Choosing Your CSA Farm Share: Seven Selection Criteria (plus a consideration)

Mary Wessel Walker of Community Farm Kitchen says "Oh Say Can You CSA?"™

It would make a fitting new national anthem this year in particular.  Among our Local Food Victories of the past year, one is an amazing proliferation in the number and kinds of CSA farm shares that are available to the good people of fair Ann Arbor and environs.  

In case you haven't heard of it before, Community Supported Agriculture or a (CSA) farm share is generally a weekly allotment, or share, of vegetables in season (usually May-October) from a local farm, for which you pay in advance.  At a practical level, this gives the farmer some security and startup capital, and gives you a discount on your produce.

In fact, there are over 2 dozen CSAs in our area from which to choose (more on those in a future post), and a variety of models for participation including: subscription, shareholder, and shopper's choice.  

There are many produce CSAs of course, with their weekly boxes of gorgeous, fresh, seasonal foods throughout the summer, but there are also some wonderful, innovative CSAs going way beyond vegetables. For example, the Community Farm Kitchen with its prepared foods CSA, along with CSAs offering meat (Old Pine Farm), bread (Mill Pond Bread), locally grown frozen fruits and vegetables (Locavorious), winter hoophouse greens (Brines Farm), and even medicinal herbs (Herbs of Light).  It's getting to be like CSA heaven around here!  

Spring might still seem like merely a hazy Thing One Can Fervently Hope For, but I got my Seed Saver's Exchange catalog in the mail a few days ago AND I just got my first delivery of the year of wonderful Dragonwood eggs today, so I know spring is creeping toward us.  

If you want a weekly box of locally grown produce this summer, it's time to figure out which CSA best matches your needs and then get your application submitted post haste.  CSAs fill up around here!  Some criteria to consider when making the choice for your produce CSA include:  

- Type of CSA organization: Most typical is the Subscription model (pay upfront, get a weekly box of vegetables), but there is at least one Shareholder farm (greater involvement in decision making and farm process) and Shopper's Choice (pay upfront, choose which produce you want) out there as well.

- Growing Practice: The main differentiators here are growing practices based on Conventional Agriculture, Certified Organic, and Biodynamic/Organic Practice (for farms not certified organic, but either in transition to organic certification or in philosophical alignment with the tenets of organic agriculture and beyond organic).  Unless a farm is certified organic and says so, you'll probably have to ask about this and investigate for yourself.  

- What size share:  Some options include: whole, half, family, individual, senior, standard, large, etc. Most CSAs offer a share that feeds a family of 2 adults and 2 children as the standard. You can always split your share with friends or neighbors too - they will enjoy the benefits. 

- What season/how many weeks: Most produce CSAs seem to have a 20 week season that lasts from June through October. Some offer full season and half season shares. In my research it seems the season for local CSAs may be anywhere between 14-26 weeks. 

- Price per week: When trying to determine overall cash outlay, it's helpful to compare the price per week, since the cost and number of weeks is so variable. Most CSA shares are in the range of $20-$40 per week.  Another advantage of splitting a share - it costs half as much.  We pay $15/week for our half of a split share. I can't think of anything that's a better value for us. 

- Does the farm specialize in something? Do they grow exotic salad and multi-ethnic greens, or mostly standard "meat and potato" produce? Some CSAs are very greens-intensive, some consciously plant very few greens, some let you choose all your own produce.  Check for your preference. 

- Pickup time and location: Many (but not all) offer pickup at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market on Wednesday or Saturday and also offer pickup at the farm on specific days.  Cost is often less for farm pickup.  Your week will revolve around this pickup time, so choose one that gives you time to put all those vegetables away. 

- Farm visits/special events:  Many CSAs have opportunities to visit the farm on member work days, or have cooking classes, farm tours, potluck dinners, music festivals, kids' day camps, etc. Most farms are very happy to have members volunteer their time in any capacity - they all need extra hands and help.  Visiting the farm, especially if you have kids, is a great way to see with your own eyes where your food comes from and what goes into making it happen.  Many farms welcome visits and connections with open arms. One farmer says of members stopping by: "we get a lot of benefit from a social standpoint because we get to see people, and they get a lot of benefit because they get to connect with the land. We’ve got small children and we get a lot of joy from having people visit.”


In Conclusion

I've talked to a lot of CSA farmers over the past few weeks. Most seem to be doing well, expanding their memberships and their farms. Next year we'll have even more choices, as a few new (organic) CSAs are planning to break ground this year. 

I heard again and again how seriously farmers take the responsibility of providing a box of highest quality produce every week; of the creativity, planning, skill, and flat out labor that goes into making it happen.  We are unbelievably fortunate to have so much talent and good food so close to us. 

Even with some of the richest land in the state, Washtenaw County spends less than 1% of its estimated $1 Billion grocery budget on the food that it grows.  I hear there's going to be a campaign to change that. 

This is just the beginning of this thread. I'm going to be putting my list of CSA farms here soon!  And I hope to learn about more farms that I haven't discovered yet.  Until then, a great starting place is localharvest.org



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