A Getting-Started Guide to CSAs

If you're eager to join the movement toward eating healthy, locally and sustainably, but don't have the backyard square footage to establish your own vegetable garden, then joining a CSA could be the perfect way for you to enjoy fresh, seasonal produce at an affordable price.

A CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture, matches small farms directly with customers who want fresh, seasonal food. According to LocalHarvest.org, an online community for CSA farmers and customers, this approach to eating locally has been growing in popularity over the past two decades—just as consumers have become increasingly interested in organic produce and minimally processed foods. A CSA takes what you eat, quite literally, from farm to table.

How CSAs Work
A small farm sells shares in its harvest to local customers. For a subscription fee that can vary depending on duration and quantity, a buyer can sign up to receive regular deliveries of fresh, seasonal produce. The farmer arranges a regular schedule where customers can pick up a package of newly harvested goods. Sometimes farmers even deliver packages—this typically coincides with a grower's participation in local farmers markets. How much food you get from a CSA can range from a family-sized box of veggies delivered weekly throughout the entire growing season, to smaller portions for one or two people, or shorter options that provide four weeks' worth of fall greens. Some CSAs involve only a subscription fee, while others invite (or require) buyers to contribute "sweat equity" in the form of a few hours of labor on the farm each season.

If you like the idea of getting more in touch with the people who grow the food you consume, here are some helpful tips to get you started.

Embrace the adventure.
Joining a CSA is a culinary adventure—one best started with the expectation that you and your family will be offered the chance to try new foods. Before you sign up, ask the grower to describe typical spring, summer and fall deliveries to gauge what you'll be receiving seasonally. "We have been exposed to a lot of things we otherwise probably never would buy at a grocery store," says Theresa Ryan, a Cincinnati graphic designer who is a member of a Kentucky-based CSA. "Okra, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, and lots of different squashes like acorn, butternut and spaghetti."

Explore new ingredients.
Many CSA farmers send out weekly emails or blog posts to inform customers about the contents of each new shipment. Some CSA farmers also share recipes for preparing the goodies. Los Angeles writer Alissa Walker raves about the inspiration provided by her CSA. "I really like the challenge of having specific produce to work with when preparing meals, and I love going online and finding new and unusual recipes," Walker says. "Just in the last few weeks I've made ratatouille, lasagna with kale and chard, mashed potatoes with dandelion greens, butternut squash soup, vegetable soup, orange sherbet, watermelon and feta salad, cantaloupe and proscuitto, corn and tomato salad. And the salads we eat every day for lunch have become more colorful and unusual."

Get the family involved.
If you have kids, enlist their help in researching and choosing a CSA farm. LocalHarvest.org is a terrific resource that lists farms located all over the country; simply type in your ZIP code to search for farms near you. When the growing season is in full swing, take a family trip to a local farm so the kids can learn about where their food comes from. If your weekly delivery list includes unfamiliar greens, have your children search for some recipes to try. Laurie Berberich of Oakland, CA, a commercial property manager and mother of two kids, ages 12 and 14, says her CSA membership has broadened her kids' culinary horizons. "Sometimes they aren't too excited to try some of the different things we get," she says, "but we have discovered some new favorites, like a leek and potato soup I found last year. They can't wait till the leeks start coming again!"

Do your research now.
Since many CSA operators also participate in farmers markets (which wind down in the fall), late summer or early fall is the perfect time to visit vendors and inquire about their programs. Growers typically solicit subscribers during the winter months so they can plan and purchase seed according to demand. And some farmers offer fall programs—a perfect time to sample what CSAs are all about.

Know your expectations.
A CSA membership won't relieve you of the need to hit the grocery produce aisle; you may still have to shop for items that aren't in season based on the region in which you live. Recognize that eating seasonally means you won't enjoy fresh tomatoes in May in colder climates. And know that part of belonging to a CSA means that you assume some of the farmer's risk. If the lettuce crop gets munched by rabbits in the spring, then poof! There goes your salad plan for the week. Take a look at this in-depth list of considerations you should keep in mind.

Consider cost.
CSA programs generally offer two plans: one that's sized for larger families and another suited for couples or singles. Expect to pay in the neighborhood of $20 to $25 per week, but you may have to pay for several weeks up front. "Our Summer CSA program runs for 22 weeks, spring through fall, usually beginning in late May and running through the early weeks of October," says Esmee Elliott, who with her husband Todd, runs Hazelfield Farm in Kentucky. "We offer two size shares for the Summer CSA: $770 for full shares and $440 for half shares. We also offer a fall CSA that runs for 5 weeks, mid-October through November, and costs $125 per share."

The CSA model is mutually beneficial.
CSA subscribers not only have a reliable source for fresh produce, but they also feel a deeper connection to the folks who are growing what they eat. Kids learn where food comes from, and families have the confidence of knowing that what goes on their plates came out of the ground just a day or two before. In turn, small farmers get a bit of financial security. The subscription fees they collect up front fund their planting and growing operations, and they know how many customers to plan for—hence the name, Community Supported Agriculture. The community aspect appeals to customers and farmers alike. "It's an added comfort, especially at the end of a dry two months with almost no rain at all, that our farmers aren't taking this hit alone," says Ryan. "We're helping each other, and I love that aspect of CSA subscriptions."