So you’re ready to break free from grocery store aisles and sink your teeth into local food? Great, you won’t be disappointed! As the farmer behind a multi-season CSA (community-supported agriculture) program, I have some considerations to help you find the right CSA (or farm share, as it’s also known) for your needs:
What do you like to eat? Maybe you’re a squash-tomato-pepper household, or you prefer greens, cabbages and hearty root vegetables. While a CSA program usually lasts one season, many farms offer more than one season. Start with a season whose foods you love most. Also, think about your time. If travel plans or activities keep you away from home during a particular season, a CSA share (or perhaps the size of your share) might not be the right fit. CSA goods sometimes require a little more time and care on your part once the food gets home, such as storing greens properly and removing tops from roots before refrigeration. Don’t worry – the small investment of time yields dividends in flavor and healthful benefits.
CSA programs aren’t limited to fruits and veggies. Dairy products and meats may also be available from local providers. Increasingly, farms partner with other local producers or bakeries to expand offerings for regular shares or as add-on items.
Size and frequency
Whether your household consists of a large family or just you, consider what size share to purchase. Many farms offer a few options, and if you aren’t sure what’s best for you, just ask. Similarly, inquire about the frequency. Weekly is common, but some producers offer biweekly plans. If such options aren’t available, try splitting the CSA with a friend or neighbor. You can alternate weekly with who gets the share, or divvy up its contents. (Just remember, though, there may not always be multiples or even numbers of each item in a given box.)
Location, location, location
This is big. While as a farmer I recommend on-farm pickup (because that’s where the real connection happens), the bottom line is to get the food into your hands (and bellies). I always suggest visiting the farm first regardless, and even if it can’t be a weekly trip for pickup, occasional visits are always eye-opening and an opportunity to engage. During the season, we ensure pickup days are a not-to-be-missed destination, offering opportunities to pick berries and gather eggs, as well as special treats, music and gatherings. If you aren’t able to make it to the farm, look for a CSA with other convenient pickup locations or even delivery. And once you’ve selected a program, put pickup and delivery reminders on your calendar and sign up for emails and alerts. We don’t want to miss getting delicious goods into your hands or going to waste.
Fit and values
As consumers, we choose where to put our dollars. Eating local is an immediate reinvestment into your community and provides the opportunity to select a farm or producer that aligns with your priorities and values. Is the farm certified by any national agencies, or does it adhere to particular practices and standards? Not all food (even local) is created equal, and that’s okay. Learn the differences between terms such as natural, chemical-free and organic, or free range and pasture raised, and ask yourself what matters to you. While small producers might not go through accreditation (it’s certainly not a deal breaker), inquire about where they get their seeds, their growing methods and the food-handling practices. As a producer, we choose to be certified both organic and for GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) standards, meaning we follow stringent (and monitored) practices from seed to fork, making it clear to our consumers how we operate.
CSAs come in varying forms. Before jumping in, evaluate what you’re looking for and then spend some time finding the right match. Don’t know where to start? Ask around, visit your local farmers market to see if vendors offer CSA programs or look online (www.localharvest.org is a good place to start). Making the change brings unmatched flavor (your tastebuds will thank you) and allows you to connect to your community and plate in entirely new and more meaningful ways.