5 Questions to Help Find the Best CSA for You
With summer in full swing, many people are looking to invest in a farm share through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Programs can be good for farmers, who get guaranteed payment for seed, supplies, and labor, and good for consumers, who get access to a wide variety of fresh, local produce. But how do decide whether to join a CSA—or which CSA to choose?
There are a number of factors to consider, said New Entry Sustainable Farming Project Director Jennifer Hashley, who for almost 20 years has led the Friedman School initiative to strengthen local food systems by supporting new farmers. These range from farmers’ growing practices, to the engagement, perks, and convenience they offer customers--to the rewards of becoming a CSA shareholder, which go beyond weekly fresh produce.
“Supporting a small farm sometimes sounds like a small thing, but that farm is supporting its local community, and doing a huge service to society by protecting land, water, and wildlife,” said Hashley, who also oversees the New Entry Food Hub CSA. “It’s so much broader than one individual person, and it benefits hundreds if not thousands of people, as well as the ecosystem.”
Here are some of the questions Hashley recommends anyone weighing CSA memberships ask themselves.
1. Are you ready to cook?
“I know it sounds obvious, but you’re going to get a bountiful share of produce every week—the question is, are you a good improvisational cook, do you like to try new recipes, can you use things you’ve never been exposed to before?” Hashley said. You should look into the range of produce that a given CSA offers, and be ready to seriously up your fruit and veggie intake—or consider splitting your share with a friend. “I always feel bad when people sign up for CSAs and get overwhelmed and feel like they’re wasting food,” she said. “They end up not coming back, and it doesn’t help anyone.”
2. How organic do you want to go?
Does the farm you’re looking at have a good soil management plan? How do they deal with weeds and pests? Do they use cover crops? Do they use sprays for pests, disease or weeds? Asking if a farm is certified organic by the USDA will cover a lot of bases, Hashley said. A “yes” answer to that question means that the farm doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides; has documented and approved harvesting, storing, and transportation processes that protect nutrient content; and undergoes a USDA inspection each year. But the label doesn’t cover everything. For example, certified organic farms can still spray their crops with approved substances. “It’s tough to discern everything unless you know what you need to look for,” Hashley said. “Have a deep conversation with the farmer about what they’re actually doing.”
3. How important are freshness and flavor?
The average grocery store fruit or vegetable is bred for size, sturdiness, and ease of picking. It’s typically harvested before its prime and then transported 3,000 miles—for five to seven days—from farm to plate. In contrast, local CSA produce includes a variety of strains that often have better flavor profiles, are picked at their prime, and generally make their way into your hands within 24 to 48 hours of being harvested. “This has pros and cons,” Hashley said. “Things that are picked locally in their prime are super delicious—we get a lot of comments that our green beans actually taste like green beans. On the other hand, if you harvest something ripe, you need to eat it pretty quickly. Leave a CSA tomato sitting, and it will start to attract fruit flies.”
4. What values do you want to support?
During their grocery store shopping, some people are looking for sustainable processes and ecological awareness. Others may care most about how agricultural workers are being treated—there’s a new “food justice certified” label by the Agricultural Justice Project, meant to promote equity within the food system. Still others might want to invest in a program like New Entry’s Food Hub, which provides training for new farmers and food access programs for low-income families, seniors, and others who may not be able to afford farm-fresh produce. “What do you want to support when you buy a CSA, and what mission aligns with your values?” Hashley said.
5. What perks will make or break the deal?
Busy individuals looking for convenience may be swayed by options to put their shares on hold when they go on vacation, while those seeking greater engagement may choose a farm that holds events or invites customers to pick their own produce. “With a CSA, you can get a little glimpse into the life of the person who’s growing your food and nourishing you and your family, and an opportunity to interact with other customers who are also supporting the farm,” Hashley said. “It becomes a more social conversation around your food, and it helps you appreciate it more to feel that you’re all doing good together.”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org