Thursday, March 4, 2010

5 Types of CSAs and 5 Things to Consider Before Signing Up for One

March is the time to sign up for a CSA farm share that begins in a few months. A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), is where you usually (but not always) prepay for a weekly box or bag of produce grown on the farm. Price, delivery and any other details are explained in flyers or on farm Web sites. This prepayment is for farm operating money during the time before harvest.

Although CSAs began as pay-in-advance for a fixed item box of farm produce (usually 6 to 12 produce items) for a specified number of weeks, delivered at a certain place, an increasing number of CSAs are veering off the traditional CSA format in the Pacific Northwest.

Here are 5 types of CSAs you might find when spring sign-ups start:

  • Traditional This organic farm offers a weekly box of produce and lists their weekly selections with recipes, produce information and updates about the farm on their Web site. They also host potlucks early in the season so members can meet their farmers, learn more about the farm and farming techniques and mingle with fellow CSA members.
  • Market Bucks This organic farm offers "Nash's Farm Bucks" as an alternative for smaller families. The “bucks” are purchased like Traditional CSAs. At the market each week Market Bucks CSA members pick out produce at the market and pay with the buks. These CSA options are a savings over paying the full retail price. Other farms also have this type of option. Check around if you think this is one for you.
  • Farm Network Some farms like this one purchase some of their weekly produce from other organic growers for their CSA shares, giving members a larger variety in their weekly boxes.
  • Value Added Some farms, like this one are adding items, like eggs, meats, cheese, artisanal bread or even fresh flower shares like this farm to their box selections. These “add-on’s” are usually, but not limited to, local farms. These add on items take CSAs to a whole new level.
  • Single Item This CSA is offered by fruit farms like this one. These farmers tend small-scale organic orchards and send email notices to return CSA customers each spring. Customers can select the size of box and the weeks that they will pick up the box. This prepayment guarantees a box of this outstanding fruit. New customers can sign up for a spring email and order form during summer. Then the following spring, they'll receive the form.

Confused about how to choose? Here are 5 suggestions to make your selection easier.

  • Meet the farmer. Check at your favorite farmers' market and search out a variety of farmers who advertise CSAs. Visit the farm, if possible, and check the farm’s Web site. Ask about growing techniques, crops and how long the farmer has offered a CSA. Also be sure to carefully check out the farms’ produce to get an idea about what will be in your farm share.
  • Investigate. Check with past or present CSA share holders. Ask market shoppers, even other farmer friends about the farm. Ask whether the farm purchases produce and where that produce comes from. Also does the farm host CSA member potlucks or gatherings at the farm? If you're looking for a sense of community, these kinds of offerings are important. Check out past events like the CSA potlucks hosted by farms like this one.
  • Consider flexibility. Can you be improvisational when a preselected CSA produce box arrives? Can you cook chard on a moment’s notice? Do you even like chard? Also, will you be home for the next 25 weeks? What happens if you miss a week? If flexibility is high on your list, consider farms that offers a "farm bucks" type of share.
  • Think about box size. How much produce can you eat in a week? About how many items will arrive each week, and are there different sizes of boxes available? Sometimes splitting a box with a friend makes the most sense. You could either split each box or each party could get a box every other week.
  • Picking up your share. Is the location convenient? Is there any flexibility if you can’t make it? If an emergency arises, can you pick it up elsewhere?

With all the variety in CSAs I've seen in the past few years, there's a CSA for everyone now, at least in the Northwest. Last year I got two CSAs. I’m putting in for my CSA farm share at this farm tomorrow.

What’s your choice this year? And what suggestions would you add for finding a CSA?

Here’s Finn with my Stoney Plains CSA last year.

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