CSA: Buy Local and Support a Farmer
The primary mission of Organic Foods Reviews is to bring you closer to the producers of your organic food. The quickest and easiest way for you to do that is to join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group. What is a CSA you may be asking? A CSA is a structured relationship in which consumers make a commitment to a farmer or farm family, to purchase their produce/products at the beginning of the growing cycle before the seed is put into the ground. This is really a wonderful relationship, in which you get closer to the food you eat through your personal relationship with the producer of that food, the farmer. You can often visit the farm and see exactly how your food is produced and where. The kids will love the visit and remember the day for the rest of their lives. It is always an educational experience at the very least.
The CSA helps the farmer by guaranteeing buyers for their crop, thereby eliminating waste and hopefully (which is usually the case) reducing the price to the consumer. The arrangement is different with each farmer, but generally most, if not all, of the customers pay in advance before the farmer plants the first seed. In return, you are guaranteed the freshest possible produce at harvest time, often picked the same day, so you are getting the maximum nutritional value for your dollar. This is an important aspect of the CSA experience, that shouldn’t be overlooked. You see, most produce is grown in CA or outside of the country, and if it is not locally grown, it usually travels for 7 to 14 days, no matter where it comes from. During that transportation and handling period the nutritional value drops considerably, even if it is high quality organic produce. So the freshness aspect is a significant issue for the wise consumer. Then of course, there is the satisfaction of knowing who you are supporting and that your money is staying in your community rather than going across the world or even to another state.
How a CSA works
Here are a few more details about the CSA model. The season for a CSA generally lasts between 30 – 35 weeks here in my state of Florida. However, it will vary in other parts of the country, and be much shorter in the northern states due to the shorter growing season. The length of the season also determines how much the full “share” will cost. A share (full or half) is the unit of trade in the CSA system. It may be a large grocery bag, basket, or box, and can often be purchased in full or half share quantities. This will vary from farmer to farmer, and the prices will usually vary considerably.
Here’s how the process works in a typical CSA. At the beginning of the season, which here in Florida is August or September, the consumer (you) signs an agreement with the farmer or farm family for 35 shares of there produce at $15 per share. The total cost would be $525 (35 x $15). You would pay the full $525 up front or work out a payment plan with the farmer; they usually have several options for you to do this. The farmer might give a discount of $25 for full payment up front, so that the full share price for the 35 weeks would only be $500, instead of $525. Or they might make it $16 per week for a payment option, which would make the total $560. The main points here are that you are making a contractual commitment to the farm family to purchase 35 weeks of produce and you know what this will cost. The farmer can then plan how much of each of his vegetables he needs to plant in order to supply the members of his CSA.
Helpful Tips and Things to Know BEFORE Joining a CSA
A well run CSA will have a set of rules and guidelines you agree to follow to join. Read these carefully and make sure that you understand them completely. They will cover where you pickup your share each week (a farmer will rarely deliver, they’ve got too much to do), what happens if you miss a pickup, what happens when you go on vacation, what happens if they have a freeze and the crop is late, which means your start date of receiving your first shares are delayed. All this is covered in their rules and guidelines which are part of the CSA agreement which you signed.
I highly recommend taking some time to get to know all the farmers in your community before you decide which CSA or farmer you are going to support. One of the best ways to do this is to meet them (at least the initial meeting) at your local farmers market. They are usually there, often selling the surplus produce that is leftover after their CSA members (you) are supplied. Most CSA’s will have a pickup at the local farmers market for efficiency, enabling the farmer to do two things at once; deliver the shares to their members and sell whatever excess produce they have. It’s a good opportunity for you to meet all the farmers, both conveniently and efficiently, as they are all in one place. Buy some produce from them, see how it tastes. Ask them if you can see what their shares look like that they are delivering to their members. If you are a single or two person household and don’t eat much, ask them about their half shares.
