I have taken the liberty this morning of reprinting an article about CSAs written by Jeanette Hurt on April 28, 2011 for the website SecondAct. It is the best description I've found defining what a CSA is and how it puts you in touch with your food and local farmers.
From the Neighborhood Farm to Your Kitchen Table
If you're trying to eat more locally harvested foods or introduce more and varied vegetables to your diet, you might want to join a CSA this spring.
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and a CSA is a partnership between a local farmer or groups of farmers and consumers. You pay a "share" before the growing season starts and receive a weekly box of fresh vegetables throughout the summer and fall.
"When you first join a CSA, it can feel like Christmas, but instead of a stocking filled with candy, you're receiving a basket of beautiful vegetables each week," says Angela Rester, executive director of Wellspring Inc., an organic farm and education center in Newburg, Wis.
CSAs cropped up in the 1960s in Japan after a group of mothers became alarmed at the amount of imported foods their families consumed. The women began a cooperative with a local farmer, calling it "teikei," which translates to "putting the farmer's face on the food." The concept spread to the United States in the 70s and 80s, and within the last 10 years, CSAs have become more popular as the "locavore" movement has exploded.
It's now pretty easy to find a CSA locally, whether you live in a Chicago suburb or in the hill country of Texas. The Local Harvest website is a good place to start your search, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers some helpful pointers, too.
Here are some things to consider as you look for a produce package that's a good fit for your family.
1. Organic or not.
CSAs can be certified organic, grown organically without certification, biodynamic or conventional. A farm that's certified organic has to go through a verification process to show that the crops are not grown with pesticides or herbicides. Some farmers grow their crops organically but they aren't officially certified because of the expense involved. A farm that's biodynamic approaches agriculture holistically, and it must be certified to call itself biodynamic. If growing conditions are important to you, then ask before signing up. Even if you choose a farm that's simply conventional, you're not only helping your local economy; you're also getting fresher and more delicious produce than if you pick up an organic head of lettuce or bunch of grapes grown in South America.
CSA shares typically range from $400 to $600 for the entire season, which breaks down to about $20 to $30 a week for 20 weeks. Sometimes this includes a transportation charge, but other times, that's an extra fee. Some CSAs offer worker shares -- free vegetables if you work one day a week on the farm -- or reduced costs if you work one or two shifts per growing season. A less costly option: Some CSAs also offer half shares -- a smaller box every week or a box every other week.
3. Size of box.
A typical box of vegetables, in the heart of the growing season, is bountiful, and might be more than your family needs in a week. That's where half shares can be helpful, too, or you might want to split a share with friends or neighbors.
4. What's in the box?
No matter what CSA you join, you'll probably get introduced to some unfamiliar vegetables. That's part of the fun. But if you don't like surprises, "ask the farmer 'What crops are you intending to grow?'" Rester advises. "If I want to have salad every week, then I want to know that my farmer is growing lettuce every week." Some farmers offer trading boxes -- where members can discard or trade unwanted vegetables.
5. Ask for recipes.
Many farms are happy to share. Some farms even offer cooking lessons or demonstrations, which will help you prepare that bumper crop of kohlrabi. "If you don't know what to do with a vegetable, don't be afraid to ask," Rester says. "Sometimes, those of us who are really into vegetables don't always realize that not everyone knows what we know." And don't be afraid to be adventurous in the kitchen -- some of your biggest "experiments" might turn into family favorites.
6. How the box gets to you.
Some farmers drop off boxes at a store or school, and a few offer home delivery. You'll want to find a CSA with a drop-off or pick-up location that's convenient for you.
7. The extras.
Some CSAs offer fruit, dairy, egg, meat, bread or even fish shares. If you'd like to have these extras, look for a CSA that brings most of your grocery items to you. Some also might sell you a bushel or two of tomatoes, in season, if you want to preserve them for the winter.
If you want to join a CSA, start looking now. The most popular CSAs fill up early, but many have openings into May, with deliveries starting at the end of May or the beginning of June. At the end of the season or sometimes part-way through the year, many CSAs invite members to visit the farm for a festival or a potluck dinner.
"That's a way [to] not only put a face to your farmer, but put a face to your farm," Rester says.
For a direct link to the complete article, including a delicious-sounding recipes for sugar snap peas with mint and lime, click here: From the Neighborhood Farm to Your Kitchen Table.