Sunday, February 6, 2011

How to Pick the Right CSA for You

Truffula Seed Produce fields
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a popular and growing business model that allows consumers to become more connected with their local farms and the food they eat. We are just entering into the registration time for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangements. A lot of people I talk to find the notion of CSAs intriguing, but unfamiliar and sometimes confusing. Like my post a few weeks ago about buying local beef, I'm hoping this post will help connect readers with farms that will lead to a positive experience.

First and foremost, CSAs serve as a means for farmers to receive funding to help offset early season costs. Many consumers are led into a CSA with the concept that it is pre-paying for bargain priced produce, and that is simply not the case. Others find themselves overwhelmed with the produce they've signed up for by the middle of the season.  It's important to understand exactly what the arrangement is that you are joining and also what kind of variety exists within the CSA model, so that you can figure out what will work best for your situation.

The primary advantage of joining any CSA is to actively support local farming at the time of the year when farmers are most vulnerable - the end of Winter through early Spring. You might ask, well, what's in it for me? I'd say, you're supporting the local economy on the cycle that is necessary for it to thrive. Access to early financing is what makes local sustainable farming possible, and it is what brings that food to the local farmer's markets in the Summer. Beyond that? Many people join CSAs for the convenience. Instead of committing to a weekly market visit, where they may arrive just a little to late and find the stands bare, they are guaranteed a box of fresh picked produce. You might scoff, but I have indeed arrived at the market on more than one occasion to find slim pickings. A lot of people also enjoy the forced variety of a CSA membership. In most cases, the farm will provide you with a bag or box of what's in season right then. It could well contain produce you've never seen or heard of before. This Winter, our family ate its first celeriac through a CSA.

Farms might grow things you've never seen. These long purple beans are from Truffula Seed Produce
A CSA arrangement challenges you to try different foods and think more about your meals. To help out, most farms provide recipes with the produce each week.  Many, but not all, farms also host special member events and offer opportunities, or even require a small commitment,  to volunteer on the farm during the season.  As a general rule, price itself is not an advantage. And this causes a lot of confusion. A "share" of a CSA rarely means that if they grow X heads of lettuce and have Y members, that each member gets X/Y heads of lettuce themselves. Instead, the funds raised through the CSA process offset the upfront costs of the farmer for seeds, compost, equipment, etc. early in the season, and are repaid in equivalent produce during the Season. The extra produce grown by the farm is then available for sale at markets. The CSA memberships alone do not provide an adequate farmer income; just do the math. Small farms can have upfront costs in Winter and Spring in excess of $20k.

These are the reasons people often tell me they joined a CSA:
  • I wanted more local food because of "stuff" I'm learning about Big Ag (good reason!)
  • I wanted to support local farmers (good reason)
  • I thought I'd get discounted organic produce (not usually)
  • I thought I'd get new, unusual foods to try (depends on the farm)
  • I'd be forced to try new things (depends on the farm)
  • I wanted organic food (depends on the farm)
  • Convenience (good reason)

These are reasons people often tell me they left a CSA:
  • Too much food (that can happen), 
  • Too much zucchini or squash (that happens often)
  • Too little food or unhappy with quality (rare)
  • Wanted more control of their produce selection (depends on farm)
  • Want to participate in the market environment and mingle
  • Didn't like to drive to pick up at a set time/day
If you pick the right CSA for you, most of the time you can avoid these kinds of worries and end up a happy customer. 

How the CSA model works.

Some farms, like Green Akeys, leave members with choices
Farms advertise their CSA memberships in the January-March time frame and fill the slots on a first come, first serve basis. In most, but not all, cases you will have to pay the entire season membership before it begins. I have seen a few farms that ask for half upfront and half mid-season. In almost all cases, the farm will offer a certain number of weeks and a share of a certain value. Typically, you will see things like a 20-week share with $20/week of produce. So, your cost this Spring would be $400 and sometime in late Spring you would have your first pick up. The number of weeks and size of shares does vary extensively, and this is something you want to consider. For instance, Truffula Seed Produce is offering 22-week shares this year, starting in early June and running until early November.  They are also offering three sizes of shares. On the other hand, Everblossom Farm is running for 25-weeks (mid-May through mid-November), but only offers one share size. The costs of shares varies somewhat within the range of $20-40 for a full share. Many farms offer half shares.

