Should You Buy a Farm Share? 10 Reasons to Join Your Local CSA
‘Community supported agriculture’ is a great way to connect with your food, save money, and support local farms.Posted Mar 31, 2017
Once a rarity, CSAs (short for community supported agriculture) and farm shares have taken off in the last decade. Why? Because CSAs offer a fantastic opportunity for both farmer and eater. Here’s how it works: Each season, CSA members pay a set fee for a “share” of the farmer’s harvest. The farmers have a guaranteed income, and members get piles of incredibly fresh produce at a very affordable price. If there’s a bumper crop, shares are larger, and if there’s a crop failure, they’re smaller, but farmers don’t have to worry about going into debt if weather or disease affects their harvest.
Our CSA farm share is one of our favorite things about summer. Every week we go to ‘our farm’ to roam the fields and snack on berries, peas, and tomatoes. We come home with bags filled with fresh, tasty greens, peppers, herbs, squash, and so much more. Our diet transforms as we gorge ourselves on vast quantities of delicious fruits and veggies grown with care by our amazing farmers, who have also become our friends.
Here are 10 terrific reasons to find a CSA and buy a farm share this season:
1. You’ll Enjoy the Freshest Food Imaginable
Fruits and vegetables in your share are picked just hours before you come to collect them or they’re delivered right to you. Your veggies don’t need to get shipped long distances or sit on shelves for days on end, so they’re at their peak flavor and nutrition. Friends I’ve encouraged to join CSAs discover that they didn’t know how good carrots actually taste. If you belong to a farm that includes pick-your-own crops, you can enjoy sweet, juicy cherry tomatoes and peas right off the vine! By eating with the seasons, you’ll enjoy the freshest, best-tasting food money can buy.
2. You’ll Know Where Your Food Comes From
When my farmers explain the origins of CSAs, they always mention the slogan associated with the movement when it began in Japan in the 1970s: “food with a farmers’ face.” Our current system of food production and distribution means more often than not we don’t know where our food comes from or who grew it. CSAs bring us into close contact with our farmers and their farms, connecting us to our food and what it takes to grow it. CSA farmers go into the business because they, too, want to be connected to those they grow for. One of the many pleasures of picking up your farm share is chatting with the farmers and learning more about their operation.
3. Your Farm Share Will Support Local Farmers
Small farmers growing diverse crops don’t receive government subsidies, and the possibility of bad weather and disease makes small-scale farming a financially risky business. Erin Johnson of Open Hands Farm in Northfield, Minnesota, says that the community and security offered by CSAs initially drew her to the model. While the CSA isn’t as lucrative as wholesale farming, Johnson says that sharing the risks with members make it “a great deal for farmers.” Having some assurance that a hailstorm won’t destroy their livelihood makes the endeavor more feasible. Paying ahead for a season’s produce also means the farmers have money to buy seeds and supplies before the growing season. I love knowing that my food dollars help support sustainable farming practices like those used by Open Hands.
4. You’ll Shrink Your ‘Foodprint’
If you’re used to buying produce at the grocery store, a CSA share at a farm near you can seriously cut the impact of your dinner. With no packaging and minimal transportation, your food gets to your table with a far smaller footprint than store-bought food. Just be sure to bring your own reusable bags and containers. Our farm keeps a supply of clean yogurt containers and produce boxes available for collecting cherry tomatoes, beans, and other goodies from the field.
5. You Can Save Money
CSAs are a win-win for farmer and consumer. The farmer has an assured income, and the consumer saves big on buying food. My farmers often ask, in an end-of-season survey, how much we’d pay for the same food at the store. It’s really a trick question, since you simply can’t buy food this good at the store! But if I bought the same types of organic food as I get with my roughly $15 per week farm share, I’d easily be spending double many weeks on less delicious food (even more on the weeks I get to pick containers full of berries and bags full of basil). If I had the time to devote to picking and preparing everything the farm offers, savings would be greater still.
Not all farms have pick-your-own crops, but those that do find that they can save a lot of labor by letting their shareholders go gather their own berries, beans, herbs, and flowers. Much of the cost when you buy a bunch of basil or a container of cherry tomatoes is labor. When you do the labor yourself, the farmers don’t have to charge for it. And most of us love picking (and snacking on) fresh-off-the-vine peas, beans, and other farm delights.
