What’s a CSA?

I have mentioned our CSA on here a couple times and I am a big proponent of CSAs.  I absolutely love ours – the food is better-tasting than what we can get in the grocery store and it has exposed us to many new foods (Swiss chard, collard greens).  Many people ask me what a CSA is so I thought I’d write a little primer.


What is a CSA?


A CSA (or Community Supported Agriculture) is basically a share of a local farm’s yield.  In a traditional CSA model, a customer pays up front for a season’s worth of produce.  For every week of yield, a pre-set fraction is collected for each customer.  The type of produce you receive depends on where you live and what the farm chooses to grow.  Once per week the customer picks up their share from a designated location.  The length of the subscription will depend on the length of the growing season where you live, but could be several months up to year-round.


Are there other types of CSAs?


The traditional model is the most common, but there are variations.  Many farms offer sizing options – for instance, a full share or half-share, or a family (full), couple, or individual share.  CSAs often offer more than just fruit and vegetables – they may have dairy and meat options as well (the hot sausage offered by our CSA is my favorite item!).  Our CSA also allows us to choose the foods we receive in our weekly box and their amounts.  Every week we receive an email with the food available and the item prices and we reply with what we want in our box, meeting our minimum weekly price.  (This is essentially pre-shopping the farmer’s market and I love this model.)


What are the benefits of subscribing to a CSA?


The universal benefit is that by subscribing you are supporting a local farmer with your dollar.  Most farms that have CSAs are organic or close to it so there are many environmental and health advantages.  The produce is fresher than what you’ll get in a grocery store, so while it might not be as attractive it will likely be tastier.  Whether or not there are financial benefits depends on the exact market and what foods the CSA will replace in your diet/budget.  If you already buy organic foods from your grocery store you may see a price drop, but if you normally buy conventional products you may be paying higher prices, especially if you are buying meat or dairy products.  Personally for our habits we are not spending less money on food overall.


What are the downsides to having a CSA?


A traditional CSA does not allow you to pick the foods you get in your box so you must receive what the farm chooses to grow.  (This may also lead to frustrated Google searches trying to figure out the name of the strange vegetable you received and how to cook it.)  You are also limited to what the climate and soil in your local region are capable of growing.  Some CSAs also may not be flexible if you forget to pick up your weekly box or are out of town – you may just lose your share for that week.


One of the problems we have run into is that sometimes we waste produce due to not knowing how to cook some of the items, not having room in our refrigerator for the whole haul, or letting some of the produce languish too long in the refrigerator.  We run into the same problems (to a lesser degree) with any produce we buy, but the issue with a CSA is that you get so much at one time that it can be difficult to eat through in a timely fashion.


Where can you find a CSA?


1) Local farmer’s market.  It’s likely that at least a few of the farms that come to a farmer’s market will have CSAs.  Just talk to a few farmers about whether or not they have CSAs and what they provide at what price.


2) Internet search for CSA and your city name.  This is how we found our farm.  You’ll probably find a lot of results but will need to filter by the pickup location and date.


3) Local sustainability organizations.  I found the website for my university’s sustainability initiative to be very helpful in finding local farms.  It listed all the farms that had CSA pickups on-campus.  A sustainability organization in your area may be similarly organized.


What are you experiences with a CSA?  What are the most impactful benefits and detriments?


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25 Responses to "What’s a CSA?"

  1. I got a CSA last year and enjoyed it – only got fruit though. This year i’ll be expanding to veggies as well, but my biggest complaint was what to do with 15lbs of apples/pears/peaches at one time! That was a lot for 2 people.

    1. Emily says:

      Wow, that is a lot of fruit! I guess you’d have to get creative with cooking since it’s hard to eat more than a piece or two per day raw. Did your CSA let you opt for only fruit last year or are you switching farms?

  2. Heather says:

    I’ll be joining my first official CSA this season. We’re splitting a full share it with another couple, so I’m hopeful that we’ll work around several of the downsides you mention.

    I’m particularly excited about those google searches you mention–I see them as challenges and opportunities for creativity! So far I’ve found outlets for leafy greens in soups and as pasta-toppers when sauteed lightly with garlic and toasted seeds/nuts. But wow, if I end up with 15lb of apples I’ll have to start a large-scale canning operation!

    1. Emily says:

      I think the cooking of unfamiliar produce can be very fun, but the what-the-heck-is-the-name-of-this-thing Google searching is very trying because it’s text-based and not image-based. 🙂 Even though we can choose what goes into our box we have opted many times over the past few years to receive vegetables we have never seen before, which is exciting. The first year we had the CSA Kyle made a lot of stir-frys!

