CSA? You've maybe heard the acronym before but weren't quite sure what it meant....maybe a new criminal investigative show set in rural America???
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and is a way for consumers to buy local seasonal food directly from a farm. Farms typically sell 'shares' to the public - you pay a price ahead of time like a subscription or membership and then fresh food is delivered directly to you or to a location near you for pick up on a regular basis.
There are many different types of CSA programs depending on what farms are in your area. They may be able to provide not just vegetables but a wide variety of foods including fruit, meat, yogurt, cheese, honey, bread, or eggs.
The concept has been around awhile so I'm not introducing any new trend here, but I've found it can be hard to figure out what's available where and how to get started. Typically, I've heard of various local CSA's via word of mouth, but that's not always helpful if the one you hear about is not that convenient for you (for example, no pick up locations near you). Luckily, there are several very helpful websites out there to find farm fresh food near you.
Websites to help you get started:
- The best place to start is www.localharvest.org. It has the most comprehensive directory of CSA farms, and you can search for CSA's near your zip code.
- Another good website, especially if there may not be CSA's near you but you are interested in the nearest farmers market or local farm that sells on site, is the USDA. Check out www.usdalocalfooddirectories.com
- If you are looking for a specific type of food product...for example, you want to know if there are apple orchards or fresh organic poultry in your area, check out AgMap at www.agmap.psu.edu. Under 'Find It', you can search businesses by entering in your location (state, county) and the 'product' you are looking for to identify farms in your area that sell wholesale or retail.
- If you're more into the 'eating' rather than the 'cooking' but still want to enjoy farm-fresh food, you can also search for restaurants in your area that serve fare from local farms or sustainable sources. Check out www.eatwellguide.org
“Sex is good, but not as good as fresh, sweet corn.”
~ Garrison Keillor
“Shipping is a terrible thing to do to vegetables. They probably get jet-lagged, just like people.”
~ Elizabeth Berry
Once you've found one or more CSA's in your area, it's important to figure out whether any will work for you.
What should you consider when signing up for a CSA?
- Proximity: This is probably the most important factor - if it's not convenient for you to pick up on a regular basis, it's hard to maintain (despite your good intentions of eating more veggies!) Pick one that either delivers or has a pick up location easy to get to. If there are none near your home, remember to consider if there may be one close to work, the gym, or some other location you frequent.
- Timing: The typical time to sign up for a CSA is in the early Spring for a full 'Spring to Fall' share. But you don't have to wait until Spring to start enjoying fresh veggies if you have CSA's in your area that allow you to buy shares by the season (which I just did....more on that later!).
- Reputation and Quality: Word of mouth is sometimes the best as current customers can give you the scoop on quality and service together. If you don't know someone currently in the CSA program, check out the reviews for CSA farms on their individual websites or ask the farmer directly for customer references. You can also ask the farmer to clarify any farming practices (do they use pesticides or herbicides? are they certified organic? what sustainability measures do they practice?)
- Price and Quantity: Some CSA's have a wide variety of options: yearly shares, quarterly or seasonal shares, weekly or biweekly deliveries, different shares for different products (meats vs. veggies, etc). If you think a share is too much for you to use yourself, consider going in on one together with a coworker, neighbor, or family member.
- Flexibility: What's your sense of adventure when cooking new foods? Are you okay with focusing on what's in season? One of the great things about CSA's is that you get your box, scratch your head, and go 'What do I do with this rutabaga? Let the adventure begin!' However, if that doesn't appeal to you and you aren't ready to cook with whatever is delivered, consider a CSA that offers 'mix and match' or 'market style' options. These types of CSA's allow you more freedom to pick what you'd like to put in your box. This cuts down on waste and you'll be more satisfied with your delivery.
Although we live just a hop, skip, and a jump down the road from a wonderful farmers market called Maple Acres (the last working farm in our township), I recently signed up for biweekly Fall deliveries from Wimer's Organics out of Lancaster County, PA that delivers to a location within a mile from my home (www.wimersorganics.com, if you are interested).
They also provide local spun honey and fresh yogurt which I'm going to try as a one time purchase. I'm looking forward to searching for new recipes for whatever comes my way! Maybe I've watched too many Top Chef episodes where they are given that ONE ingredient they have to cook with - I know I could likely pick up similar ingredients from the farmer's market but there's something about being challenged by whatever comes in the box! =)
I'll let you know how it goes after a few deliveries....stay tuned!