What is a CSA?
The traditional seasonal CSA is similar to a subscription. You’ll receive a regular—most often weekly—share of produce or other farm goods at the height of their season. The season typically lasts 20-26 weeks, usually beginning around the same time that farmers markets open. Some farms offer a late season extension until Thanksgiving, and some have a winter season CSA option.
While most customers associate CSAs with produce, our region is rich in variety. Look at CSA options for pasture-raised meats or fresh-cut flowers. Some farms also also offer “add-ons,” such as eggs, cheese, bread, or honey, that customers can purchase for an extra cost.
A newer CSA model is the market share or market-style CSA. You still pay upfront at the beginning of the season, but rather than receiving a pre-packed box, you meet your CSA farm at a specified farmers market and select your own produce based on the size of your share.
Similarly, the buy-down model begins with a lump sum paid to the farmer. Purchases are made throughout the season until the balance reaches $0, and often you can add more to your account if needed.
A multifarm CSA, either through partnerships between farms or through a distributor that sources from multiple farms, might offer greater diversity or consistency of product but can lessen the direct connection that exists between you and a single-farm CSA.
In a workplace CSA, employees sign on as a group and the farmer delivers boxes directly to a place of business. Employers might offer incentives or educational opportunities to encourage employees to participate and market a workplace CSA as an employee benefit. (Are you interested in organizing a workplace CSA? Find more information here.)
Why buy a CSA?
- Get the best flavor. You receive a variety of the freshest produce, picked at its peak. Find new and heirloom varieties rich in flavor and color.
- Know your farmer. You’re on a first name basis with the farmer that grew your food! As an integral member of the farm, you get to learn more about what they’re growing and how they’re growing it.
- Experience eating with the seasons. Immerse yourself in the mountain seasons with anticipation and appreciation—tender greens in the spring and the first tomato of the summer.
- Try new things. Let the farmers harvest introduce you to new recipes and reconnect with old favorites.
- Encourage a healthy lifestyle. A weekly box of fresh produce gives you ample opportunities to infuse your diet with a wide variety of vegetables and fruits and do more cooking at home.
- Support what you value. Your commitment and financial support keeps farmers farming and preserves working farms, strengthening our capacity to build a food system that supports the wellbeing of our communities.
What will be in my box?
What you find in your CSA box is as diverse as the farms in our region. Produce farms strive to offer a wide variety of products that change with the season. While many farmers are using innovative techniques to extend the growing season, a CSA is an opportunity to savor what’s best about each season. If you’re not accustomed to eating seasonally, do some research. In the Southern Appalachians, the first spring crops will typically include greens, radishes, salad mix, and green onions. By the end of the season, boxes will often be heavy with winter squash, potatoes, and broccoli. Many farms provide a list of what kinds of produce to expect when, and if they don’t, ask for it.
At some point you will likely receive an item you’re not familiar with, or that you wouldn’t have purchased on your own. Most CSA customers see this as a benefit, as farmers can offer tips on how to use something new. They might send an e-newsletter, include printed recipes with your box, or just a offer suggestions in conversation. Some farms create opportunities for CSA customers to meet and interact, for example, a tour of the farm, a potluck, or a farm dinner, and you may discover ideas from your fellow CSA members.
Depending on the size of your family and how much you cook, you will probably need to supplement your CSA produce with fruits and staples. The good news is most farms have pickup locations at area farmers markets, where you can fill any gaps in your shopping list and meet other farmers in your community.
How do I pay for it?
Paying your “seed” money before the season begins is fundamental to the CSA model, but some farms offer other options, such as partial shares or auto-pay plans. A few farms offer a work-trade option in which shareholders assist with on-farm tasks in exchange for a reduced price or free share.
Where do I pick it up?
Finding a CSA with a weekly pickup location that works with your routine is key to enjoying your CSA experience. If you already visit a weekly farmers market, that’s a great place to start. Some CSAs might only offer on-farm pickup, which can be a great way to connect more deeply with where the food comes from. If you can gather enough interest from a group, a farmer might be willing to deliver directly to you. Contact farms in your community to learn more about your options.
How can I find farms with CSAs close to me?
Look for Full Share, a free resource for find CSAs published by ASAP in January. You can also search our online Local Food Guide to find farms offering CSA programs. ASAP hosts a CSA Fair in early spring, which is a great opportunity to meet farmers and compare CSA programs.
How do I choose?
In addition to price, pickup location, and product mix, you might also consider your personal rapport with the farmer. Narrow down your choices and talk to farmers at your area tailgate market or CSA fair to find the right fit. Another factor you may consider is the farmer’s growing practices. Ask farmers about their practices or find them listed at appalachiangrown.org.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Are you primarily interested in produce, or do you want to receive eggs, flowers, or other items?
- What growing practices or farm values are most important to you?
- Do you like the challenge of working with unfamiliar produce, or would you prefer to pick out what you want?
- Will you be able to make it to the pickup location each week, or could a family member or friend cover you if needed?
Questions to ask the farmer:
- What if I am out of town? Can someone else pick up my share or can I donate it?
- About how much is included in the box each week, and how does that vary throughout the season?
- Do you send a newsletter or include recipes each week?
- Do you offer opportunities to build community or have on-farm experiences?