A CSA NEAR YOU (& CHOOSE THE RIGHT CSA FOR YOU)
You can find local CSAs by searching at localharvest.org. Then you can call (or better yet, visit during the season) to find out how each farm’s share works.
I highly recommend going to check out a CSA pickup day before the growing season ends so you can get a good sense of how the farm you’re considering works. I often bring friends curious to check it out, and they pretty much always choose to join. Ask around and see who loves their CSA. Ask to come along on a pickup day to get a tour and learn how the CSA share works.
One enthusiastic new CSA convert reported she has become so enamored of the incredibly fresh carrots from her farm share, she was eating more vegetables than she ever thought possible, and her friends had noticed she looked healthier as a result. She felt healthier, too.
The CSA model is now being applied to all sorts of farming, including cheese, eggs, honey, meat, and herbs, so you might find that you can get even more of your food from local sources.
Most people find that they save money on produce, get higher-quality, fresher food, and learn about new foods and ways of cooking them when they join a CSA.
SOME OF THE MANY BENEFITS OF A CSA SHARE
- Unbelievable quantities of delicious, fresh, local, organically-grown fruits and veggies.
- Visiting the farm where our food is grown every week is a treat for the senses and an education for my kids. They pick their own food from the fields, and know that food grows in dirt. (Apparently lots of kids don’t!)
- Knowing the people who grow our food and hearing about how they do it has been an eye-opening and enriching experience.
- I learn about new varieties of fruits and vegetables and get tips on how to use them. Open Hands is where I first tried groundcherries, where my daughter discovered that she loves eating pea flowers, and where I learned about making kale chips. Their huge, potent garlic is what I use to seed my own homegrown garlic each season.
- A CSA share makes the highest-quality organic produce affordable. I can’t imagine how much all those cherry tomatoes and raspberries would cost if I bought them. Not to mention the bags full of basil and thyme.
- We cut way down on our foodprint. I love that so much of our food comes from just a few miles away and that we are helping to support Erin and Ben’s efforts to make food production sustainable.
- There’s no packaging, a major plus if you’re working toward zero waste living. Here are more than 40 inspiring recipes for eating root to stem and minimizing the food waste from your farm share.
CSA farmers near you are happy to explain what they’ve got planned for their CSA. Go check them out and enjoy a summer full of delicious fresh food. Happy eating!
Thanks to Erin Johnson and Ben Doherty for these lovely pictures of their delicious crops!
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