(CFF note, this is a guest post by Betsy, one of our new “virtual farmhands,” I hope you all enjoy reading her assessment of CSA for her family)
Are you thinking of joining a CSA this year? Wondering what’s involved? (We’re part of the Colvin Family Farm CSA; if you don’t know what a CSA is, I’ll refer you to their excellent FAQ site for general CSA info.)
Now, let’s look at a CSA Investment.
Investments: Money, Time, and Labor
1. Investment of Money: You are committing a set amount of money, whether you pay up front or in multiple payments through the season. Determine whether this is a wise choice financially for you and your family. Take note of the nature of the produce you will be receiving from a CSA: local, fresh, sustainably grown, often organic, primarily vegetables.
2. Investment of Time: No question, being part of a CSA can be more time-consuming than most folks’ usual weekly food prep. Consider your schedule (lots of travel? both spouses working?), any upcoming life changes (new baby? big move?), and other ongoing commitments (care for a relative? several young children?). I should note that it’s a lot less time than I spent in my former gardening days–a good trade for us in this current season of our lives since we aren’t gardening but still crave farm fresh produce with all its glories and challenges.
3. Investment of Labor: Closely related to the investment of time is the investment of labor you will make. Farm fresh produce ain’t predictable, and it ain’t always shiny. Some of these might be “no big deal” for your family; others might be a deal breaker. (Check out the “Week in the Life of a Shareholder” for more detail on these steps.)
- The Pick-up: Extra trip for groceries? Or, usual farmer’s market run streamlined?
- The Prep: More prep than grocery store produce (no bags of pre-washed, pre-cut stir-fry ready veggies!). It’s also worth considering where you will put all of the produce. Listen to the farmer’s wife: when she says an entire shelf of your fridge, she means an entire shelf of your fridge (and your counter!). Those abundant greens take up some serious space in the ol’ icebox.
- The Planning: More time poring over cookbooks, trolling the farm forum, asking friends, and calling up your grandmother to find out how to cook the latest batch of summer squash, make pickles, and what the heck do you do with kohlrabi? Too much work or fun challenge?
- The Product: You will no doubt be eating/cooking vegetables at every dinner and at more meals than just dinner. Worth noting.
Potential Risks (“risk” is a part of any investment!)
- Unpredictable produce–type and/or amount (rainy weather, dry weather, hot weather, …)
- You won’t like something (or are already vehemently opposed to particular vegetables)
- You prefer “pretty” and standardized grocery store produce
- You won’t have time to enjoy this adventure; it will be too overwhelming
- You won’t be able to “deal” with your picky family/children not wanting to try something
- You won’t be able to afford it
- You need more “predictability” for health reasons–need to be able to cook the same, known recipes
Potential Payoff: On the other hand, your investment in a CSA has some great potential payoffs:
- relationships with people such as the CSA farmers and other share-holders
- Support of a family/organization you choose (We really like the philosophy behind the Colvins’ farming, their outspoken testimony for the Lord, and the way they’re raising their kids; it wasn’t hard to make the leap to supporting their work through buying a CSA share. We view the veggies like the interest we might earn on a stock-market financial investment, more than an “I paid for these, so give me what I want” transaction)
- better–and more–information on the food you are eating
- Better stewardship of the land(most CSA farmers have a vested interest in taking care of their land and work hard to do so)
- Better stewardship of the produce you bring home (I’m much more likely to use up all my CSA stuff because I know the people who worked hard to grow it! It’s also quite fresh and picked ripe, so it tastes better and, stored properly, lasts longer than grocery store produce that’s had a good week+ transit time from farm to store.)
- Fresh and local, sustainably grown/organic produce
- more awareness of what’s in season when
- More–and more varied–produce in your diet! (never a bad thing)
- better health for you/your family (assuming the CSA adventure is causing you to eat more vegetables and assuming you value less pesticides on your produce)
- more creativity in cooking
- better control over your cooking (allergies in the family? have to cook from scratch?)
- discovering new varieties of old favorites (tiny melons, heirloom tomatoes)
- learning to try and like new vegetables (trust me: we now enjoy kohlrabi, turnips, and okra; our kids can try a bite of greens without gagging–can’t wait to see what the new season has in store. Maybe we’ll learn to like eggplant.)
- Finally: the sheer joy of in-season-produce-gluttony: An abundance of colorful peppers yields your own roasted red peppers, peppers in the freezer, peppers in omelets, sauteed peppers, raw peppers dipped in hummus. We readily put away crisp salad veggies for grilled peppers and summer squash and then switch to braised greens and roasted fall vegetables, enjoying each in their season (which helps explain why we now do enjoy some of those very vegetables!). We’ve come to really enjoy this rhythm and look forward to each new season.
Ready to make the CSA investment?
How to Choose: Check localharvest.org and look for the map in the right hand margin (there’s a space to fill in your zip code). Check out what local farms are offering, take a stroll through your city’s farmer’s markets (some farms can sign you up on the spot!), and see if any friends would like to split a share with you. Note pick-up times and locations and make sure they will work for you. Start small if it’s your first year (you can always buy more produce at the farmer’s market stand while you’re picking up your share.)
It’s Not For Me: If you think no way, no how, then let me encourage you to shop at your local farmer’s market. This can be a good way to “get your feet wet” if you’re mildly interested and want to see what cooking seasonally is like.
Still on the fence?
For you vegetable novices out there, might I suggest this option: set aside the same money each week you might spend on a share, commit to ONE farmer’s booth at the farmer’s market, and shop each week with that money. Try a new vegetable each week. This is a good way to get a feel for the rhythm of the seasons and a CSA experience, to still support a local farmer, and to purchase vegetables you are more comfortable with. I know from experience that the Colvins usually have a nice selection! (After all, I see their table every week during the season. I’ll tell you, though, that we share holders get different goodies! You *might* be missing out.)
For you veg-heads out there, I’d encourage you to go ahead and try a small share–even split one–this year. It’s a fun challenge to receive that beautiful box of produce and figure out how to make the most of it each week!
No Pressure: We’re glad we’ve done the CSA experiment for sure, but if my summer schedule was like my typical school year schedule, it would be mighty hard to keep it up. Each year, it’s a new decision for us based on exactly these concerns: money, time available, our interest in eating more vegetables, etc. We’re looking forward to the challenges and new discoveries our third year with the Colvins will bring!
My 2012 CSA + Garden Haul Pictures–Check out more on my summary of the 2012 season via my blog