How to Choose a CSA

Know Thyself
Utterly fantastic idea though it is, community supported agriculture is not for everyone. Deciding whether or not CSA is for you requires a healthy dose of self knowledge. Some of us confuse how we are with how we would like to be. Not that there's no room for movement, but if you truly do not like vegetables, signing up to receive five to 20 pounds of them a week is probably not going to go well. When considering whether or not to join a CSA, there are a few questions that you might ask yourself. Be sure to answer for yourself and the people you live with since asking other people to change their eating habits is no small thing.

  • Do I like to cook and does my schedule allow me to make homemade meals most evenings?
  • Will it be fun to vegetables that are new to me?
  • How will I handle excess produce? (Do you have a neighbor who would like to get some if you get "behind"?) Feeling bad about wasting food is one of the top reasons former CSA members site for not renewing.
  • Am I willing to accept the unknowns involved in "shared risk"?

A note on that last question: implicit in the CSA concept is the idea that members share with the farmer the risk that some crops might do poorly due to bad weather, pest problems, and the like. With so many crops included in a CSA, it is expected that even if some languish, others will flourish and there will be plenty of food overall. Members pay the same whether it turns out to be a bumper year or a skinny one. One day soon I'll devote a whole article to "shared risk" and all that it implies about the human relationships in a CSA, but for now suffice it to say that if the possibility of receiving less than full market value for your vegetables makes you anxious, CSA may not be for you. Instead, you might choose to shop at a farmers market, where you can still get terrific fresh produce directly from the farmer, and you can pay for just what you buy.

Shop Around
If after some self-assessment you think you are a good candidate for a CSA, the next task is to choose a particular CSA. There may be only one or two to choose from, but if you live in a place where there are plenty of options, it is a good idea to take time to look around, because each farm varies in its particulars. For example, some CSAs require members to work a certain number of hours on the farm. (This is more common on the East Coast than elsewhere.) Most pre-pack the produce for you, but others have a mix-and-match or "farmers market style" system where members pack their own boxes and have a degree of choice about what is included or left behind. Some farms allow members to pay monthly; more common is a system of paying up front for the year. You may want to ask whether the farm provides all the produce itself, or if the farmer sometimes purchases produce from other farmers. If so, you might want to know which farms, where they're located, how much of the produce comes from them, and whether it is organically grown. The parameters of the contract may vary too. Be sure to ask how the farm handles situations where members are dissatisfied. Some will work with you and prorate a refund of your balance, while others have a strict policy against refunds. Still others don't have any policy at all, having never had a seriously dissatisfied customer.

It's all about not making assumptions, and having reasonable expectations ahead of time. Here's an example: if you assume being a CSA member means never having to buy produce at the farmers market or grocery store, you'll likely be disappointed. Most CSA members find that they have to supplement their produce, particularly fruit and oft-used items like onions. How much supplementation to expect is something you might reasonably talk about with the farmer before signing up. You're considering making a major investment: go ahead and ask a lot of questions before you join. Here's a short list to get you started, and more tips on choosing a CSA can be found here.

Caveat Emptor: Let the buyer beware
And now for the delicate part of the article. How can I put it? We at LocalHarvest spend a lot of time promoting CSAs because we think they're a great thing. And we feel it is important to acknowledge that some CSA farms have problems. As in every occupation, there are some stellar practitioners, some good ones, and some that are not making the grade. Filling members' baskets with a variety of beautiful vegetables, each at their peak, week after week, requires an advanced set of skills. It is not like having a big garden, and it is not for beginners. Most who do it well have been vegetable growers for some years, or have had a few years of training on an established CSA. It's a good idea to talk with the farmer about his/her training and experience. If this is the farm's first CSA season, are they starting small? (They should be.)

If your farmer is just starting a CSA, you may still want to join and be supportive – but again, it comes down to expectations. If you start the season knowing that part of what you are doing is helping a new farmer work out the kinks, you probably won't mind a few bumps. If you expect a first year CSA farmer to produce like a grower with 10 years of experience, you may be frustrated.

Finally, we highly recommend that you ask the farmer for references from past CSA members before you sign up. Or ask your friends for recommendations of a quality CSA. Or look the farm up in our directory and read any reviews that others may have written. If you do these things and still aren't convinced, wait a year. Shop at the farmers market in 2010 and ask the farmer if you can stop by the farm a few times throughout the season to peek in the boxes and see what the members are getting.

Last month we dug into our database and pulled out a lot of numbers. Here are a few more to back up our claim that most CSA members have really good experiences. We have over 3,000 CSAs listed in our directory. Members of 1,280 of these have written 2,895 reviews, describing their experiences. Of these, there are 211 reviews (of 120 farms) gave their farm one or two stars (out of five). Writers of the remaining 2,684 reviews gave their CSA four or five stars. The vast majority of people have a good experience with their CSA, and if you choose to join one this year we sincerely hope you do too.

Back to the February 2010 Newsletter