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.