Once the season begins, you'll pick up your produce either at the farm or a designated meeting spot each week. You'll want to check out what the pick up days are, they vary. Most of the time, farms can not accommodate alterations to that schedule, so if the pick up day is Wednesday, you are really expected to pick up Wednesday. Some farms offer two pick up days. Most also specify a time slot of several hours, during which you need to pick up your goods. Another important thing to consider is vacations. Generally speaking, you will have to either find someone else to pick up your share while you are out of town or forfeit the produce. You won't get a discount on the CSA for missed weeks.  These kind of details are things you want to get straight with the farmer now. I wouldn't be afraid to try negotiating some aspects that are important to you; these farmers are real people and not big companies, after all. But I wouldn't expect much ability to change what they've laid out for the very same reason. Some CSAs are really quite large, having memberships that exceed a hundred families, and it is highly unlikely they will change on request.
White Rose Farm prepares CSA shares

When you pick up, you'll receive stuff either in a reusable grocery sack or, more frequently, a 12"x12"x24" size produce box. In most cases, you'll be expected each week to return the boxes/bags from the previous week so they can be reused. How full will the box be? In the middle of the season, you can expect it to be very full. On the edges of the season, you may have half a box. It all depends on what is ready to eat. The farmer will do their best to provide fair market value as they promised, so it you have a $20 share, they will try to provide $20 equivalent to a farmer's market visit. Some farms will actually itemize the costs over the season to demonstrate the total value and,  in other cases, you might have $15 in value the first week of June but $30 in mid-July. From another perspective, the farm will try to put in each share the produce required for a family of four, eating veggies most nights.  The rest of the harvest for that week will be sold by the farmer at farmer's markets or farm stands. Often they will offer the extra produce first to the CSA members at pick up.  I only know of one variant to this scheme in Maryland, and that is Green Akeys Farm. In 2011, they are going to try a true share concept for their small CSA, in which members truly buy a portion of all the produce the farm harvests. Their members will be entitled to consume the full bounty, and will share in the risk/reward of the farm in that way.
Everblossom Farm Winter CSA pick up

Most farms will have the CSA boxes pre-filled for pick up each week. You drop by, grab the box, and away you go. But there are some variations. Some farms allow the member to pick from a set list each week and they partially fill their own box. So, you might have a list of fourteen things in season and be able to choose any ten. Or there might be a wide variety of winter squash, and you can choose any one. These arrangements are designed to help alleviate members frustrations with getting too little variety or too much squash. You might instead be able to get more green beans or tomatoes, say. These arrangements vary by farm and are often found with larger operations. Most farms will tell you upfront what they plan to grow for the season. Read that list carefully. If it only contains six items, you might end up with lots of squash or cucumbers.  I have seen farms in Central Maryland that allow the members to input during the seed buying time (now) to what they'd like to see grown. They take the members suggestions, usually for more heirloom type fruit, and grow a few rows of those items.  But these are all deviations from the standard arrangement, so you need to look around and ask questions. In most cases, the farmer will fill the box fairly with what's ripe and have it ready to go when you arrive.

If you think that a full box sounds like too much food, or too much money, or you want to go to the market, many farms do offer half shares. Some farms also offer reduced prices for volunteering in the fields during the season. If you want to get your hands dirty, this is a great way to do that. Green Akeys does volunteer hours for a reduced rate, and Kayam Farm in Reisterstown actually offers a work share option, which has a $50 registration and 50 hours of work requirement in return for a 26-week share of produce.

What to consider in choosing a CSA. 

Some Farms, like White Rose Farms, offer more than produce
When considering a CSA, it's fair but may not be that useful to ask about return members. National statistics show that somewhere between 40-60% of membership turns over in CSAs each year, presumably for the reasons that I listed earlier.  I would say that a farm that has a much higher membership loyalty, or a much lower one, is doing something out of the ordinary (good or bad). But, for the most part, if 50% of their members decided not to renew, that's not unusual. It seems to be the natural cycle of this business model.

Definitely look at the number of weeks, the cost per week, and think seriously about your families food habits. Ask them what they are growing. Many farms provide a list of week-by-week examples of what to expect to help consumers, as Kayam does here.  If you think you might get too much food, consider whether a family member, friend, or colleague might share a share with you. Also, most produce can be "put up" for the Fall and Winter season without too much work. You don't have to necessarily deal with boiling glass jars. Got too many tomatoes? Toss them in the freezer, as they are.  They'll be fine for sauce later.

If you care about organic practices, ask. Not all local CSAs are growing organically. They might avoid pesticides, but use non-organic fertilizer, for example. Also, people have varying irrigation methods and systems. You might ask how they faired in last year's drought. The quality of their soil is going to greatly impact the quality of their harvest. The best local organic farms I know are putting very large quantities of compost into the soil to provide nutrients at the start of the planting season.

Many farms are now joining forces to provide the consumer with a multi-faceted CSA membership, or are offering more from their own farm. They might offer egg, meat, or even flower shares, in addition to produce. This gives you a convenient way to get more shopping done each week. Some farms offer their own honey in the late season, like Ceilidh Meadows Farm in Finksburg. This year, Truffula Seed Produce is joining with several farms to offer that broad set of memberships, and Green Akeys is offering chicken and eggs from their own farm.

