If you yearn to eat seasonal, local foods while also deepening the impact of your purchasing power so that it directly supports the work of local farmers, you may want to consider becoming a member of a CSA. A CSA, which stands for community-supported agriculture, allows individuals and families to directly invest in a local farm by purchasing shares of the farm’s harvest. In return for your subscription, you get a box, basket or bag of the farm’s harvest each week. The farmer gets the stability of payment early in the season, which supports the upfront costs of providing you with weekly deliveries of fresh food.
CSAs offer opportunities for subscribers to visit the farm and get to know the farmers through social events like potlucks and work parties. Many also offer newsletters, blogs and recipes to help members come up with ideas for cooking with the produce in each week’s share.
Courtney Johnson, a public interest environmental attorney, has been a member of CSAs for over 12 years in Connecticut, California, Alaska and here in Portland. “I support CSAs, because these small local farmers provide us with seasonal, healthy produce, largely organic, and offer consumers a choice to eat locally instead of always supporting the giant agro-businesses,” says Johnson. “We sometimes forget that one of our strongest votes is with our dollars—our choices as consumers. By supporting CSAs, we support the small farms that provide a more sustainable alternative to the way we eat and think about food.”
While CSAs appeal to many of us on an ideological level, the logistics cause many to hesitate. How much food will you get, and will there be variety? Is it more expensive than buying produce at the farmers market? To learn the real deal about CSAs, I asked Courtney Johnson about her experience as a CSA subscriber and did some research on farms that offer CSA memberships to Portlanders.
How Much Food Do You Get?
How much food you get depends on the farm and the type of share that you buy. For example, Gaining Ground Farm offers a full share, which provides enough produce to feed “two vegetarians or four people with mixed diets.” They suggest that subscribers who want a smaller share find a neighbor or friend to share the subscription. For the individual subscriber, Slow Hand Farm specializes in smaller shares more suitable for single households. Many farms, like Sauvie Island Organics, offer either a full or family share, and an individual share that is suitable for one person or a couple. Many CSAs offer a variety of add-on or specialty shares, such as a salad, eggs, wine, cheese and meat.
By doing some research on the farm’s website, you can often find an example of what a share typically includes as the season progresses. Some farms even provide a list of the contents of the previous year’s shares by each week. Gaining Ground Farm provides a snapshot of what you might find in your share box:
When and Where Do I Get My Share?
Most CSAs offer several different pick-up locations in Portland neighborhoods, and many offer several options for the day, time and location for pick-up. Most farms also offer an option for you to pick up your share at the farm. Subscribers can select the most convenient pick-up site. An added bonus is that the pick-up is often an opportunity for members to meet each other and get to know the farmers.
Does It Cost More Than Buying Food at the Market?
Many people shy away from CSA membership because of the cost of buying a six-month supply of produce in advance. The cost of CSA membership varies for each household. Here’s how to calculate the costs and benefits for you: First, figure out how much you spend on produce each week. If your CSA subscription includes eggs, cheese or other products, include those items as well. Multiply that by the number of weeks your CSA membership offers and see if it adds up.
Courtney Johnson first became a CSA member while a college student, and she thinks the benefits of CSA membership add up financially: “It's probably about the same amount as you would spend on veggies at the grocery store each week, if not less, and it's the freshest, most seasonal produce you can get. Given that it's mostly organic and high quality, I think it is a very good value.” The key to getting the most value out of a CSA membership is to avoid wasting what you get in your weekly share. “The loss in value comes with waste,” Johnson says. “If you don't use [the produce], then you are obviously not being cost-effective.”
How Do I Prevent Wasting the Produce in My Share? What If I Get More Food than I Know What to Do With or Produce That I Don’t Know How to Cook?
One of the perks of CSA membership is that you become a member of a community connected to the farm you support. Many farms offer recipes and preserving techniques to help CSA members get the most out of their program. Most farmers put a lot of effort into providing a variety of produce for each weekly share. You will rarely, if ever, get an unmanageable quantity of one item, like an entire box of radishes. Many farms, like Gaining Ground Farm, include recipes to accompany the produce in your weekly box. Other farms host potlucks, post recipes on their blogs and newsletters and encourage members to call them directly with questions about preparing or preserving their weekly produce.
What are the Biggest Challenges of Being a CSA Member?
On one level, it sounds pretty easy to be a CSA subscriber. Every week, you have freshly harvested local produce delivered to you. How much easier could it get? But CSA membership requires a slight change in lifestyle for those accustomed to dropping by the grocery store to buy whatever produce you crave at the moment. “The biggest challenge is getting into a routine to make it to your CSA pick up location every week,” says Johnson. “The best challenge is finding new recipes and ways to use ingredients that might not always have been a staple of your repertoire!”
CSA membership comes with risk. By joining a CSA, you are investing in a farm, which is naturally a risky business. Some crops may fail, and some may thrive. As a member, you make a personal connection to the people who grow the food that sustains you and your family. As with any relationship, communication is key. Whether you are a potential CSA member or a veteran subscriber, don’t forget to talk to your farmer!
Some questions to ask the farmer before you sign up for a CSA membership:
- How long have you been farming?
- How long have you been offering a CSA?
- Are there items in your box grown by other farms, and if so, which farms?
- How did last season go?
- I'd like to talk with a couple of your members before I commit. Could you give me contact info for a couple of references?
- How much of your produce is organic?
- Where do you grow the food?
- Do you offer an add-on for eggs, milk, cheese, meat?
- What produce can I expect to get over the course of the season? Do you offer fruit as well as vegetables?
- Can I get a half or individual share?
Local Harvest is a national website listing CSAs, farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and other goodies.
Some CSAs Serving Portland
Deep Roots Farm
Gaining Ground Farm
Gathering Together Organics
Happy Tortoise Farm
47th Avenue Farm
Sauvie Island Organics
Slow Hand Farms
Winter Green Farm
Provisions CSA Mushroom Farm
Produce & Meat Combination
Hood River Organic
Deck Family Farm
Double F Ranch Meat CSA
Square Peg Farm