Blog | January 10, 2011

All about CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture). Why would you want one and what’s it like when you have one?

This month’s Putting it into Practice is all about CSAs, or Community-Supported Agriculture. These programs allow you to become a “shareholder” of a farm. You invest money at the beginning of the growing season in exchange for a share of the weekly harvest of fruits and vegetables or meat. We talked with Wendy Matusovich and Matt Glidden, two Farm Aid staff members, about their experiences.

When did you decide a CSA was right for you?

WENDY: As a kid, mountains of fresh produce seemed an inevitable part of life. What we couldn’t grow in our own garden we bought directly from a local farmer. I was lucky. I grew up in a rural area with farmers all around us. I can remember many hot summer days in the kitchen with my Mom prepping our harvest for freezing… corn, strawberries, eggplant and green beans. It was only when I moved away from home and into the city that I realized not everyone had that kind of access to fresh food.

I tried to find the same taste and smell in supermarket food and, too often, was disappointed. That started my quest to build a city garden and grow my own. I’ve grown herbs in coffee cans and tomatoes in window boxes. They weren’t always pretty, but they sure tasted good. Now, I have two girls (ages 9 and 3) and I want them both to know what fresh fruits and vegetables are supposed to taste and smell like. I want their hands in the dirt. We can’t grow enough to feed our family in our shady little backyard, so we joined a CSA- Community Supported Agriculture.

You share in the ups and downs of your farmer. So if it’s a bumper year for tomatoes, you get a ton or, if there is a tomato blight like we had in the northeast last year, you don’t get any. The good news is that a bad year for tomatoes may mean a good year for beans or vice versa. You’re never sure what you’re going to get, but whatever you do get is fresh and local and yummy.

MATT: About five years ago, I got more into cooking and started reading cooking forums and blogs from home cooks all over the country. Their recipes varied, but then I noticed many of the people talking about the great vegetables they’d get from CSAs. It seemed like a good way to save money on fresh produce while giving money directly to farmers, a win-win. But the idea of having a Mystery Box each week scared me off a little; I wasn’t quite ready to give up control of what vegetables I cooked with. Then I learned CSAs existed for meat too.

The main reason I like my meat CSA is because I know exactly where my meat comes from. Any time I’m up in Vermont, I can stop in and see the family raising the animals I use to feed me and my wife and our families every month. I like to know that they’re treating their animals with respect.

Is there any downside or challenges with your CSA?

MATT: Due to state laws, I can’t get chicken through my CSA, so we rarely eat poultry. I’ve found a couple local sources for it when I feel the need to splurge, but it’s not cheap. I also can’t predict what we’ll get each month, so if some guests are coming over and I really want to grill some steaks, I have to make sure I’ve stockpiled a few months’ worth of them. Also, I only have one freezer, so testing my skill at physics and geometry trying to fit all those packages in can be a struggle.

WENDY: I think the main challenge we have is learning what to do with new vegetables. It’s often a tasty challenge, but figuring out what to do with tatsoi or rutabagas sometimes adds to dinner preparation. I don’t like things to go to waste and I do like my kids to try new things. Thankfully, my CSA provides recipes tailored to each week’s food.

How has having a CSA changed things for you and your family?

WENDY: I know my family is going to eat fruit and vegetables each week or else I’m going to have a fridge full of rotting food. If I didn’t have a CSA, I might not buy as many vegetables and then we all wouldn’t get our 5-a-day. Having the CSA makes it easy to make sure we all eat healthier.

Our CSA also allows you to work days on the farm if you choose. I love to take my girls out to the farm where they can meet the farmers and learn how their food is grown. I want them to understand that it doesn’t just magically appear at the supermarket. My kids were the lightning rod that prodded me into action—into connection with a farmer.

MATT: It’s made trips to the grocery store much easier, since we almost never have to venture down the meat aisle — we get better stuff delivered right to our door! I also don’t eat that much of those meats out at restaurants, unless it’s something I really can’t make at home (or it’s been one of those very long days during concert preparation season when I just need a cheeseburger). We are also a little more experimental with recipes for different cuts of meat that we probably wouldn’t buy at the grocery store.

Do you have any tips for someone new to having a CSA or looking for one?

MATT: Try to get a friend to join the CSA with you; I do that with ours. That way, you can trade for your favorite things in that month’s delivery and it also helps keep up with the pace of a delivery every month (or every week, if it’s a vegetable CSA). As for tips in looking for one, if you have a farmers market nearby, ask around there for people’s experiences with one CSA or another. Of course, I’d also recommend checking out the resources on our Find Family Farmed Food page.

WENDY: I agree with Matt. Join a CSA with a friend so you can compare recipes and ease into having so much fresh food around. It can be a little overwhelming at first if you aren’t used to cooking with so many green things and you figure out what the right size share is for your family. For us, a full share is too much but a half share is just right.

Join the Conversation is a project by Farm Aid to be a place where we connect to the land and each other. Check out these conversations about CSAs there:

Have you thought about getting a CSA? What do you think about this idea? Are grocery stores or farmers markets good enough for you? Weigh in with your opinions in the comments.

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