Sunday, April 4, 2010

About CSAs

This article was first published in the April issue of the Left Hand Valley Courier.

This is a general article about CSAs, and the more I researched, the more differences I found in how they run. After this was written, one local farmer told me that his CSA allows consumers to choose their own produce from what he has available, which is quite different from the farms that pack boxes for CSA members. I'm sure there are other variables well.

There have been several discussions about CSA on the Serious Eats website, and it's always a lively discussion. For some people, it's an easy way to get fresh veggies every week, while others have been less happy with their choices. Some people said the veggies in the CSA boxes seemed to be lower quality than the ones from the same farms at the markets. Others found that the CSA boxes had better produce and also might get the items in short supply. Others found that even the small shares could be too much of some types of produce, or they didn't like some of what they recieved, and felt it was a waste. Still others liked the adventure of having a mystery box every week.

On the other hand, some people simply liked the idea of shopping at a farmer's market and buying from multiple farmers rather than supporting a single farmer. And of course, there's the fact that some farms may not grow all the types of produce a customer might want. Or, they might plant it, but the crops could fail. So a trip to a farmer's market might be in order once in a while, even if you join a CSA.

In the end, if you're thinking about joining a CSA, you need to do a bit of research. Because in the end, they're all very different from each other.

CSA? What's That?

Last year, you might have seen signs at the farmer’s markets asking you to join the individual farm’s CSA. But what is a CSA?

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and it’s a system where consumers pay farmers at the beginning of the season, and the consumers receive a share of the harvest throughout the year, usually distributed weekly.

Quite often, shares are available in different sizes, based on family size. A small share might feed 1-3 people, while a regular share might be for 2-5 people. Of course, that depends on how many vegetables the family eats.

What goes into a share depends on what a particular farm grows, and it also depends on what’s being picked and how well those crops are doing for the farmer that year. So every week it’s a surprise.

The benefit to farmers is obvious – they have a guaranteed income at the beginning of the season that isn’t dependent on market prices and is immune from crop failures. But since that’s the case, why don’t all local farms offer a CSA?

One local farmer said that CSAs can be labor-intensive, since all of the CSA boxes have to be ready for the customers to pick up all at the same time, so they have to consider whether that sort of one-day push can be worked into the farm schedule.

The benefit to consumers is that they have a regular supply of fresh, local, in-season produce that they don’t have to shop for. Most CSAs require that consumers pick up the produce at the farm on a specific day, although some might have other options as well.

Some CSAs offer members special add-on items that aren’t available to the general public. Those add-ons depend on what the farms raise, but it might be eggs, milk, cheese, or meat products. Or they might offer extra quantities of produce during canning season, for customers who are interested in buying more than just what they can consume in a week.

Some CSAs are like a co-op, where a number of farms get together to be able to provide a greater variety of produce and other farm products to customers. While that might be appealing in terms of getting the most variety, it strays a bit from the CSA idea of buying from and supporting one farm.

Cheryl Namowicz, the Boulder Farmers' Market manager said, “What's different about Boulder County Farmers' Market CSAs is that we are a growers only market. Everything that comes in your CSA package was grown locally by the farmer you sign up with.”

While CSAs are usually concerned with fruits and vegetables, with other products as add-ons, there are some CSAs that specialize in the other products. So, instead of getting a share of vegetables, you might buy a share of milk and egg production.

Prices for CSA shares vary, depending on what the farm grows, how long the season is, and how large your share is. In the end, while CSAs all follow a common theme, no two are really alike, so if one farm’s schedule and produce doesn’t mesh well with the family tastes and schedules, there are probably other farms that are a better match.

There are a large number of farms in the area that offer CSA programs, and many are already signing people up for the upcoming season. Spring is just around the corner, and it won’t be long before the first crops are ready, so now is a great time to talk to some local farmers about their CSA programs.