  3. Doctor Stock says:

    I wish I could participate in something like this more easily; however, climate has a huge impact. Nevertheless, I’ve found the farmer’s markets to be great… perhaps the next best thing.

    1. Emily says:

      I’m surprised a place with a robust farmer’s market would not have CSAs available. But yes, the farmer’s market is great too. I have a hard time making it there every week so the CSA is good for forcing us to buy consistently.

  4. Blarg says:

    I tried out a CSA this year which was quite different from the one you describe. It was a fixed weekly take, with the only flexibility being that you could put part of your share in a swap box and take something someone else left. Overall though I was disappointed by the complete lack of fruit and protein in the share. I love farmer’s market fruit and fresh meat, but did not receive any. At least with tons of fruit you can make pie; I’m not sure what to do with 8 large servings of greens every week in addition the other veggies.

    On the plus side however, all the food I did receive was much fresher and tastier than that found at the supermarket. Because it was so fresh, as long as it made it into the fridge it generally lasted much longer too. I had some green onions this summer that lasted 3 weeks on the kitchen table!

    As for identifying the mystery items, why not ask the farmers?

    1. Emily says:

      That sounds like the traditional model plus the swap box. Our CSA doesn’t do fruit either, except tomatoes. Did you renew for this year or look into another farm that might provide a different mix?

  5. Renee says:

    I was originally discouraged with CSAs because I was worried I would just get a huge box full of greens too. And, ask anyone who knows me just a little bit, I used to think salads were the BIGGEST waste of plate space ever!! However, I’ve recently realized how extremely healthy greens are – and that has inspired me to eat more. J and I now eat a serving of greens at every meal – yes, even breakfast (wilted arugula!!) – and it has the additional effect of cutting down our portion sizes… resulting in saved $$. Sometimes our salads are just a big serving of greens without any toppers or seasonings – just something we’ve gotten used to.

    1. Emily says:

      I eat wilted greens for breakfast too! I alternated sauteed spinach with sauteed squash and pair it with eggs usually. The CSA greens are overwhelming for us in the spring, especially since not all of them are great for wilting, which is my preference. We’re doing better each year in coming up with ways to use all the greens, and thankfully in our area it’s only overwhelming for a few weeks.

  6. […] and we can stay within our budget most months.  However, now that it’s summer and our CSA has started, I would like to let the “sustainability” influence take on more weight and […]

  7. […] This month was probably pretty low because of our two weekends traveling and we started getting our CSA box so we had produce and meat from that […]

  8. Rob says:

    I’ve been wondering if there isn’t a way to solve the problem of getting too much produce at once for CSAs that are purchased by people who predominately live in the neighborhood. Why can’t they pick up their share twice a week rather than once a week? Sure it means that the place has to be staffed an extra day, an extra trip into the city and a second box. But you also get fresher vegetables and can eat more of them. Maybe some people like me would prefer to pay more for the second pickup?
    Rob recently posted..June Corn Maze Update

    1. Emily says:

      For us the problem of food going bad does not happen in the first week! It’s only when we let produce stick around into the second week that it might go to waste. Sometimes our fridge gets pretty full and we can’t fit everything at once, but I think that would happen whether we picked up once a week or twice. Sometimes farmers have to travel quite a long way to deliver their CSA boxes so doubling the deliveries wouldn’t be possible for them.

  9. […] CSA savings account is fully funded to buy one individual share-season next year, so I have halted […]

  10. […] obviously.  I don’t know what it is about winter but we just spend so much more on food!  Our CSA started this month, which we prepaid for, but I’m transferring the weekly cost of the CSA box […]

  11. […] CSA account is back in the list!  We paid $207 this month for an individual share for one season.  […]

  12. […] Short-term goals are easy to create, especially if they recur yearly like our season tickets or our CSA – it’s a fairly static price and […]

  13. […] right in line with the living wage food category (for us that’s groceries, eating out, and our CSA subscription) and lower on medical costs (we don’t pay premiums for our health insurance).  The […]

  14. […] CSA season ended in September so we had to make up the produce and meat that we had received at the […]

  15. […] CSA, and more generally lots of fresh, occasionally local/organic […]

  16. […] I do), what percentage of your grocery budget goes toward local/grass-fed food (not much beyond our CSA subscription – clearly I don’t value it as highly as I say I […]

  17. […] bought a season of an individual share of the CSA we’ve been with for the past several years for […]

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