The growing season is exciting for our family. Every Saturday morning we head to the farmers market and pick up a bushel basket of fresh (and I do mean fresh) produce. The great thing is, we already paid for this amazing bounty back in January!
For twenty-five weeks, from mid-May to late-October, we feast on the best gifts that the land has to offer, knowing that we are helping sustain a small family farm and that we are eating produce that was growing in the field just a few hours before we received it.
How is this possible?
We are members of a CSA – and have been for well over ten years now. In this article, I’ll explain what a CSA is, give you tips for finding the right one for your family, and show you why I believe it can help you shave hundreds of dollars off of your food bills every year.
I’m using my CSA share each week as the basis of my $50 weekly menu plans. Thats’ right! I’m feeding my family of six for no more than $200 a month! You’ll find all of my menus under the “$50 menu” tab.
What is a CSA?
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Local, small, family farmers sell a specified number of “shares” early in the year to help raise funds for seeds and supplies. In return, members pick up their share of the harvest each week for the length of the growing season.
The contents of the baskets vary according to the CSA. Some provide, fresh-baked breads, jams or jellies, meat, eggs, or dairy in addition to fruits, vegetables, and herbs. The length of the shared period and size of the basket also varies. Some sell early spring, summer, or fall subscriptions, in addition to small, medium, or large baskets.
Basically, most of the time you can tailor the basket to perfectly suit your family’s needs.
How do I find a CSA?
CSAs can be found in nearly every community. You can begin your search on the internet with www.localharvest.com, an organization dedicated to connecting people who want to buy food directly with the farmers who grow it. The USDA also has a directory which you may find helpful.
However, without a doubt, the swiftest way to find a local CSA is by looking in your community. Farmers markets often have vendors who offer their own weekly CSA box. Local health food stores know exactly who is selling shares and often have a bulletin board with helpful information. A quick poll of your friends, neighbors, co-workers, or fellow parishioners is sure to turn up several leads for you.
What should I look for in a CSA?
You need to find one that matches your family’s needs. If you have a large family, then find a farmer who offers large boxes of bounty. In the same way, if there are just two of you, looking for a “small” or “mini” share option would be right for you.
If you are vegan, like me, you would need a box which does not contain meat, eggs, or cheese. Generally, these items are “add-ons” anyway. But, you need to be sure you know what you are getting before you order.
What questions should I ask?
The answer to this question depends on who you are talking to.
If you are addressing the farmer you need to ask:
- Do you use or sprays or pesticides on the fields?
- What methods do you use to insure pests are kept at bay?
- What types of crops do you grow?
- Do you use crop rotation to insure optimum health of the soil?
- What cover crops do you plant in the winter?
- Is your entire farm dedicated to growing for the CSA or just a portion of it?
- Do you have hoop houses and if so, how many?
- Are your hoop houses heated?
- How many years have you been farming?
- How many subscriptions do you sell?
- How many subscription options are there and what are the differences between them?
- If my family doesn’t care for something in the box do you allow substitutions?
- How many pick-up days of the week are offered and how many locations?
- Can I switch the date and/or time if it doesn’t wind up working out for me?
- What is your policy on vacations or missed pick-ups?
- Do you offer any extras? (Like a Facebook group or weekly recipe posts?)
- Can you give me references?
If you are addressing your friends or a co-worker, ask:
- Have you been satisfied with the volume, quality, and assortment of your weekly boxes?
- What has the general attitude of the farmer and his/her staff been with you?
- Have you been able to make substitutions?
- Has there been a variety in your basket?
- Have there been any items that you found to be “exotic” or unusual?
- Has your farmer communicated with you regularly and notified you promptly of changes?
- Have you been offered any advice on storage, preparation, or preservation of the products?
What can I expect to pay?
The cost varies by the length of the contract, the size of the box, and the contents of your share. You need to keep in mind that the true calculation is to divide the total amount that you pay up front by the number of weeks that you will receive your baskets.
Every year, I divide the amount of our yearly share by twelve. Then, I insert the average into our monthly budget, saving 1/12th. In this manner, by January I have the entire amount in a sinking fund, ready to pay for the next season’s CSA membership.
If you are members of a CSA, drop a note in the comments section and tell me what you like most about your experience.