CSAs: Bad name, great concept

If you’ve ever thought about signing up for a CSA, this is the best time to do it. Most of these types of programs are enrolling members right now.

The first time I signed up, my biggest hurdle was the name. What the heck is a CSA, anyway, and why’d they have to call it something so darn off-putting?

Allow me to clarify. CSA stands for “community-supported agriculture,” and what it actually means is a big box of food. Or a bag. From a farm. Or farms.

Admittedly, it’s a little difficult to describe the concept in two or three words. But I can guarantee you this: If I had been on the naming committee, I never would have voted for “community-supported agriculture.” It’s confusing. And highfalutin. And vague. I mean, “community-supported agriculture” could also describe a farm that gets visits from the local high school’s cheerleading squad. (Go, Farmer Bob!)

The economic-distribution model that has come to be known as CSA might be better described as a “weekly farm box” or even a “farm subscription,” because it works a lot like a magazine subscription. You, the subscriber, commit to pay in advance for a product that is meted out at regular intervals. The differences between farm and magazine subscriptions are that the items in the farm box—vegetables, mostly, but sometimes also fruit, eggs, cheese or meats—taste better than magazines. And they’re probably not going to be delivered to your door; you’re going to have to pick them up at some agreed-upon place. Oh, and the farm subscription comes with a risk.

Yes, there’s some risk. You’re investing in the farm’s future output, so if a crop is wiped out by bad weather, disease or locusts, you’re out of luck. (Also true for magazines, but locusts are less likely.) Those failures can happen, but the greater risk, I’ve come to learn, is one of miscalculation. As in, it’s August, and you’re loving the eggplant, bell peppers and cherry tomatoes you’re getting each week, but Good Lord—how many pounds of okra can a person eat in one summer? It’s a good problem to have, though; one that challenges my cooking skills and makes me appreciate the abundance and variety of food in my extremely blessed life.   

The term “CSA” also describes other economic models in which consumers invest in a farm’s future output. I’ll tell you about one of those next week. But for now, let me offer a brief primer on the typical farm-subscription (CSA) program.

What to expect:
    •    A weekly pickup of a variety freshly harvested food that has been raised nearby, usually without manmade pesticides or fertilizers.
    •    Enough food to provide a fresh item on your lunch or dinner plate most nights for a week.
    •    An upfront payment for several weeks’ worth of food, come spring.

Advantages to you:
    •    You get a weekly supply of high-quality, yummy food.
    •    You have fun discovering new foods and new recipes.
    •    You teach your family about good nutrition through good food.
    •    You get to know the person, or people, growing your food.
    •    You get the satisfaction of knowing that your hard-earned money is being reinvested right in your community.
    •    You typically spend less for the items than you would for an equivalent amount of food purchased a la carte at a farmers market or organic grocery store.

Advantages to farmers:
    •    They get an income boost when they need it most: at the very beginning of the season, when seed and supplies must be purchased and little or no food is ready to sell.
    •    They can plan their growing season for a guaranteed base number of consumers.
    •    They have the opportunity to develop relationships with people who are likely to become devoted, longtime customers.

What to ask before you commit:
    •    Where is the pickup location? (Choose one that’s near work or home.)
    •    What is the cost? (Expect to pay $20-$30 per week, sometimes more, for roughly six to 10 food items.)
    •    What sort of items will I get? (The farmer should be able to provide a list of “typical” weekly harvests.)
    •    Where is the farm? (If you are signing up for environmental reasons, you might prefer partnering with a farmer who is not driving long distances.)
    •    What is the farm’s approach to pest management and fertilization? Is the farm certified organic, certified Naturally Grown, or otherwise committed to “sustainable” growing methods? (The best answer depends on your own preferences.)
    •    Does the farm supply all the food, and if not, where does the other food come from? (Supplementation and farm partnerships are common, but you’ll want to make sure the other farms meet your expectations, too.)
    •    Do you offer half-shares? (Convenient for singles and families that eat out a few nights a week.)

Are you ready? Here are a few great resources for finding a farm subscription program. CSA. Whatever.  
•   Georgia Organics has just released a list of CSAs organized by pickup location.
•   Local Harvest has an extensive list of CSAs organized by farm. Each farm provides detailed information about its program and its pickup locations. In the box on the right labeled “What are you looking for,” select CSA and type in your ZIP code.
•   Ecovian offers a solid listing of Atlanta-area CSAs with maps of each program’s pickup locations.
Image: Courtesy The Bitten Word.