I have been both a summer and winter CSA member for many years, and there’s really nothing I don’t love about it. Since being a CSA devotee, the way I cook and eat has changed dramatically. Meals used to either require planning and shopping for specific ingredients, or they were an afterthought and not very inspired. I love the surprise element of CSA shares and find that cooking and food prep now feel something akin to a gratifying hobby or sport. What vegetables can I use up today? How many vegetables can I fit into this meal?! The result is fun, creative, and healthful. Interestingly, meals made from CSA veggies don’t have to be that elaborate to be amazing, because fresh-off-the-farm produce is incredibly flavorful on its own.
CSA stands for community-supported agriculture and refers to a seasonal or annual commitment to buying produce from local farmers. CSA members pay a lump sum at the beginning of the growing season for a weekly share in that season’s crop. Some growers offer both a summer and winter CSA, and they can be offered by one farm or a collective of farms. The arrangement is typically for vegetables, but separate CSA’s (or add-ons) for fruit, meat, cheese, eggs, bread, and other foods may be available. Typically, farmers will fill up a box for you each week with a variety of freshly- harvested vegetables, and you pick it up at a convenient group location.
A summer CSA might run from June through October and be anywhere from $350 – $650 for the season. Cost can really vary from region to region. Half shares are often an option if you are just cooking for one or two people, or you could arrange to split a full share with someone to get your feet wet. At the end of the season, if you crunch the numbers on what you received, you will likely realize that you got a fantastic bargain compared to buying all those vegetables in the organic section of your grocery store. And you will have eaten a lot of vegetables!
Cost savings and budgeting The arrangement is nice for budgetary reasons because it provides predictability for both parties. Also, as the consumer, you are making an upfront commitment to that farm and, because farming has so many variables, stable CSA income helps minimize the farmers’ risk. What you receive and how much you receive will depend on the success of the growing season. You, as the consumer, will likely make out very well cost-wise when you consider the quantity and quality of the vegetables you received.
Reduced packaging and carbon footprint CSA’s connect consumers with their local farmers and eliminate the need for a grocery store middleman. Consequently, the produce is not grown to sit on trucks and be transported across the country. You might receive your vegetables within hours of harvesting, and because these farms are in your region, no semi-trucks are involved. Other than items such as fermented items or perhaps sprouts, there will be no packaging whatsoever. When you get your share home, spread it out on the kitchen counter to dry before storing it, as it will likely be a bit damp from rain or watering.
Community Relationships Your relationship with your growers may simply be a weekly email or newsletter from them, or there may be opportunities to pick up your vegetables at the farm or volunteer your time. Sometimes they offer a “u-pick” invitation or host a meal with a volunteer time component. Getting to know the farmers in your area, and supporting them, is an enriching and educational experience for the whole family.
You may have goals of cooking more whole foods and eating more veggies, but becoming a CSA member is not the only way to achieve those goals and may not be the right strategy for you. For example, if you are an avid vegetable gardener, or enjoy the routine and benefits of a farmer’s market, joining a CSA may be overkill. Also, if you enjoy eating out several nights a week, you may feel like the vegetables at home are a burden.
On the other hand, depending on your personality and habits, a CSA may help you stay on track with your goals because it’s a commitment you make once at the beginning of the growing season. If you’re still unsure if a CSA is right for you, or know the quantity will be too much for your household, sharing your first CSA with a friend, neighbor or housemate is a great solution. That way, you can also share ideas and successes. You will likely find, that the first time you unpack that CSA box (and every box after that), you will instantly be infatuated by the colors and their beauty, and your creative wheels will start spinning. And, remember, you’ll have Vinegar Home to help you figure out how to utilize those veggies!
If you live in the Ithaca area or the Finger Lakes region of New York, hop over to How to Find A CSA in the Finger Lakes region of New York.