Keeping It Fresh with CSA Farm Shares
March 16, 2016 | Home and Family
As Americans try to eat more healthily, the “eat local” movement continues to gain momentum. And nothing is more local than eating vegetables and fruit from your own farm—made possible through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
A CSA is a partnership between a farm and a group of supporters who purchase a share of the farm’s produce at the beginning of the season. Each farm share entitles the owner to a box of fresh-picked vegetables and fruits every week during the growing season—harvested at the peak of freshness and delivered to neighborhood sites by the farmer.
Becky Wiechman of Rutherford, New Jersey, has been a CSA member on and off for the last six years. She first learned about CSAs when housesitting for friends in her home state of Michigan. When she picked up their farm share, she was intrigued by the variety of vegetables.
"You get introduced to vegetables you’ve never seen before," says Wiechman. “I love to cook, and the farm share is a constant source of creativity in the kitchen.” Being a CSA member taught her how to cook greens like chard, kale, broccoli rabe and garlic scapes (the flower stalks of a garlic plant) long before they became staples on trendy restaurant menus.
Wiechman expected health benefits from her CSA subscription, but she didn’t expect the sense of community she gets from being a member. She enjoys investing in a farm each spring when the farmer needs working capital and then literally reaping the benefits of that investment throughout the growing season.
“There may be some weeks when you get a lot of vegetables and others you don’t get as much, but it’s an investment in the community.” She enjoys talking to the farmer and getting to know other members by volunteering at the pick-up site.
Wiechman says that the per-week cost is comparable to what she’d spend in the grocery store, but the quantity is greater, and everything tastes better. “It’s undoubtedly the freshest food I’ve ever tasted. I’d never trade it for anything in a grocery store,” says Wiechman. “When the farm share ends in December, it makes me sad to go back to grocery store vegetables.”
A Farmer-Friendly Arrangement
On the other side of the equation, farmers appreciate how CSAs benefit their cash flow.
“Other farmers have to get operating loans at the beginning of the season, which they pay back at the end of the season,” says Coby Miller, head grower for PeaceWeaver Organic Farm in Bath, New York. “With our CSA, a large part of our income comes in before the growing season, when we’re spending money on labor and materials.”
CSAs also give the farmers a good idea of how much to grow and eliminate the need for selling produce during the season, so they can focus on growing. The PeaceWeaver farm packs 130 shares each week, some delivered as far away as Buffalo and Rochester.
Miller says people are drawn to CSAs for a variety of reasons. In addition to those who love to experiment in the kitchen, people who are concerned about the environment enjoy the farm share model. CSAs require much less fuel to get from the farm to your table than to traditional retail stores. Also, since so many CSAs farm organically, there’s less chemical runoff.
Finally, you might want to join a CSA if you like fresh air, exercise and getting your hands dirty. Many CSAs encourage their members to come out and volunteer on the farm once or twice each summer.
“We get whole families working here because the parents want their kids to know how their food is grown,” says Miller. Studies have shown that kids are more likely to eat vegetables that they’ve grown themselves.
Finding the Right Farm
To find a CSA in your area, you can look on websites like LocalHarvest or ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture, or check with your local county extension. Ask your foodie friends or your favorite vendors at your local farmers market for their recommendations. Above all, ask for references for the CSAs you are considering. You want to make sure they have a good history of providing quality produce throughout the growing season.
At the same time, keep your expectations reasonable. No CSA can provide abundant boxes of produce every week without fail. Because of the nature of the growing cycle and the whims of Mother Nature, some weeks will be lighter than others. On the other hand, there could be weeks when you’re sneaking zucchini onto your neighbor’s porch in the dark of night. It’s all part of the adventure when you invest in healthier eating through Community Supported Agriculture.