In recent years, community supported agriculture, or CSA, has become a popular way for people in urban areas to obtain fresh, high-quality, local produce.
It works like this: a person pays upfront ($360-$700) for a share of vegetables from a local farmer. Then, each week throughout the farming season, the person receives a portion of that share, in the form of a box of 7-10 assorted vegetables. It can be more or less, depending on what the farmer was able to grow.
Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest, an online community for CSA farmers, says CSAs have been around in the U.S. since 1984, but saw a surge in popularity around 2006-2007. “There was increasing awareness of the whole idea of ‘buying local’ and also some food safety scares that got more people interested in knowing where their food came from. I think around then their availability also reached a level where more people could get involved, and the word spread,” Barnett explains.
It’s tough to say exactly how far the word about CSAs has spread, however, because the U.S. government does not track CSAs. Still, Barnett estimates that roughly 800,000 American households subscribe to a CSA.
“The average size of the CSAs in our database is 100 members. We have about 5,500 CSAs listed with us and guess that that’s about 80% of the total [market]. Using those rough numbers, then, the total number of households served by CSAs would be about 687,000.” Barnett then accounts for the many CSA members who split their share with another family, which is how she arrives at a rough estimate of 800,000 households.
CSA’s are good for both members and the farmer. Members get fresh, locally-grown produce delivered to their doors, meanwhile the bulk, pre-season payments allow farmers to plan for the season, purchase new seed, make equipment repairs and more.
Would a CSA work for you?
But, while a CSA is a great idea, they aren’t for everyone. Consider the following when deciding whether to join a CSA:
Do you cook?
To be a little more frank, do you cook a lot? This is the most important question to ask, since a CSA provides you with a lot of food. This can be great for folks who love to cook, have big families or for homes with several roommates. A CSA might not work if you’re only the occasional chef, or a smaller household.
Are you open to trying new vegetables?
Life is like a box of chocolates…or vegetables you’ve never heard of, in the case of CSA boxes. Not everything will be foreign, but occasionally there will be something you have to Google. If you’re open to broadening your palette, a CSA is a great way to try new foods.
How will you handle excess produce?
Since CSAs provide you with an abundance of produce, you might not always be able to eat everything, and if you’re like me, you feel mountains of guilt for wasting food (curse you, wilting lettuce!). In fact, feeling bad about wasting food is the number one reason people don’t renew their CSAs, according to LocalHarvest.
So, if you were to end up with, say, too much okra, do you have a friend, relative, neighbor or coworker who’d be happy to take the extra produce off your hands? For instance, a former colleague of mine belonged to a CSA, and whenever she found herself with more food than she and her husband could handle, she’d leave the excess in a box in the staff kitchen with a “help yourself” sign. (I cooked up the best red potatoes I’d ever had thanks to her).
In short, make sure you have a way to waste as little of your CSA share as possible.
Are you willing to accept “shared risk?”
There is definitely a “buyer beware” component to CSAs. You are paying upfront for crops that have yet to be grown and harvested, during which time any number of things could happen, e.g. horrible weather, bad soil, equipment malfunction. Despite farmers’ best efforts, there is always a chance you’ll receive produce that does not meet your standards. However, it’s a chance all members take—some farmers even require members to sign a waiver—when making their bulk payment. The sense that everyone is in it together is what puts the “community” in CSA.
Interested in learning more about CSAs?
If you think a CSA might be right for you, check a few of them out. You can find a local New Mexico CSA at LocalHarvest.org.