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What is a CSA ?

A CSA or Community Supported Agriculture works like this: a group of consumers, often known as subscribers, pay (with at least part of the payment upfront) to receive weekly shares of local, seasonal produce from a farm or collective of farms. In addition to vegetables and fruit, some CSAs offer egg, bread, meat, or even flower shares. Another way CSAs personalize their plan is to offer shares of various sizes, such as for individuals or families. Depending on where you live, the CSA may last just for the summer months or it may last year-round.

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How It Helps You

Consumers get fresh and delicious foods and support the local economy through CSAs. While much of the produce in supermarkets has been shipped from across the country (or across the ocean), CSA shares provide produce that has been harvested within days or even hours!

There’s nothing more frustrating than planning meals for the week and then arriving at the farmer’s market to find that several of your ingredients are not available! CSAs will often let you know at the beginning of the week what you will be getting in your share, making it much easier to meal plan and to shop for the rest of the ingredients on your list. Also, you can discuss general crop plans for the season with the farmer(s) running your CSA. This, in turn, allows you to choose whatever you want to grow for your own garden. After all, how many scallions can one family truly consume?

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Image © flickr user emiemihuimei

How It Helps Farmers

CSAs are a win-win opportunity for farmers as well as consumers: farmers have the benefit of a guaranteed paycheck and cash flow and can better plan their growing seasons and plantings. And since hurricanes, drought, and other surprises from Mother Nature can derail anyone’s growing plans, CSAs offer farmers a type of insurance. CSAs allow farmers to better know their consumers, forge relationships with them, and perhaps even grow things according to their customers’ culinary desires.

CSAs also cut out the middleman. Farmers can offer the public their goods at a lower price, and deliver fresher products since they don’t have to pay someone else to distribute and market them. Additionally, while many CSA farms still sell at farmer’s markets, having a CSA makes this less of a necessity for income since they have guaranteed “buyers.” Some farmers supplement their produce with products such as honey or jelly. These value-added products are yet another way in which farmers can showcase their wares year-round.

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Image © flickr user quilt salad

How to Join

Local Harvest has a handy tool for helping you locate a CSA, and you can also check out your farmer’s market to see if some of your favorite stands are also part of a CSA. Personally, I think the best way to learn about a CSA is by word of mouth, because you can learn about the pros and cons from the subscribers themselves: what each week’s delivery contains, if people feel like they were inundated with certain crops, and even details such as how the pick-up service works. For example, some CSA’s have everything boxed up and ready for you; others lay out their goods buffet style with guidance for how much each share is to take.

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How to Make the Most of Your CSA

One of my favorite things about joining a CSA is that it exposes you to new veggies and expands your family’s mealtime repertoire. Our family has found favorite recipes for celeriac and black turnips among other veggies, and we love discussing these new goodies with our kids. If you’re stumped as to what to do with a certain item in your share, don’t be afraid to ask — the farmers especially but also any other CSA members. Our CSA sends out recipes each week, particularly for some of the lesser used veggies.

Another benefit of CSAs: you can also ask if there is a large crop of one of your favorite types of produce: farmers will occasionally make these available to their CSA subscribers before trucking them out to farmer’s markets. Finally, many CSA farms encourage subscribers to come and visit the farm. There is truly no better way to see how your produce is being grown and cared for than by visiting the source itself!

Lead image © flickr user case beer