Considering a CSA? Information You Must Know - Modern Alternative Mama
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Considering a CSA? Information You Must Know

admin May 31, 2011

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By Adrienne Urban, Contributing Writer

Like many health-minded folks today, you may be considering a CSA as a source for your summer produce needs.

CSA is an acronym for Community Supported Agriculture — an arrangement where members pay for a share of a local farm’s harvest and receive a weekly portion of the farm’s produce.

Sounds like a great idea for health-conscious, frugal, community-loving, brown-thumbed persons like me!

By this time of year, most–but not all–CSAs are full.  But whether you are considering a CSA for this year or next, I have some thoughts on this topic.

Basically, CSAs run about $400-$600 for roughly 20 weeks of produce.  So you’re laying down a significant amount of money.  Not as much as most used cars, but still a nice chunk of change.

So before you go and commit to spend (because for good money managers, impulse buying is not a good thing, right?) let’s see what CSAs have to offer and what you need to think about before committing.

If I were playing Family Feud (remember that game?), I would list the top 3 reasons for joining a CSA as . . .

  • Exposure to a variety of produce
  • Potential for great value as you participate in possible bumper crops
  • Community building as you get to know your farmer and other CSA members (some CSAs even have special events and classes throughout the growing season)

Now, these are all great things!  But, like all things in life, a CSA’s greatest strengths can turn out to be its greatest weaknesses.

In fact, my family purchased a share in a local CSA two growing seasons ago, and we looked forward with great enthusiasm to our weekly harvests.  But there were a number of reasons why it did not work out for us as we had planned.  So while I am not saying that a CSA isn’t a good thing, I do think it’s a good idea to kick the tires before plunking down your money.

Possible Weaknesses of a CSA

1.  Lack of Control Over Produce Selection

First, and probably the main reason to think twice, is the lack of control over what you will receive.  Our family struggled with:

  • Overabundance of leafy greens
  • Odd and occasionally inedible items

Now, my family consists of pretty hearty vegetable eaters.  In fact, until recently, we were pretty much vegetarians.  My youngest requests salad greens on a regular basis (topped with our family’s favorite Homemade Moroccan Vinaigrette), and my husband is happiest when there is a HUGE serving of vegetables on his plate.

However, after a few weeks with our CSA, I felt nauseous just looking at greens.  Lettuce, swiss chard, kale, frisee, — you name it.  I just couldn’t bring myself to eat any more.  And while some of the food can be processed for the long term if you know what you are doing, some foods like salad greens don’t process well at all.

Also, there were items that either we just couldn’t stand!  Dill has always turned my stomach, and what on earth would anyone do with black radishes?  Now, my husband loves spicy foods.  And I mean LOVES.  But those radishes were so spicy that he wouldn’t touch them.  Now, from what I have read on the internet, some people eat them.  Maybe the variety that our CSA had was just “special” :-).

2.  Possible Hidden Expenses

At first glance, the prices that most CSAs charge seem quite attractive.  For example, one in our area is asking $425 for 20 weeks of organically grown produce.  That turns out to be $19 per week to feed a family of 2-4 people.  Seems reasonable, but if you happen to have low yields and/or a bunch of things you don’t care for, then you’d be much better off shopping the sales or bargaining for bulk purchases of things that you know that your family will eat over and over again from the farmer’s market.

And, if your CSA’s crop turns out to be a bust, you will end up having to make extra runs to the farmers’ market or store to supplement your CSA yield.  The value disappears dramatically when your CSA has a low yield.

3.  Too Close and Too Far For Comfort

Yes, the strength here can also turn out to be a negative.  How?  Well, on the one hand, you may find that what you thought sounded like a great opportunity turns out to be just one more thing that you don’t have time for.  Although we started out enthusiastically, we soon found that the weekly drive to the farm was one more long–and gas-consuming (another hidden expense!)–errand that we didn’t want to have to do.

(Note from Kate: We, too, did a CSA previously, but found that the cost of gas severely spiked the price.  In fact, it cost more in gas to make the trips to the farm than a local pick-up option — which cost more up front — would have.  Make sure you do the math on this stuff!  We also had the problem of “things we didn’t want” in the box, with foods we did prefer under-represented over all.  It turned out not to be worth it for us.  Different CSAs do have different options though, so that’s another thing to check out up front.  Sometimes it may be worth it for the experience alone — some farms expect you to work there — but that’s a call you’ll have to make for yourself.)

Also, since the CSA model is a bit different than a typical business, should something not go the way you expect, you may find that it is hard to have concerns addressed in a fashion typical of that with regular businesses.  In our area, I know of several tense experiences that people had with local CSA farmers.

So, in a nutshell, here are my thoughts on CSAs.

Consider your mindset and know-how regarding processing excess food or dealing with a shortage. Are you comfortable giving away extra produce or will that be tough if your family’s budget is already tight?  We ended up using our dehydrator frequently to process excess parsley, tomatoes and even zucchini!  Also make sure that you can afford to supplement your CSA yield if the crop yield is low.

Consider the offerings of the CSA.  Call and ask the farmers if their offering list is accurate.  Do you look forward to almost all of what is on the list, or do you wonder how you will get yourself and your family to eat such fare?

– Remember that the novelty of pickups can wear off quite quickly.  Make sure that your pickup location is close by, or plan to share the responsibility with another share owner.

Learn about your farmers.  Remember, you are committing to 20+ weeks of seeing these folks.  Get references and check the internet.  Learn how they treat their customers.

All of this whole food stuff is a process. Do what you can with your money and your time.  If a CSA doesn’t make sense for you, visit your local farmer’s market a bit more than last year.  Ask a lot of questions.  Or best of all, how about making a run at some real local food — in your backyard.  My brown-thumbed family members and I are going at it again this year.  And if you like it, Swiss Chard is a really easy crop to grow.  Drop me a line and I’ll give you a few tips :-).

