A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture or Community Shared Agriculture) allows city residents to purchase a “share” of fresh seasonal produce grown by a local farmer. Shares are delivered weekly or biweekly and contain a variety of vegetables from that week’s harvest – usually picked that day or the day before!
CSAs help farmers because members typically pay for an entire season upfront, giving the farmer necessary funds to purchase tools, seeds and equipment s/he will need during the growing season. By purchasing a share, you also accept some of the risk that comes with farming – for example, a tough season like we had this summer with many regions experiencing drought may change what vegetables you receive. However, it’s been my experience that farmers who run CSAs do whatever they can to keep their customers happy and will substitute other produce or extras if expected crops aren’t doing well.
Here are 10 reasons why I think CSAs rock and why you should join one:
1. Know how your food is grown. This is what first attracted me to CSAs. I wanted a better understanding of how my food was grown and the ability to ask questions of the person who grew it. I found my answers in a CSA.
2. Opt out of the factory farming system. Even if you aren’t concerned about pesticides or chemicals on your food, you might have other concerns with factory farms. How are the workers treated? What proportion of the price goes to the farmers versus lining the pockets of rich executives? How far away did the food come from? CSAs provide an alternate option.
3. Save time. Fewer trips to grocery store. Less time spent trying to decide what vegetables to buy this week. It all comes to you!
4. Save money. I’ve done some rough math and concluded that getting organic produce from a CSA saves money compared to buying similar produce from the grocery store. However, prices vary so savings will depend on your current buying habits (see below for more info on the cost/value trade-off). In addition, CSAs will sometimes offer cheaper bulk pricing when a given vegetable is in peak season.
5. Support your local economy. Food dollars spent on a CSA stay within the local economy rather than supporting large multinational chains that are based in other jurisdictions or possibly even other countries. Cutting out the many middle men means more money goes directly to farmers.
6. Become a better cook. Before joining a CSA I had never cooked a turnip. I didn’t know what to do with kale or chard or collards. Preserving tomatoes had never crossed my mind. I can now proudly say I have learned how to do all of those things plus many more. Especially when I first joined, my cooking skills were challenged each week as I learned to cook new vegetables.
7. Break out of a food rut. Being part of a CSA is like getting a surprise gift every week! We rush home to find out what strange and interesting vegetables have been delivered for our eating pleasure. I guarantee you’ll get something you’ve never tried before, in particular if your CSA grows heirloom vegetables.
8. Eat healthier. Food that is eaten closest to when it’s harvested not only tastes better, but it’s healthier too. Not only that, but with your fridge full of delicious fresh veggies each week, it forces you to eat more and a wider variety of vegetables than you otherwise might.
9. Save the environment. Eating food produced locally means fewer food miles traveled from field to fork and less use of fossil fuels. Plus small farmers are more likely to use agricultural methods that nourish the soil and are kinder to the earth.
10. Build community. I don’t know how else to phrase it, but I get a warm and fuzzy feeling by talking to the farmers who grow my food. Getting to know the people involved makes me feel more connected to and engaged in my community.
Now that I hopefully got you excited to join a CSA next year, how do you choose one? Most urban areas that have sufficient agricultural land nearby have CSAs popping up all over. Here are some things to consider when making your choice.
Organic vs. conventionally grown: Organic is generally more expensive. Is it certified organic (and does it matter to you?)
Size of baskets: Do they offer various sizes of baskets/shares to choose from? Does their one-size-fits-all basket fit the needs of your family? Do you have the option to upsize or downsize during the season if your needs change? [TIP: If the one-size basket offered is too large, ask a neighbour or friend to split it with you.]
Payment methods and schedule: Do you have to pay for the full season up front or can you split it over multiple payments? Keep in mind CSAs are usually small businesses so many only accept cash or cheque, but you may also have the option to pay using PayPal or credit card.
Length of season: Here in Eastern Ontario, CSAs generally deliver from June to October, but there is some variability in the number of weeks offered by each. One in my area even delivers year-round by storing root vegetables, using greenhouses to increase the growing season and occasionally bringing in produce from ethical farms in more southerly climates.
Variety: Most CSAs will give you an idea of what they grow each season. Heirloom, exotic, or more common produce? Vegetables are standard, but some also include herbs, fruit, flowers, honey, eggs, meat or bread. Sometimes these are available as add-ons to your basket that you pay extra for.
Pickup vs. delivery: Do they deliver to your house, a centralized location, or do you pick up your basket at the farm? Does the delivery day/time work for your schedule?
Price/value trade-off: Prices can vary widely, and all of the above factors will influence the price. Some CSAs also offer discount pricing for returning members.
Although CSAs generally start recruiting in late winter or early spring, it’s never too early to start researching. Many farmers also sell excess produce at farmer’s markets, so now would be a great time of year to meet the farmers, try some of their produce and ask them about their CSA.
If you’re in the Ottawa area, Just Food allows you to filter CSAs by a variety of variables: http://www.justfood.ca/buylocal/
For elsewhere in Canada, USC Canada has a list of directories of farmer’s markets and CSAs across the country: http://usc-canada.org/storyoffood/what-you-can-do/