Why Should You Sign Up for a CSA?

Philip Fuller

CSAs aren’t for everyone. When that box of vegetables — or meat, or bread, or cheese — shows up, it can feel like a burden — one more thing you’ve got to deal with in order to be a responsible consumer of post-industrial foods.

Or it can feel like a gift — a wholesome weekly or monthly treat you give yourself. Perhaps the most apt analogy is a hobby: When you choose a CSA — or community-supported agriculture membership — you’re choosing to invest not just your money, but your time, in a particular way of eating. Like all hobbies, though, it should be fun.

We talked to two CSA farmers about why Joe or Jane Consumer should consider a CSA and we got a surprising answer or two (Price? Really? Yes.) Both Stone’s Throw Urban Farm and Shepherd’s Way Farms will be at the Seward Co-op’s 11 Annual CSA Fair, along with nearly 30 other farmers.

STONE’S THROW URBAN FARM

stonesthrowurbanfarm.wordpress.com

Eric Larsen farms 15 urban lots in Minneapolis and St. Paul along with five other farmers. This is their first year together as Stone’s Throw, after Concrete Beet, Pig’s Eye Urban Farm, and Uptown Farmers merged. Their lots range from average city lots to about one-third of an acre. They grow between 15 and 20 crops and plan a 20-week CSA season, averaging 10–15 pounds of vegetables a week. Because of their easily accessible location, they may also be able to offer members U-pick opportunities of select crops.

Why should someone become a CSA member?

It’s a very affordable way for the consumer to get fresh vegetables and a variety of vegetables. I was just talking with one of my partners, and he was just saying that he took an average share [from his previous farm] in the middle of July and then bought the same things at Whole Foods. And it was about $120 worth of vegetables! [Stone’s Throw shares are $25 a week. — ed.] A lot of farmers are putting in salad mixes and tomatoes in CSA shares, things that can easily retail for double [the cost per pound through a CSA].

A CSA is also a great way for people to step out of their cooking comfort zone, explore new boundaries, and have more of a variety of vegetables than they’re putting in their diet right now.

What are the benefits for you as a grower?

We wanted the opportunity to grow a variety of produce. If you go by just what the market dictates, it’s hard to justify growing things like cabbage that you don’t get a good margin for, or things like peas and radishes. The other main advantage, of course, is the upfront payment for the farmer, when it’s really needed to buy seeds, buy compost, buy other infrastructure things. As a start-up we needed the capital investment.

Do you think CSAs are becoming more mainstream?

I think it’s still a niche product, but I don’t think it’s going to stay a niche product. I hope it’s going to go more mainstream. People are more familiar with the concept of a farmers market rather than a CSA. But when more people [with CSAs] are telling their friends about it and there’s that peer-to-peer education about the benefits of it, it will grow. A lot of it depends on how much a person likes to cook. And that’s not something people do a lot right now.

What should people ask before signing up for a CSA?

They can ask what variety of produce to expect, how many different vegetables they get per week and the quantity. Where it’s grown, obviously. And how to cook with it, because farmers know how to do something with every vegetable. They’re eating what they grow.

SHEPHERD’S WAY FARMS

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Steven Read and Jodi Ohlsen Read raise sheep, chickens, and now a small family of pigs in a farm near Faribault. They sell their award-winning cheeses at co-ops and farmers markets around the Twin Cities and through CSA shares. The traditional CSA share includes 1 ½ pounds of cheese a month and the expanded CSA share allows the member to use vouchers at the Shepherd’s Way farm for cheese, eggs, wool, and more.

Why should someone become a CSA member?

From a consumer’s perspective, of course you get to interact with the producer. I think that’s important. It’s not news that’s the up-and-coming trend in food buying — wanting to know who’s making your food. At least I hope it’s not!

It also allows the consumer direct access to the producer for feedback… which helps on the producer side. For our customers, it allows them to access the farm itself more directly. We have events at the farm just for CSA members. It allows them to anticipate — once a month some people even plan entertaining schedules around [their cheese share]. It allows also they get access to particular products. We may be testing new products and we try them out on members. If there are some things we have very limited quantities of, like ricotta, those go to our CSA members.

How does selling through a CSA benefit you as a producer?

It benefits us the way any CSA benefits the producer. You know you have a set amount of customers who are going to pay a set amount. We’re a little different in that our customers aren’t sharing the risk [as they do in a traditional vegetable share]. It’s also our own little family of cheese lovers and it’s given us a core group of people to communicate with — and it’s been fun. We’ve had longtime CSA members now, since we’ve been doing this four years. A lot of members feel like they are part of the farm.

What should people ask before signing up for a CSA?

What are the options? Even vegetable CSAs have become pretty sophisticated, offering a lot of options…. greens shares, tomato shares, half shares. What’s the production history of the farm or what kind of guarantee do they have. As a consumer you want to make sure you’re comfortable and trusting of the person you’re talking to. That’s the great thing about the CSA fair. You’re not on a web site wondering if this is something.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Tricia Cornell has been a member of Hog’s Back Farm in Wisconsin for nine years. The first couple of years were rough, but the experience inspired her to write Eat More Vegetables: A Guide to Making the Most of Your Seasonal Produce (Minnesota Historical Society Press, April 2012).

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About the Author

Tricia Cornell

Tricia has been called the mother of “world-class veggie eaters” in the Star Tribune (that is patently untrue) and an “industrious home cook” in the New York Times (true, but was it a compliment?). She loves Brussels sprouts, hates squash, and would choose salty and sour flavors over sweet just about any day. Her first cookbook, Eat More Vegetables, was published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2012.

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