Have you ever been part of a CSA?  Care to share your experience?

Adrienne Urban of Whole New Mom is a wife and a homeschooling mother of two boys, one of whom has Asperger’s and life-threatening food allergies.  In her past life she worked in the financial services industry and also taught in Japan.  She has a passion to help others navigate the sea of information on the road to healthier lives while trusting God for the results of their efforts.  Because she loves to (and can’t afford not to :-)), she specializes in frugal living and simplifying special diets (allergen-, gluten- and sugar-free).  You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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10 Comments

  1. While you do make some good points, I feel you are a little negative toward CSAs. I have had a CSA for three years and while there have been some ups and downs (one rainy season washed out several crops) overall we have been very happy. Ours is more expensive than your estimate, costing $900 for 25 weeks of certified organic veggies and fruit, but we purchased a half-share so we pick up every other week for half the price. Our CSA has a website where you can decline certain veggies (we hate the black radishes, too!) and swap them out for something else. But I agree with you that asking lots of questions and knowing what you hope to get out of it is important. One reason we switched to every-other week pickup was our frustration with having to be in town every Saturday all summer to do our pickup. One big bonus a CSA has over shopping a local farmers market (which is where I pick mine up) is that I can just run to my farmer's booth, pick up my bag and go on my way. The farmer's market is always a zoo on Saturdays so I can get in and out – no waiting in lines, or fighitng through crowds or making sure I have cash for purchases. You don't mention where to find more information for readers interested in a CSA. http://www.localharvest.org is a great resource for finding CSAs and farms in your area.

    Reply

  2. Excellent article. I bought an organic fruit/veg share in a CSA last summer. I did get to try some new varieties of produce, but I got a lot of things I didn't want and didn't get some of the things I did want. I felt like I had beets and corn every week, neither of which I like, but I got only one tomato and no lettuce at all. The fruit was fantastic, though, and so was the customer service. This year, I'll just choose what I like at the farmer's market so I have more control.

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  3. In general, I don't find that they're worth it. BUT I did join one time and they allowed 1/2 shares – which was perfect. They also allowed us to CHOOSE, at the pickup, between veggeis. So if you liked strawberries over kale, you could get double strawberries and no kale. But most don't work this way.

    I don't think I'd do it again. The farmers market is better for me.

    Reply

  4. I am doing a CSA for the first time this year. We've been doing it for about a month now and so far I love it. I started researching the area CSAs two years ago and tried to get into the one I chose a year ago but they were full. This year I got in and have really enjoyed it so far. I pay $16 a week and my share includes eggs or fruit (it's been strawberries the last few weeks which is awesome!) I think I am getting a great deal as this is an organic farmer. We also get a little bit of choice when we pick our veggies up. There are some things everyone gets and then there are other things that beget to choose between. overall it's been very nice especially since I just had a baby and don't have to grocery shop for this stuff every week. The pick up is close to my house so it's also convenient.

    We put all the greens we get into smoothies. It's the easiest way for me to get them into my toddler (and husbands) diet.

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  5. This is our 5th year of being in a CSA. I LOVE it. However, I know it's not for everyone. Here's an article I wrote: 10 things to ask before joining a CSA

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  6. Thanks for showing all sides! It seems like CSAs are always presented as 'the thing' if you really care about eating local and want a good deal.

    Any that I've researched in my area are definitely not a good deal for our family. One chicken/egg CSA I researched came out to twice as much as I normally pay for a whole chicken and almost three times as much for a dozen eggs. And that didn't even factor in gas for driving to a separate, farther drop-off location. Crazy! So I'll be sticking with my local farmers' market and farmer.

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  7. I agree with some of the previous comments that your article comes across as somewhat negative. We have been going to our local CSA for 15 years and we still love it. One thing I cannot stress enough is that our children don't take their food for granted. We "work" for five hours on the farm over the season so the kids appreciate that farming can be difficult work. We've had good seasons and bad seasons but there is always a bumper crop of something each year. What's bad for potatoes may mean a bumper crop for melons. We've always gone into the CSA knowing that we'll never get enough of the produce that our kids like the most, but we get creative with everything. Many CSAs make recipes available for using the produce.

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  8. I think you need to find a CSA that is right for your family which make take some time and effort. My family tends to be on the picky side (me included) and the CSA I did last year and will be doing again this year was FANTASTIC. I split my share which was the perfect amount for me. I preferred it greatly over the Farmer's Market and feel like I got a much better deal. I honestly cannot say enough good about my experience!!

    Reply

  9. Take my advice…NEVER join a NEW CSA!! We joined one that was 2 years old last year and got so little produce it wasn’t funny! We didn't even get many greens–and that is an item that is always in abundance. $400 and very little to show for it. (She admitted in an email that they needed to get better at estimating how much food they should allow per person).
    They advertised “enough produce for 4 people”—there are 2 people in our family and there wasn’t even enough for one person!
    Read reviews and talk to people to get recommendations BEFORE you join a CSA! I doubt that I will ever try a CSA again!

    Reply

  10. […] best purchase or not — or you don’t know what a CSA is — then head on over to Modern Alternative Mama where you can read my thoughts on the […]

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Hi, I’m Kate.  I love medical freedom, sharing natural remedies, developing real food recipes, and gentle parenting. My goal is to teach you how to live your life free from Big Pharma, Big Food, and Big Government by learning about herbs, cooking, and sustainable practices.

I’m the author of Natural Remedies for Kids and the owner and lead herbalist at EarthleyI hope you’ll join me on the journey to a free and healthy life!

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