Is a CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) Right for You?

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The following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Melissa Batai. Melissa is a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from personal finance to business to organics to food.  She blogs at Mom’s Plans, where she shares her family’s journey to healthier living and paying down debt.
There is a myth that organic produce costs more than conventionally grown produce.  While that can be true, especially if you are shopping at a store like Whole Foods to buy your organic produce, it doesn’t have to be true.
Our family is on a tight budget, but when we tried organic produce, we found that it tasted better than the conventionally grown counterparts, and we liked that it was grown in a more natural way.  When I expressed this on my blog, my blog readers advised me to buy a CSA share, and I am so glad they did!

What Is a CSA?

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  Basically, you buy a share of a local farmer’s crop for the year, and in return, the farmer gives you produce every week, usually beginning in early June and running through mid-October. 
Farmers offer different share prices.  A small share is cheaper and is usually meant for one or two people.  A large share is meant for a family and costs more.  (Costs vary around the country.) 
In general, subscribing to a CSA will save you a significant amount of money on organic fruits and vegetables.  This past year, we subscribed to two CSAs, and we got enough produce to not only feed our family every week for 20 weeks but to allow me to cook extra meals to freeze and serve in the fall and winter.  I still have over 25 freezer meals made from CSA ingredients to feed my family this winter, and the CSAs only cost us about $45 a week.  That is a great way to stretch a dollar!

Where Can You Find a CSA?

I found my CSA last year through Local Harvest.   Simply enter your zip code, and you will find the farmers offering CSAs in your area.  Our area has 59 farms to choose from!  Each farm has a rating based on 1 to 5 stars, and you can read individuals’ reviews of the farm and service.  The farmers also state a little about  their farm.
My husband and I narrowed our choices by selecting farms that had a close delivery location and that delivered fruit in addition to vegetables.  We also wanted one with good reviews.

How to Find Out More

When you choose a CSA, you are essentially married to that grower for the entire season.  You want to make the choice wisely.  If you have narrowed your list down to a few choices, call the farms and ask questions.  Some questions you might want to add include:
-How clean are your products when they are delivered?  (This might sound silly, but the first farm that we subscribed to, I’ll call Farm A, didn’t clean off any of the produce before delivery, and I had to deal with a muddy mess of vegetables every week.  I was not impressed, and that is the main reason we won’t subscribe to their produce CSA next year.)
-What variety of vegetables do they offer?  Are there vegetables that will be in the delivery frequently?  (Farm A delivered beets to us almost every week.  The charm quickly wore off.  However, the second farm we choose, Farm B, always offered a nice rotation of produce.  Finding the same item in the basket two weeks in a row was a rarity.)
-How large is the delivery?  Although it is hard to state based on the different sizes of vegetables, try to get a rough idea of how much food you will get.  (Farm A often delivered plenty of herbs, but not enough vegetables, which is why we also subscribed to Farm B.)
-Does the farm take advantage of social media?  Some farms keep blogs and post Facebook updates.  Others don’t.  (Farm A had an active blog and always wrote about what was happening on the farm as well as what we could expect in our baskets each week.  I loved this aspect of their CSA.  Farm B, on the other hand, rarely updated their Facebook page, and I never knew what I would get in the basket each week.  Sometimes I didn’t even know what some of the more unusual vegetables in the basket were!)

What Are the Risks with a CSA?

Subscribing to a CSA is not like going to the grocery store.  When you buy a share, you assume the same risk as the farmer.  This summer, the Midwest suffered from a drought, and Farm A definitely had some difficulty.  They were able to still supply us with vegetables, but there wasn’t as much variety as usual, and the supply wasn’t as plentiful.  Several CSA farmers around them had to stop deliveries.
Of course, this type of situation is not that common, but knowing that you do assume some risk and may not get what you bargain for is important.

Other Types of CSAs

There are many types of CSAs besides fruits and vegetables.  Some farmers offer meat CSAs as well as offering eggs, jams, and honey.
We also got a meat CSA from Farm A, and we love it.  All of their farm animals are free to roam the farm and eat a wide variety of foods, including grass.  I can’t tell you how much better the meat tastes.  We will probably never buy meat from the grocery store again.
If you would like to eat organic, locally grown food more often, a CSA is definitely the way to go, and the cost savings can’t be beat.
Have you subscribed to a CSA before?  If so, what was your experience like?

    ***Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/48424574@N07/5041040139/

    Comments

    1. I joined a CSA for the first time this past summer. The experience was good even though being from the Midwest we were hit pretty hard by the drought. We also were able to get a pretty good price. I personally liked it and intend on doing it again next year. I also want to complement my CSA by expanding my own garden. This was my first garden and I had no idea how much I actually enjoyed taking care of it and watching it grow. It was kinda therapeutic.
      My recent post Did I Mention I Only Post My Own Photos?

    2. Ian–We grew a garden this year, too. Ours was little, but the kids really enjoyed watching it grow and eating foods they helped grow.
      My recent post Flash Savings Update, Week #1

      • Yeah, mine was small as well. I built an 8ft x 4ft raised bed with landscaping timbers, it actually was pretty cheap. I'm thinking about adding another one next year. The best part was being able to go into the yard and snip greens for salads and eat them right away. They grow back pretty fast too!
        My recent post My New Mental Trick To Help Me Save Money!

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