You probably should also ask about the size of the CSA. This is a personal preference. A smaller CSA may offer more connection with the farmer, but in many cases, it will also offer less variety of produce. You have to check. Many of the farms also host membership BBQs at the farm or other social event to bring folks together at the farm. Farms like White Rose Farm in Taneytown have a monthly event calendar, as being part of the farm is central to their philosophy.

I often get asked about whether I am a member of a CSA. I have been, but last Summer, I chose not to join a CSA. This Winter we've been a member of a Winter CSA, as I've described on the blog, and it was a fantastic decision. I have not yet decided what to do this year. The CSA is not the perfect business model for me. I am happy to pay upfront, but I like the farmer's market environment (hough I hate arriving to no produce). And I like control of my menus. When I want to make pickles, I want a ton of cucumbers that week, not the week before or after.  What I'd personally like to see is a variation in the model where I pay early in the year for some kind of credits to use at the farm itself, or at the market, during the Summer Season. Doing that with a cooperative of farmers would be ideal, though complicated to execute. I personally think changes like this would reduce CSA membership turn over, but I've never seen any examples.

Still, I really think that membership in a CSA is probably the best introduction to someone new to the local movement.

What are your experiences? Do you have a CSA to recommend?

Here is information on several local farms that have released information on their 2011 CSA.  Several of these are farms that I have written a detailed profile of in the last year, which can give you a bit more about the character of the farm. All of the farms listed here use completely organic practices.

Of course, is an excellent resource to find others in your area.

Truffula Seed Produce (profiled by me here) in New Windsor is running a CSA for the first time. They are offering 22-weeks and three sizes of shares, with a Wednesday pick up in Westminster or at the farm. Truffula has also teamed up with other farms to offer egg, meat, bread, and flower shares, as well.  Their large size share does include a discount on the standard market price.

Nev-R-Dun Farm (profiled by me here) in Westminster is running a CSA for probably the 10th or 11th year. Tom is offering single size shares for 26 weeks at $20/share.

Green Akeys Farm (profiled by me here) in Westminster is offering ten shares of produce for $800 and 20 weeks. Based on what I saw last year, with this membership, you can expect a lot of food and a lot of variety, which explains the higher cost. They are unusual in that the members are entitled to the entire harvest of the farm. They also offer egg, chicken, lamb and beef shares. They offer a reduced rate for working at the farm some hours.

Everblossom Farm (our Winter CSA) outside Gettysburg, PA is offering a 25-week membership for $500. They also partner with other farms to offer a 21-week fruit share for $136 and an 18-week flower share.

Kayam Farm (not yet profiled) in Reisterstown is offering 26 weeks for $500 with over 30 varieties of produce. They also offer a work share option which provides food in return for 50 hours of volunteer labor on the farm. They require four hours of work from all members. This is a Jewish organic farm that I hope to profile in the coming weeks. I met them last Summer and was very impressed.

White Rose Farm (profiled here) in Taneytown has not listed their 2011 CSA membership yet, but last year they offered 20 weeks for $500.

Ceilidh Meadows Farm in Finksburg offers standard shares that include honey and eggs. I don't have their specifics for this year, but in the past they were about 20 weeks long.  They are my standard egg supplier, and like the rest of the farms listed here, a great family farm.

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop where you'll find a great variety of real food recipes, cooking experiences, etc. from around the world each week.


  1. Great blog, Renee! I just came across it and find that you and I are working to spread a similar message.
    I added your blog to my list of recommended blogs (hope you don't mind) on mine:

  2. This is an excellent post! Thank you so much for sharing it with Feed Me Tweet Me Follow Me Home on Friday.

    We don't have CSAs in England, but I do shop regularly at Farmer's Markets, and I have a box of organic vegetables delivered most weeks from a company which sources them direct from the farms. It's so important to support your local or regional farmers if you can.

  3. Hi Renee! I am visiting you from feed me tweet me follow me home friday! I am now following your blog. It is so important for folks to support local agriculture! I belong to a dairy club to get raw milk and they also have organic produce grown by Amish folks and I love supporting them and their traditional way of life. I grow my own veggies so a CSA isn't appropriate for us, but I highly recommend it to anyone who doesn't have the space or time to grow! You can also share with a bunch of other folks to make it cheaper and less volumous (is that a word? LOL) if you need to. All the best, alex

  4. What a fantastic article! I really like your blog - lots of great info!

    Thanks for stopping by my blog ( and commenting, otherwise I may have never found your blog. I'm looking forward to exploring it some more and learning new things! I've been working hard at eating/purchasing local whenever I possibly can!