Should You Join a CSA?

Is Community Supported Agriculture Worth It?

Woman holding fresh produce in a bowl
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What is CSA?

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) consists of consumers who commit to buying seasonal produce directly from a farm located in their community. The farmers and the consumers then share the benefits and the risks behind food production.

How it Works

Typically, consumers become "share holders" of a farm in their community and pledge in advance money that goes into the farm's operation and farmer's salary.

In return, the bounty produced by the farm throughout each growing season is distributed to each member.

Most CSAs offer different levels of membership which also determines the amount of fresh produce that each member receives.

Depending on which program a member commits to, they may pay upfront in full, weekly, or in installments throughout the growing season.

Example of CSA Distribution

One of the CSAs in my area offers enrollment in spring, summer, fall and winter. There are a predetermined number of shares available and existing members get first dibs on the next season's shares. If all the shares are sold there is a waiting list for new members.

The season length varies depending upon the time of the year. 

Summer and Fall - 12 weeks

Spring - Eight weeks

Winter - Four weeks

They have three box (share) sizes available to members.

Small: Members will receive four to five smaller items for $15 a week.

This box is for one person who does not cook very often.

Average:  Members will receive eight to 12 items (about a ½ bushel) for $25 a week.

It includes everything that they have that is available. This accommodates a family of three or four who cook an average of three times a week or for a couple that cook and juice.

It also includes the most popular seasonal extras.

Abundant: Members will receive 15-20 items (¾ bushel) for $37 a week.

This is for families of four to five people who cook an average of three times a week or for two to three vegetarians that make an entire meal of vegetables. It also includes the most popular seasonal extras.

There are specific pickup days at different locations around the community.  This is a good time to get to know the folks involved in the farm and to ask questions about future crops.

There are also times throughout the year that the CSA invites members to an open house which is not only educational to the members, but also a lot of fun for children. They get to experience what goes on behind the scenes of a real working farm.

This particular CSA communicates through Facebook and sends emails with what will be included in the next box. They also include recipes for the produce that is being sent. This is particularly helpful during the more bountiful times when trying to figure out how to use what you get before it goes bad. It is also helpful when you get something that you have never cooked.

Every CSA is different so it is always a good idea to shop around and to ask a lot of questions before making a commitment.

Do CSAs Pay Off?

The concept behind the structure of a CSA is so that it is a win-win opportunity for both the farmers and the members. Ideally a grower should be able to maintain profits from a small farm by selling low-cost memberships to customers who then can enjoy fresh seasonal produce at below-market prices.

However, CSAs are not one size fits all. While most CSAs offer a diversity of vegetables, fruits, and herbs in season; some provide shares in eggs, meat, milk, baked goods, and even firewood. Some farms offer a single commodity, or team up with others so that members receive goods on a more nearly year-round basis.

Each CSA is structured to meet the needs of their members; so many variations exist, including how the cost is setup, delivery methods, and growing practices.

It also depends on the habits of the individual members.

For members that are diligent about not letting food go to waste, then joining a CSA will almost always pay off when comparing freshness and prices at the local supermarkets. For people who travel a lot, then a CSA is probably not the direction to go.