How to Choose a CSA

What to consider when deciding which community-supported agriculture program is right for you and your family

If you seek tastier, fresher produce, have a spirit of culinary adventure and want to support your local farmers, you may want to join a CSA. Before you do, though, take all the factors into consideration, because this system of obtaining fresh food might not be right for everyone.

How It Works
The term CSA stands for community supported agriculture, and it refers to a direct relationship between a member (that’s you!) and a local farm. With most CSAs, you’ll get a weekly portion of whatever’s ripe and ready directly from the farm for a period of several months. By cutting out the middlemen, members have access to a farm’s freshest, most seasonal offerings, and farmers have access to much-needed financial capital (in the form of pay-in-advance subscription fees) for equipment, labor and supplies. The risks and benefits are borne equally: In a difficult season, both parties may suffer (for example, a drought may mean fewer crops for the farmer and fewer veggies in your CSA box), but in a great season (with the sweetest strawberries, the juiciest tomatoes), both will benefit. It’s a relationship.

The Logistics
No two farms are exactly the same, so no two CSAs are identical, either. But you can generally expect the following:

Uber-local, highly seasonal offerings. Don’t expect Chilean grapes or New Zealand kiwis. Instead, you’ll find locally grown produce, picked at its peak. This often means zucchini, eggplant and corn in summer, for example, and hearty greens, cauliflower and potatoes in winter. The availability of items completely depends on your climate and location. You stand to be delighted by some unusual, new-to-you offerings, depending on the farm you choose.

Possible add-ons. Many CSAs offer more than fruits and vegetables. Some also offer farmstead cheese, flowers, herbs and more&8212;for a premium.

Multiple drop-off points. Boxes of fresh-picked produce are delivered to one or more set locations in your region, generally once a week. Members pick up their shares—sometimes they’re already portioned into boxes and sometimes you choose an allotted amount from bins—and cart the contents home. Some farms also allow (or may require) members to pick up shares directly from the farm, if you happen to live close enough.

Set pickup times. Each CSA will provide members a window of time (say, Wednesday afternoons from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m., or Saturday mornings from 8:00 a.m. to noon) for pickup. After that time, you might forfeit the right to your box. Many CSAs donate any leftovers to charity.

Pay in advance. Expect to pay for an entire season (the length of the season depends on your location) in advance. Some CSAs offer a choice of payment options, but many do not. Many CSAs also offer a reduced price for low-income households, ensuring that everyone has access to fresh, seasonal produce.

Recipes, newsletters and community events. Many CSAs maintain info-packed websites and offer weekly newsletters with recipes specific to that week’s box. If you have no idea how to cook, say, kohlrabi, you’ll be given plenty of ideas. Your CSA may also organize periodic events and dinners for members. Some farms hold special field days when members are invited to visit the farms, share a community meal and meet the farmers.

Farmer Judith Redmond is a founding partner of Full Belly Farm in Guinda, California, which has run a CSA program since 1992. Full Belly also offers summer classes and programs for children. “For us, [the CSA] gives us a relationship with the people who are eating our food,” she says. “It provides community in both directions.”

Volunteer work. Since many CSAs are organized and run entirely by volunteer members, they may also require members to work a set number of hours during the subscription season. The duties vary: You might set up produce distribution at the drop-off point, organize events or contribute to the weekly newsletter.

Before signing up for a CSA, Redmond encourages potential members to ask themselves several questions:

- Am I confident in my cooking? Am I willing to open my heart and mind to new ingredients?
- Do I love the food produced in my region?
- Can my family reasonably consume the quantity of produce I will be purchasing?
- Are the pickup times and locations convenient to my home or work?

Trevor Sieck, market manager at Siena Farms in Sudbury, Massachusetts, suggests asking the farmer the following questions:

- How long is the season?
- How many boxes can I expect annually?
- Can I see the harvest and delivery list from last year (to get a sense for what might be available this season)?
- If I have questions, is someone readily available to answer them?

Just as important in deciding whether to join a CSA is which one to join. Ask for recommendations and do your research—a good place to start is Local Harvest’s website, which has a local CSA finder. If you do move forward, you’ve got a great adventure ahead of you.



Cheryl Sternman Rule is a widely published food writer. She is the voice behind the blog 5 Second Rule and iVillage’s food news column, The Daily Feed.

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