Most good CSA’s that have been in operation for at least a few years will have a website. Check it out, read everything they have posted as well as the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s). Once you narrow down who you think you want to work with and support, it’s good to take the time to plan a visit to the farm. It’s a great family outing and educational experience for the kids or grand-kids. They get to actually see where their food is produced and learn that it not make at a grocery store! This can be a very memorable experience for young and old. If the CSA is new or only a few years old this is a critically important step. You need to go to the farm and see what the farmer is doing or not doing, so you can get a better feel for whether they can deliver the goods 3 – 6 months down the road.
The whole process is a dynamic relationship building exercise. It can also be viewed as an elaborate interview process. The best way to assess the farmers’ likelihood to succeed is to “interview” them. Ask a lot of questions and get to know how they run their business and what kind of service you should expect. Since most people that have never farmed before will not know what questions to ask the farmer I’m going to give you a list of basic questions based on my 35 years of experience both with organic farming and working with organic farmers all over the world. The following is what I would ask them to determine the quality of the produce they will produce and their likelihood of success in being able to deliver the produce for an extended period assuming they don’t have a multi-year track record, which of course, is ideal:
1. Do you have a website? (So you can get more background info and details.)
2. How long have you been farming? How much general farming experience the farmer has is what you are looking for.
3. How many years have you been farming organically? Organic farming requires more specialized skill and sensitivity to the environment than conventional farming. It requires knowledge of how to build soil and fertility, specific knowledge of pests and diseases of plants, and knowledge of how to grow the variety of crops that they must grow in order to supply the variety of produce that their members expect.
4. How long has your CSA been in operation? Being a good farmer, doesn’t necessarily mean being a good manager of their CSA. A family run CSA is usually the best arrangement.
5. What are the costs of the share? You should have gotten that with the agreement you are planning to sign or on their website.
6. How long is the season? This will determine to a large degree the total cost of your shares.
7. What kind of fertilizer do you use? Is it OMRI certified? If they use a commercial brand, it should be approved or “certified” by (OMRI) Organic Materials Review Institute, for use on a certified organic farm.
8. Do you make your own compost? If not, where do you buy it? Do they compost on the farm? Where do they get their animal manure? This is important as off farm inputs are the major source of contamination in organic agricultural systems. For example, industrial sludge is a prohibited substance in organic agriculture due to its high concentrations of heavy metals and other toxins.
9. Have you had a major bug problem or pest pressure in previous years? Good, well balanced organic farms don’t typically have lots of pest problems, even in Florida, where I live. However, it usually takes 5 or more years of good organic practices like crop rotation and soil building to get a farm in a relative state of balance. Though to be fair and truthful, I have many organic farmer friends who say they’ve been working on getting their farm in “balance” through proper crop rotation and soil building for 20 or more years. It’s definitely a work in progress!
10. Who certifies your farm? Can I see your organic certificate? I would follow up with the certifier and see if their certificate is current. I would avoid doing business with any CSA that was not a “Certified Organic Farm”. This is your third party assurance that the farmer has an approved farm plan which includes crop rotations and approved soil building systems in place and is growing without the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. It also guarantees that the grower is not using any GMO seed, that they don’t use any industrial sludge for fertilizer, and that none of the produce is irradiated.
There are many more questions you could ask, but this will give you a good start in establishing what you hope will be a long term relationship with your farmer/partner, because that’s really what it is, a partnership; and that’s how you should view it.
While there are lots of things to consider before joining a CSA, it is important to always be aware that you are trying to get the most nutritional value for your dollar. This, along with the location of the CSA (the convenience factor), personal chemistry with the farmer, quality of produce and consistency of delivery, are some of the many considerations you should make before deciding to join a CSA. If done properly, with due diligence, the CSA/farmer relationship will be one of the most rewarding and satisfying business relationships you will have and will be the best way to get the freshest produce available for you and your family, while supporting your local economy and the environment. How’s that for a big WIN, WIN, WIN…?
The Local Harvest website has a listing of over 2500 CSA farms and thousands of listings for family farms and farmers markets. To find the ones near you click www.localharvest.org/csa/
You can also contact your local county extension office and ask them for a list of the local CSA’s and/or farmers markets.
Please let me know if this article was helpful to you and if so, please forward it on to a friend.