Photo by NatalieMaynor

Claiborne Milde gives the lowdown on how and why to join your local CSA.

So you’re thinking of joining a CSA?

Or maybe you’re just scratching your head right now, wondering: “A CSA? What’s that?” The answer, community-supported agriculture, is an arrangement in which customers pay up front for a share in a local farmer’s harvest, which is then distributed over the growing season.

The farms are generally smaller ones, often using organic or sustainable growing practices. Personally, because they’re a motivating factor in my cooking, I can’t get enough of CSAs and belong to–count ‘em–five: veggies, fruits, eggs, frozen produce in winter, and a “quarter hog” share.

How it works

The farmer sends whatever is ready and ripe, perhaps picked that morning, so you have little to no control over what you get (though a few CSAs now work on more of a “market” model). A meat share includes a variety of cuts, sometimes with specialty items such as charcuterie. Some areas even offer seafood shares.

Some CSAs deliver a box to your door, while others use a central pick-up point; ours drops at a neighborhood church and displays the produce to be collected via an honor system. The simplest, most direct arrangement might be if you live in a rural area and fetch your share from the farm. The farmer organizes the details, whereas in urban programs a volunteer team usually handles logistics and distribution.

What are the benefits?

Photo by Darius

You support local farmers by investing in a portion of the crop in advance and guaranteeing them a customer base.

In return, you receive a basket of sparkling produce, fresher than what’s offered in most stores. You probably end up eating more veggies, too. The connection between farmer and consumer becomes closer, and you get to know the person growing your food. This is a great lesson if you have kids.

We receive a regular newsletter from our farmers, including recipe suggestions and invitations to visit the farms. At the season’s end, members may be encouraged to provide feedback: helping to shape, over the long term, what will be grown.

And there’s the matter of savings: by essentially buying in bulk, you save over buying comparable quality produce at the farmers’ market.

What do I have to lose?

The lack of choice may be a deal-breaker if you like your options (or, say, detest zucchini). And, since you reap the harvest along with the farmer, you also assume the risks. Last summer, for example, our region was hit with late blight, which all but wiped out tomato crops in the northeast. As a result, the usual plump, sweet tomatoes were no-shows. Loyal customers who had pre-paid for an extra “pantry share” of tomatoes opted to forfeit the money in solidarity with the farmer, instead of getting reimbursed.

How do I find my local CSA?

Many urban areas these days have food advocacy networks. In NYC it’s Just Food, which organizes neighborhood CSAs and links to local food happenings. The nationwide network Local Harvest allows you to search by zip code for farms across the U.S. offering shares, and includes farm profiles. If you’re in a rural area, try asking at your favorite local farmer’s market booth, either at the farm or at the neighborhood farmers’ market. More and more small farms offer a CSA in addition to selling produce through a stand.

Curious, but on the fence?

Arrange a trial by finding someone who is already in the network and offering to buy back a week’s worth of produce while he or she is on vacation. If you don’t know anyone with a share, contact the coordinator and ask if it would be OK to put the word out to CSA members: many of them, over the course of the season, will at some point be unable to use their shares and would be grateful for someone else to pick up the slack.

Photo by nedrichards

You can also send out a message mid-season offering to split a share, which might be a welcome prospect to someone who has discovered it’s not so easy to keep up with the rising tide of veggies in August!

They’re sold out!

This is a common complaint in urban communities like mine in Brooklyn, NY. People are keen on the whole idea of eating seasonally and locally, but supply hasn’t yet caught up with demand. Be tenacious and stay in contact with the CSA coordinator. Persistence pays off, as it did this year for two of my friends who had been trying to get in on the action for years.

Also, you may score a share from a CSA dropout, as did a friend of mine who is now a die-hard fan (she received word of mouth that someone was trying to unload her share).

I signed up! Now what?

Now get cooking! It took me a couple of seasons to hit my CSA stride; now I know what to expect and detail my kitchen time in a seasonal cooking blog. In planning my recipes, I do a triage of each weekly delivery: what needs to be used right away (lettuce)? What can be stored (roots), or dried (herbs)? Try your hand at pickling and canning, to preserve the overflow.

The internet contains a wealth of ideas. Some sites with impressive catalogs of recipes include: Epicurious, food52, Cook’s Country and the Food Network, all of which offer ingredient-based searches.

Some cookbooks I find useful:

COMMUNITY CONNECTION

Are you a member of a local CSA? Please share your experiences in the comments below. Feel free to share links to your favorite recipe websites too!