You’ve likely heard about Community Supported Agriculture, and you have a vague idea what it is. Something about subscribing to a weekly delivery of vegetables, so fresh they are practically shimmering from that morning’s dew. You know that buying local is good for the earth. You’ve also heard some of the horror stories: six weeks of nothing but three varieties of lettuce, an infestation that chews through an entire summer’s zucchini blossoms, and a box full of black radishes and exotic turnips completely foreign to you, except that you’re certain your kids won’t eat them. Being the good, carbon-footprint-reducing, fresh-food-loving, new-millennium citizen that you are, you’ve Googled Twin Cities CSAs. There are so many farms with so many variables: some offer shares for an extended season, some do not. Some offer eggs, flowers, honey, pick-your-own strawberries; some offer only vegetables. How do you choose?
Brian DeVore, Communications Manager of the Land Stewardship Project, believes that you should think of your CSA membership as “a partnership with a farm.” He said, “Many consumers join a CSA because they are interested in the fresh, healthy food, but it’s the community aspect, the connection to the farmers and others, that keeps them coming back.” On the other hand, “The number one reason people don’t rejoin a CSA is because they feel guilty about the food they wasted.”
Therefore, DeVore suggests that, before joining a CSA, you consider carefully your own limitations and willingness to cook. “Look ahead. Take some cooking classes now through community education. That would add tremendous value to a CSA share.” Dan Guenthner of Common Harvest Farm near Osceola, WI, similarly suggests, “Prepare yourself. Learn how to cook with the things that are in season. It can be a challenge.”
And, if you’re a one or two-person household, DeVore said, “Ask the CSA farms how they accommodate smaller families. Some offer half shares, or delivery every other week, or even delivery just once a month. Ask them what accommodations they offer when you’re on vacation.”
Also, DeVore says that its important to remember that being a member in a CSA farm “Isn’t just about sharing in the bounty; it’s also sharing in the downside. We now have enough farms serving the Twin Cities and also in the area around Madison, WI, that “Some farms will share and trade with each other when weather or pest problems arise, our good broccoli for your good whatever, so the boxes don’t get shorted.” If you’re just starting out with a CSA and you’re watching your dollars, ask: “Do you trade stuff with other farmers? What happens when there is a weather disaster?”
Guenthner says that Common Harvest Farms tries “to soften the challenges of CSA membership by providing resources about simple tools that might be helpful, information on how to store herbs, and information about what can be frozen and what is perishable.” Ask CSA farms what resources and information they provide. Many provide weekly newsletters or websites with storage information and recipes.
Guenthner says: “People are craving for a connection and want to personalize the experience of eating. Community Supported Agriculture is about building relationships between people and the land, and strengthening connections between the people who eat the food and the people that grow the food. Decide what kind of relationship you want with a farm or a farmer. Maybe you’re from Wisconsin and a farm there would appeal to you? Maybe you have a personal connection to a certain kind of landscape?”
Guenthner said that people tend to choose their CSA based on “‘Is the drop-site convenient to me?,’ regardless of where the farm is located.” He said, “That is a legitimate starting point. If you are going to have to drive out of your way, and it turns into a big struggle, you might not re-join.”
Guenthner mentions that some farms still offer working shares, where you can pay reduced membership fees in exchange for work. Ask about the festivals, tours, camp-outs and potluck days and other community aspects of membership.
Guenthner said that, at Common Harvest Farm, they “learned early on that if a member knows someone else who belongs to a CSA, they are four times more likely to re-join next year.” It helps to have someone to call and ask: “What are you doing with the fennel or the kohlrabi that came in the box this week?” Build connections with other members.
DeVore said that CSA consumers are “showing more interest, and more interest earlier in the year.” Many CSA shares are sold out by early May and nearly all are sold out by the end of the second week of May.
Many CSA farms offer discounts for members who sign up early, some by April 1.
DeVore agrees that it’s difficult to compare share prices across CSA farms. He said, “Every farm has a little twist. Some are very specific about what you can expect in your share in terms of pounds, while others are not.” Guenthner says: “We tried from the beginning of the [CSA] movement not to be about price comparison. It was a deliberate choice to not put prices in the annual CSA Farm Directory. Different farmers have different soils, different personalities… We tried to create a deeper set of criteria about how to determine the fair price of food.” Nevertheless, DeVore said, “It’s very unusual to hear from members ‘I didn’t get enough.’ Usually, it’s the opposite.”
If you are having a hard time deciding, or are just a procrastinator, DeVore suggests attending the Community Food and Farm Festival at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on May 2 or 3. “It’s a great overall educational experience for consumers,” said DeVore. For instance, of the 15 or so farms represented, about half will be producers who market eggs, meat and cheese to consumers directly, either through CSA shares or farmers’ markets. “It’s an easy way to learn the terminology in plain, user-friendly English. What ‘s a quarter beef or a half beef.” And, “You can sign up right there.”
Land Stewardship Project’s CSA Farm Directory, including section on Selecting a CSA Farm.
Some cookbooks that might be helpful (don’t forget your local library!):
Recipes organized by season for most common vegetables: “Serving Up the Harvest: Celebrating the Goodness of Fresh Vegetables,” Chesman
More comprehensive book, organized somewhat by vegetable: “Vegetable Love,” Kafka and Styler
More advanced cookbook by local restaurateur, Lucia Watson: “Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland,” Watson and Dooley