There is nothing better than a just-picked tomato, ripe off the vine, served sliced up with fresh mozzarella, blue cheese dressing or even just a dash of salt. It's bliss in a bite. Radishes just pulled from the ground and sauteed are another amazing treat. Fruits and vegetables are at their peak of flavor and crave-worthiness when they are fresh from the farm, and that's exactly what shareholders get when they join a CSA program at a local farm.
Community Supported Agriculture programs, or CSAs, are programs that allow you to buy a share of a farm's yield for the growing season. Available all over the country, the locally-grown programs are becoming increasingly popular, and more are popping up everywhere. Cities are even getting in on the deal, partnering with nearby farms that truck in shares weekly.
Being part of a CSA doesn't just get you the freshest possible produce though. It also is a way of supporting your local economy and ensuring that small-time farmers stay profitable so that they can keep growing their goods. And, as a shareholder, you get to get up close and personal with the person responsible for growing your food. "With my CSA I have weekly contact with the farmer, know what is doing well, what is not, and that the rabbits ate all of the tomatillos that year. It gives me a deeper appreciation of the food. I'm not big on grace at a table but have begun a blessing of thanks," says Megan Riley, who found her CSA through LocalHarvest.org.
So, how do you choose the right CSA?
When choosing a farm to buy into a CSA, you should visit the farm and learn about their growing practices and check out (if possible) the quality of their produce. You can also ask for references from past shareholders to learn whether or not the cost of ownership is worth it.
"What's most important to me is the quality of the produce and that it is actually local...There are some CSAs that focus on organic rather than local. Getting organic produce from several thousands of miles away does not appeal to me. There are others who are local, but it sometimes felt like the produce was second quality, things they'd rather not take to the farmers market or sell to restaurants," says Ronda Scott, who belonged to five different CSAs before finding the right one.
When choosing a farm CSA program, ask about the size of the share that you will be receiving. Purchasing a large share for your single-girl household or a half-share for your family of five won't provide you with the right amount of produce for your weekly eating. However, some farms offer shares tailored to different produce needs. Ask about what is the typical yield for a share (such as number of servings of vegetables and/or fruit, variety, etc.). Also ask if there are options for smaller or larger shares to accommodate your specific needs.
There are a variety of ways that CSA shares are distributed, so finding the method that works for you and your schedule is essential. Unfortunately, not all CSAs have the same options. Some CSAs require you to pick up your order at the farm and even pick-your-own for some items, something that some shareholders adore since they get to participate in the process (and even include their children, too).
Other CSAs have drop-off locations where you pick up the box from a centrally-located spot during certain hours. Some shareholders, like Susanna Reppert of The Rosemary House in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, take on the responsibility of having their home be a drop-off point, which often results in a discount on the share as well. Some CSAs also offer home delivery.
For some, the allure of belonging to a CSA is upped when they have to work in the fields as part of their share. The experience allows them to get personal with the plants yielding their food. "We love the opportunity to volunteer on occasion. We love the pick-your-own. My boys wouldn't eat peas or green beans or cherry tomatoes if it weren't for the times they picked their own fresh and ate 'em, dirt and all," says Lisa Tener, who writes at LisaTener.com/blog. She and her family belong to a CSA program in Rhode Island that is walking distance from their home.
However not everyone wants to get their hands dirty in the fields. "What was important to me was I did not want to have to work the fields, I wanted to make sure it was a farmer who knew when to get the seed in the ground in order to have a productive harvest, [and] our CSA has irrigation and I considered that a plus," says Reppert.
Do you belong to a CSA? What do you love about yours? Leave us your comments below!
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