The markets are flush with gorgeous produce. Instagram feeds are exploding with colorful strawberries and asparagus and greens galore. Maybe some of your friends have started picking up their CSA boxes and you're thinking: Hey! I want my piece of produce paradise every week. I should join a CSA!
Well, I am sorry, but I've got some bad news for you. You're probably too late. And there's a good reason why you can't join a CSA in the springtime.
What's a CSA, and When Should You Join?
CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, involves you, the consumer, becoming a stakeholder in the farm for one season. Many if not most CSAs require that shareholders join in the fall or winter of the previous growing season, and the best ones fill up quickly.
There's a reason why this early buy-in is important. Your early payment for a share helps defray the expenses of a season of farming, whether that's seed or equipment purchasing, heating a greenhouse in the winter, or the very human cost of paying employees — assuming a farm has some on the payroll. Most importantly, CSAs enable farmers to farm sustainably — and we're not just talking about the soil: CSAs keep many small farms in business.
Think of your CSA payment as a Kickstarter-style investment in a farm's growing season!
The Story of One Farm's CSA
After farming in Oregon, Tom Murtha and Tricia Borneman started Blooming Glen Farm in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, 10 years ago exclusively as a CSA. Their certified organic farm now boasts about 350 members in its CSA. Gradually, Blooming Glen has added farmers markets and wholesale clients to diversify their business, but the CSA is irreplaceable. "It eases some of the financial strain," Tom explains. "You have a lot of fixed costs up front — seeds, fuel, and labor — and it's a lot of capital to put out in the dead of winter, with no cash flow in return until May. Most farmers have to take out big loans."
Read more: 10 Lessons I Learned From My CSA Share
With a CSA, consumers share some of that risk with the farm. Sometimes critters get at your carrots or kale before you — or your trusty farmer — can. Ultimately, Mother Nature controls the weather, and the produce flourishes — or suffers — accordingly.
Farmers are ingenious, proactive people, and make the best of what they're dealt with, season after season. They know you're counting on them to fill up those boxes. "You can't drop the ball. You need to be on top of your game," says Murtha, who says that offering CSAs "no doubt" makes him a better farmer.
What Do You Get from a CSA?
If you were indeed farsighted enough to sign up for a CSA last fall, what should you expect now? Depending on the size of your family (and your appetite for veggies) you usually have the option to select a half or full share. The cost will vary based on where you live, the length of the growing season, and what your region's farm economy is like, but you can expect to pay about $250 or more for a half share and $500 or more for a full share.
Read more: 5 Things to Do Before Your First CSA Pickup
Every week, you receive a selection of the farm's offerings; half shares usually have a biweekly pickup or a smaller weekly assortment, depending on the farm. Spring starts out very green, with lots of kale, spinach, and arugula, followed by turnips, radishes, carrots, and beets. The selections and quantity become more varied and ample as the season progresses — the challenge for some may be keeping up with all of that good stuff.
You can either pick up at the farm, have it delivered, or receive the items at some other pre-determined location. It all depends on the farm. If you are adventurous, open-minded, and sympathetic to the whims of nature, you will enjoy the process. If you'd rather pick out your own selection of veggies, herbs, and fruits every week, then a CSA isn't for you.
Some farms require a working component, which provides people with invaluable behind-the-scenes learning experiences — it can be a way to determine whether or not you might want to become a farmer. Blooming Glen, for instance, has a PYO (Pick-Your-Own) element to its CSA, with crops such as strawberries, cherry tomatoes, and flowers. If you want them, you have to go pick them yourself. "It exposes people to the farm and they can see how everything works," Murtha says.
Read the story of another farm CSA: My CSA Experience at Amber Waves Farm
That tangible human element is attractive, too; the word community is in there for a reason. "You are engaging people with your farm's story with a CSA. The impetus for us was to bring people into our story," says Murtha.
If farmers are skillful, and tell a good story, people will come back and join the CSA again. "It's such a cool and crazy thing, the CSA. It constantly blows my mind," says Murtha. "We are so grateful."
Just remember: the early bird gets the CSA!
Find a CSA Near You
To find a farm near you that participates in CSA, visit Local Harvest. Some may still have availability; you'll need to contact the farm directly. You may also encounter "veggie boxes" at farmers markets and farms, which are a no-commitment version of a CSA with a set price (usually $20-$30) for the week's harvest. Sometimes these are offered by third parties, or non-farms who aggregate produce and deliver them.