Still Searching for a CSA? Consider This...

For years, I would see a vegetable like okra or mustard greens in a grocery store and imagine what it would be like to make a delicious meal with such exotic ingredients. I was constantly promising myself that next week I would find recipes to fulfill my culinary fantasies. But as the weeks passed, it became obvious that I needed something else to get my creativity going. Fortunately, my fiancé knows me incredibly well, and he gave me a CSA subscription as a gift.

A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription is an investment in a farm through the purchase of a share of a farm’s yearly harvest. The most poplar model consists of only vegetables, but many farms have begun to offer additional products including fruit, meat, eggs, and even honey, by expanding their growing or partnering with other farms within the community. Since household sizes vary, many farms offer several sized shares to suit individual needs. Typical models require a commitment at the start of each year so farms can spread the uncontrollable risks of farming, such as weather and disease, across many investors. Younger farms also use this income as beginning cash flow at the start of each season.

Reflecting back on my first CSA subscription to Eatwell Farms in Northern California, I feel blessed to have begun with one of the best models I have found to date. We enrolled in a bi-weekly distribution, perfect for two people, made up primarily of vegetables, though it did include occasional fruit at peak season, or a surplus from neighboring farms. We also got a dozen eggs each week. We were regarded as part of a community in the largest sense of the word. We stopped by another member’s home on our designated pick-up day to get our goods, and we got to know other members through farm events like peanut-roasting, beer-drinking, and tomato-canning parties. We were also included in decisions like how to source chicken feed to match the majority interest of all subscribers. What's more was that the community-submitted recipes that graced the pages of our weekly newsletter (as well as the online community discussions) helped push my cooking skills to what I now proudly consider expert level. I looked forward to "Eatwell Fridays" more than I can express and literally cried at the thought of giving up my membership when I ventured away from the Bay Area.

In my experience as both a member of a CSA and a worker on a CSA farm, I've heard a wide array of feedback about the CSA model. But I can say emphatically that the perks of buying into a CSA far outweigh any inconveniences. Here are just a few:

  1. Seasonal eating will take on new meanings as you receive a bounty of each produce item as it reaches its prime. You will be as ecstatic to receive a surplus of red peppers, as you will be sad to see the potato season dwindle down in the fall.
  2. You will be pushed and rewarded to incorporate vegetables in your meals that have otherwise scared you away. You will also discover many ways to cook the same vegetable as your craving for variety kicks in at the start and end of the season.
  3. A membership is an avenue for getting to know your farmers and the methods they use, which is as important as organic regulation becomes increasingly cloudy. You will also be in the loop when its been a bad year for a certain crop due to weather or disease and learn to appreciate when nature’s wonders line up to grow amazingly fresh food.
  4. The amount you pay for produce each week is substantially lower than the costs of shopping in a grocery store and you will feel the savings, especially in the heart of the summer.
  5. You can find a membership option that suits your family’s needs and many farms have mastered setting themselves apart by establishing flexible options.

Simple Good and Tasty has put together a directory of CSAs to get you started on your search. I've listed some highlights here:

Featherstone Farm
As Lee wrote last month about Featherstone Farms, "CSA Coordinator Margaret Marshall is updating the farm’s website, and... plans to launch a series of social media initiatives, including videos, recipes, blog posts, and tweets, all in an effort to delight and engage Featherstone’s customers."

Clinton Falls Farm
It’s common to find farms that team up to provide an increased variety as Clinton Falls Farm does with O-Wata-Farm to provide eggs to their customers. (Other farms do it with honey, or maple syrup, or beef, or fruit.)

Foxtail Farm
If a large up-front cost is intimidating, and you don't mind getting your hands dirty, consider joining Foxtail Farm or a farm that offers hands-on work in exchange for a reduced membership rate.

Big Woods Farm
If you are looking to concentrate on the community aspect of being part of a CSA, consider a farm like  Big Woods Farm, which welcomes visitors and organizes events throughout the season, such as a fall squash and pumpkin potluck.

Laughing Stalk Farmstead
If the inability to choose your weekly selection is giving you pause, consider Laughing Stalk Farmstead, which gives you the option to "build your own box."

Please do your research when selecting a farm. Feel free to call the farm to ask questions or request references if the farm has offered a CSA in prior years. CSAs often work out best when there are no surprises besides the wonderful new vegetables that will become part of your weekly meals.

Alicia Jabbar is a self-described foodie, cook, and advocate for local and delicious foods. Alicia spent several years living in San Francisco, but last year spent seven months living and working on a farm on the East Coast. Now she's in Boulder, Colorado, where she is pursuing an opportunity to become an organic farmer. The single best aspect about food, she says, is the community it engages and the conversation it creates. We couldn't agree more.