The growing season is quickly approaching, and it’s time to begin thinking about where our fresh produce will come from this year. A backyard garden, farmer’s markets, a local CSA? Don’t know what a CSA is? We’re about to break it down for you.
This article is the first in a 2-part series outlining 1) the definition and benefits of CSAs and 2) how to find and choose one near you. Matt and I are excited to share the knowledge gained from four years (with some ups and downs) of CSA memberships.
What is a CSA?
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. When you join a CSA, you are essentially buying a farm share. Members (you) pay in advance for a growing season so farmers have operating capital. During the growing season, members receive a box of produce from the CSA on a regular schedule (usually once per week). Some CSA shares are delivered directly to your home, and others must be picked up from a designated location during a set time frame. Most CSAs only offer produce, but depending on the farm, you may also have the option of purchasing a share that includes eggs, meat, dairy, baked goods, fresh flowers, or other farm products.
Why join a CSA?
The longer we participate, the more we agree that a CSA is one of our favorite ways to get fresh local food (second to growing in our own garden).
Check out these awesome benefits of belonging to a good CSA:
I mean REALLY fresh! Our farmers would often talk about pulling the food from the ground that same day. (It sometimes had the dirt or mud still caked on to prove it.) CSA produce doesn’t get shipped in cross-country delivery trucks or sit on store shelves before getting to you. As a result, the produce lasts much longer than store-bought.
The cost of fresh locally grown produce is much cheaper when you’re buying directly from the farmer. Purchasing the same locally grown produce at the grocery store means you pay increased prices since the store has to make a profit. With a CSA, the middleman has been eliminated, keeping your costs down.
Supporting local farms
If we fail to support our local farmers, we end up with food from large, profit-driven farms where practices are questionable at best. Keeping small farms in business supports the local economy, and offers good farmers the opportunity to grow food the way WE like it.
Belonging to a CSA gets you closer to your food and the people who grow it. You hear us say this all the time . . . get as close to your food source as possible. CSAs offer the chance to know exactly where your food is coming from, meet the people growing it, and build a relationship with them. If you have questions about your food you can simply ask the farmer – “Do you use any chemicals?” “How do I cook (insert name of strange vegetable here)?” or “Do you have a good recipe for _____?” We have learned so much about food from our CSA farmers!
Many CSAs even offer “farm days” where members visit, work the farm, taste produce, and see the inner-workings of the farm. Now that’s what I call getting close to your food!
Learn to eat seasonally
Receiving your CSA share each week helps you learn which foods grow during different times of the year. Do you know when zucchini is in season, or when a cantaloupe ripens? You won’t see watermelon in your CSA first thing in the spring. CSAs help you learn to look forward to the foods as they are harvested naturally, in their own time. Modern supermarkets have trained us to shop without seasons. We lose the healthy flow of seasons in our diets; and that flow is important to health and well-being. Different foods are high in different nutrients our bodies need during each season.
Learn new kitchen skills
The first year we belonged to a CSA we didn’t take it very seriously. We allowed some food to go bad, turned our noses up at other items, and failed to appreciate the bounty we were given. (I mostly looked forward to the fruit and homemade rolls the farmer gave us.) However, the second year we challenged ourselves to get serious about it and have ZERO waste in our CSA. If we couldn’t eat things before they started to go bad, we made sure to “put it up” by freezing or canning. Our skills in the kitchen improved as we incorporated more fresh produce into our diets. Our recipe repertoire grew, Matt taught himself to pressure can, my experimentation with freezing foods got a little out of control, and we learned how to cook things we never knew existed.
Save money on dining out
Trust me, when you have a refrigerator full of fresh produce each week, you think about the money already spent and decide staying home is probably your best choice. Each week I planned a menu around the produce that sat waiting in the fridge, and ate ONLY meals that could help us use up the fresh CSA food. We saved so much money when we committed to eating the food we already had; and it was much healthier to boot.
It takes the pressure off
If you don’t have the space, time, or knowledge it takes to grow your own food, purchasing a CSA share allows you to rely on a farmer who DOES have all these things. Maybe you are only growing a few things in a small garden this year, or live in an apartment where growing is near impossible. A CSA can supplement produce you grow yourself, or completely replace it. We had years when entire plant crops in our garden were near wiped out – CSA produce to the rescue!
Since your money is supporting their growing efforts, CSA farmers are very willing to listen and offer perks to their shareholders. Sometimes you can make suggestions for food you’d like to see available. Some farms have extra produce available for canning that you can order ahead of time (tomatoes!). Our past farmers would supply us with mouthwatering recipes to try each week, which helps with the panicked “I have no clue how to cook this kohlrabi” feeling. (We’ll discuss more perks in the next article!)
Your family farmer
Maybe you’ve heard enough about CSAs, but I want you to consider one last thing.
We spend a lot of time searching for professionals we can trust with our health – doctors, dentists, fitness experts, etc. Food is one of the most important ingredients for achieving good health, so we need to place importance on finding the best farmers and the best local food available to us.
Joining a CSA is a great way to develop a lasting relationship with a local farmer who is growing your food properly!
If you’re already sold on the idea of a CSA and would like to start looking at what’s available nearby, visit LocalHarvest.org, enter your zip code, and start your search. You’ll likely be amazed at the abundance of local farms in your neck of the woods.
Note: stay tuned for our next article: [CSA Part 2] Find The Right CSA Farm For You.
photo credit: Mary Crimmins