CSA membership is great. This summer, 2013, I joined Riverbend Roots Farm’s CSA. I absolutely loved it. For the record, I have absolutely no experience with other CSA options, nor experience during a bad growing year.
I suppose I should first explain what is CSA. In a nutshell, you pay for a share or membership at the start of the growing season, and in return you get a portion of the harvest for the whole growing season. It’s rather nice to know you’ll be getting something fresh and delicious every week to eat, no cash required.
There are a couple different types of CSA models. Outside of the US & Canada they call them, I think more appropriately, vegetable box schemes. The scheme to which I subscribed for this season is a direct arrangement in which the farm manages its own shares. Some offer only vegetables, while others may include eggs, meat, preserved foods, or other items. Some let members decide what’s in their share, within reason, by allowing choices at pick-up, or via an online ordering system. Others just divvy up the produce equally, by distributing a share (or half share) of the harvest to each member. Another type is the “Combined CSA”, in which the customer buys from a middleman who aggregates the products of several different producers. Some would argue that the combined model is not CSA at all, but I’m not sure. To me it seems a lot like a collection of neighbors sending a couple of people to the market to get enough for all of them. It’s not as evil as some would have you believe, but the income for the farmer is potentially reduced by adding another layer of complexity and labor to the transaction.
From a farmer’s perspective, the direct CSA model is preferable in terms of revenue, but not necessarily in terms of profitability. If a farm runs its own vegetable box scheme, they have the added overhead of someone to manage membership, people to sort and pack the shares, and in some cases to track the labor of members on the farm; which is either required by the farm as a condition of membership, or is available to reduce the cost of a share.
As far as my personal experience with CSA goes, I managed to have weeks during the season in which I didn’t spend a dime on food. As long as you’re prepared to spend a little time figuring out what to do with your bounty, you’ll be able to eat well for less money than you’d probably otherwise need to spend.
The bottom line
I recommend some kind of vegetable box scheme to nearly everyone, with the following exceptions: picky people and avid gardeners. If you’re very picky, you’re better off going to a market where you can buy only exactly what you’ll eat; and if you’re a very avid gardener and have the time, space, and ability to grow enough food for yourself and your family that’s obviously a more economical choice. And you can’t get food from much closer than your own yard.
If you’re ready to take the plunge, ask around among your neighbors or call on a local farm. If you’re shy, you can find a very good directory of CSAs all over the US on LocalHarvest.