Note that your habits will affect how much you save. If you don’t stay on top of the food coming from the farm and it molders in the back of the refrigerator, your savings will be considerably less. If you don’t have time to collect the pick-your-own options, that will also affect your savings.
6. You’ll Eat More Vegetables
Our family splits a share with friends, and we still have trouble finding room in the refrigerator for it all. When your kitchen overflows with salad fixings, of course you’re going to eat more salad. We choose a lot of vegetables that we don’t need to cook to enjoy, so we happily snack on cucumbers, red peppers, carrots, and tomatoes to get through it all. What we’re able to buy at the store in the off-season simply can’t compare, and our vegetable consumption declines markedly when we’ve eaten up most of our farm food in December. Thankfully, we’ve usually put up some farm goodies to base meals on until the farm reopens in June.
7. You’ll Try New Things
Our farm grows over 270 kinds of fruits and vegetables! With that kind of variety, you’re bound to try new things. A CSA share may offer tomatoes in shades ranging from yellow to purple, several kinds of eggplant, squash, and hot pepper, as well as lesser-known vegetables like kohlrabi. Whether they turn up in a pre-selected CSA box or you choose them yourself, needing to figure out what to do with all this food leads to exciting kitchen adventures. Many farms send out newsletters with information about the crops and what to do with them. Since joining our farm more than a decade ago, I’ve perfected a ratatouille recipe; discovered that I love kale chips, garlic scapes, and groundcherries; learned to gather numerous medicinal herbs for tea; and mastered some basic food preservation techniques. Each summer I learn something new.
8. You’ll Make New Friends
When you’re out in the field munching and picking green beans for dinner, you’re bound to strike up a conversation with the CSA member doing the same further down the row. Members of our farm are always trading tips and recipes while they gather their bounty of produce. Invariably someone asks as another selects a gnarly celeriac root, “What do you do with that?” I’ve collected and shared more recipes than I can count while visiting the farm. When I run into other CSA members around town, we always greet each other warmly. If the season hasn’t started yet, we always share our eagerness for it to start up.
9. Your Kids Will Know That Food Grows in the Ground
Kids who’ve only seen carrots in plastic grocery store bags don’t realize they grow in the dirt. Visiting a working farm every week lets them see the labor and love that goes into growing healthy food. It’s incredible how much more willing kids are to eat vegetables when they get to pick them! Summer afternoons at our farm feature fields filled with kids eagerly plucking green beans, snap peas, and sungold tomatoes and popping them into their mouths.
10. You’ll Get More Than Vegetables
Many CSAs have flowers as well as fruits and veggies, as they want to attract pollinators as well as beautify their farm and delight their members. Some also have eggs, honey, meat, cheese, or prepared foods like sauerkraut or jams. You’ll also likely find numerous culinary and medicinal herbs.
Choosing a CSA or Farm Share
CSA models differ from farm to farm. Many present you with a pre-filled box, while others allow you to choose how to allot your share of the week’s harvest. Some include pick-your-own crops that can be an investment of time but offer incredible value. Some may even require some volunteer work as part of the share. Ask questions about how the share you’re considering is structured and talk to shareholders about how it works. If you’re a smaller household, you may want to inquire about buying a half share or splitting a share with friends. Visiting the farm during a share pickup is a great way to see how the CSA works.
Even if you grow some of your own food, a CSA can still work for you. As you get to know the strengths of your farm, you can tailor your own growing choices accordingly, focusing on things your farm doesn’t grow or doesn’t have in big enough quantities. The microclimate of your yard likely differs from that at your farm, which will affect harvest time. You can choose early or late varieties and stagger planting times to extend your season. I can never get enough strawberries or cherry tomatoes, so I focus on those. Mine are usually ready later and keep going longer than out at the farm. But I’ve stopped growing lettuce and slicer tomatoes since my farmers do it better, and I get more than we can eat from them.
CSAs will finish filling their share list as the weather warms. Find one near you in the database at localharvest.org. Then revel in a season’s worth of some of the best produce you’ll ever taste, and all the benefits that go along with supporting your local farmers.
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Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at HealthyGreenSavvy.com.