Let me start off with the advice that CSAs are a fantastic thing. And, that I am searching for our next CSA. But just like the proverbial barrel of apples, one bad experience can detract from the others — if you let it.
It is rare that a CSA does NOT work out, but as more and more people embrace eating local, it can happen. Here's the story and how to make sure your CSA experience is positive.
We've had the same CSA for five years. In the beginning, it was like Christmas each week. Especially in July and August when a huge box filled with heirloom tomatoes was a weekly gift. We were pretty supportive of our farm and the fact that some of the best restaurants in town were building menus around the very same produce we were lucky to eat ourselves.
The farm flourished, expanding to sell meat and eggs and preserves. Building green houses and on the verge of offering a winter CSA (fresh, local lettuce in February!). Then, there were some family problems with the farm last year. The boxes got lighter. We saw the heirloom tomatoes on restaurant menus — from our farm — but we got few of them, and few of the other unique varieties.
My weekly trip to the farmers market for a few extra goodies turned from an optional trip to a requirement in order to get enough produce for the week, despite paying more each year.
The family split. We felt awful for them and figured the bad year was justifiable. We decided to stay another year and support them through this difficult time.
The cost of the CSA went up with gas prices, and stayed up. The boxes got lighter and lighter, despite a mild summer and a lot of rain. Some weeks, there was not enough produce in the box to serve for more than two meals for a family of three. On average, a CSA box should provide enough produce for a family of four for a week.
The pickup location moved to the lot where some of the restaurants the farm supplied were located. I saw items posted on their menus from our farm that were not in our packages. The heirloom tomatoes were absent for us. Instead, these special items were displayed in baskets on the pickup table and sold to other folks as a farmers market. Of course, we were welcome to pay extra for those heirloom tomatoes, dragon tongue beans, elephant garlic and exotic items — even though our deposits bought the seed and supplies.
Friends we had recommended the CSA to were complaining to us about it. One said she found store stickers on some of the peaches in her box. We talked to the farmer, she denied any problems and accused of us not wanting to support local farmers.
You see, restaurants do not pay up front. Sometimes they don't pay for weeks after a produce delivery, and some don't ever pay. Farms rely on CSA subscribers for up front money for the farm and a guaranteed income. CSA subscribers are the only secure income for these farms.
I took my extra money to my own farmers market to buy the other five days worth of fruits and vegetables for our week. When the CSA quit a week early, they also requested for us to be sure and sign up again for next year, the sooner the better for them. I hope they do well, I think they should probably just focus on the restaurant business since that is their priority.
I am looking for another CSA. I am NOT quitting the CSA process. I believe in it. I believe in family farms and supporting them. But a CSA is a partnership, and it has to be based on trust just like a friendship.
Joining a CSA is a new experience for first-timers. An adjustment. You pay up front, you don't get to choose what you get, you cook what comes ... it's hard enough to adjust for a lot of folks new to eating local without additional problems. But, trust me, once you make the adjustment, you'll never want to go back to the grocery store path. It's that good.
Here are some things you can do to make sure your CSA experience is a good one.
- Talk to more than one CSA provider and get to know them a bit
- Visit the farms if possible
- Ask how many acres the farm has, how many subscriptions they will sell, and how many restaurants or other businesses they supply
- Ask if they work with other farms, some do, to provide more variety and serve more subscribers
- If you are excited by heirloom produce, ask if the farmer grows unique varieties
- As them what an average box contains
- Talk to other subscribers for several CSAs and ask them about their experience, or even trade photos of your weekly boxes to compare
- If you can't commit to a weekly pickup, ask if the farm delivers, if not, you may be better off shopping at the farmers market
- Do you have a pretty good idea how to cook most anything, or do you cook only from recipes? If you are not flexible in your cooking approach, you may be better off with the farmers market since it is more like shopping
- Get recommendations on the best farms from your local food circle staff. They know everyone and may be able to help advise you on what farm is the best fit