Enjoy Food

CSA Season Is Here: How To Find The Right Box For You

Howard Gensler  |  March 16, 2022

If you like fresh, healthy food, then it’s time to consider supporting your local CSA. Nourishment and helping the planet? Sign us up!

Since its start in Japan in 1971, Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA) has been a true farm-to-table movement. Today, CSAs are more popular than ever, and we know the model best as a means of getting fresh food from a local farm delivered to our door (or to our local farmer’s market) via a delicious box of whatever-is-in-season. Effectively, whenever you support a CSA, you’re agreeing to pay an agreed amount to a farmer (or group of farmers) at the beginning of the season in exchange for shares in their harvest. The farmers get the money they need to grow their vegetables and support their operations, and you get the benefits of fresh produce at a discount over what you’d pay in the grocery store. 

CSAs around the country provide not only fresh vegetables and produce, but new small-batch varieties of fruit and veggies that are unseen in most chain grocery stores. Some CSAs, depending on the farm, also now offer dairy, meat, fish and more. The beauty of the CSA model is that it’s a win-win for both consumers and farmers — and it also benefits the planet with sustainable crops and shortened transport.

The Beauty Of The CSA Model 

“For Farmers, CSAs really help to even out their income over the year and even over the week,” says Katie Brandt, Educational Programs Manager of the Student Organic Farm at Michigan State University. The advantages to the farmer are two-fold – they get money up front from their members, and they also get a midweek delivery date which balances out the farmer’s market sales on the weekend. It’s good to have two weekly sales points because some crops may not hold a week from harvest. “For the consumer,” says Brandt, “the benefits are getting the freshest local produce in season, plus things that you cannot purchase at the grocery store. At this time of year (March) at the student organic farm, we are harvesting winter spinach, which is a completely different product than spinach that’s grown in the summer. It has gone through multiple cycles of freezing and thawing out and it actually uses sugar similar to antifreeze to protect the leaves from freezing. 

One other benefit, says Brandt, is that “most of the CSA farms that I know are using certified organic growing practices and a higher rate of sustainable farming methods to meet the demands of their customers.” CSAs are changing with the times in other ways, too. For a long time, CSAs were very focused on vegetables, sometimes vegetables and fruit, and they were set out on a table a la carte. People would come through and select their head of lettuce from whatever their items were for the week. And those were selected by the farmers. A lot of the CSAs are now increasing the amount of choices, Brandt explains. 

A farm near Ann Arbor, she says, does a “you-pick CSA,” where members get directions to the farm and then instructions how to harvest their own. “CSAs for cut flowers are becoming popular,” Brandt says, “and there are now herd-share programs that follow something similar to the CSA model. People are getting a gallon or two of milk from a cow that they own a portion of. The farmer just houses the cow.”

Cooperatives & CSAs 

Fans of the ABC show “Shark Tank” may remember Lucinda Cramsey from Moink, a box meat company that made a Season 10 deal with “Ring” doorbell founder Jamie Siminoff. Similar to a CSA, Moink is a farmer-rancher cooperative which offers subscriptions for grass-fed, ethically-treated, beef, lamb, pork and chicken products free of sugars, preservatives and hormones. By cutting out the middle-man, Moink-affiliated farmers can spend more money and time on their animals and not have to compete with factory meat production. The Missouri-based idea seems to be working: Moink ships nationwide and now works with over 100 farmers.

There are also CSAs and cooperatives that enable customers access to fresh seafood, like Otolith Sustainable Seafood, which is run out of Philadelphia by Amanda Bossard. “Otolith pre-sells wild seafood before it’s harvested,” Bossard says. “The fishermen and the processors know Otolith will distribute their wild seafood directly to our customers, who want consistent quality, minimal handling and packaging, and seasonal best wild fish and shellfish.

Bossard said Otolith, which has seafood available in PA, NY, NJ and DE, promotes sustainable practices through sourcing and using line-caught and pot/trap harvesting techniques. “These gear types are a sustainable favorite in a world where environmental balance and economic incentives often are at odds with one another,” Bossard explains. She adds that Otolith is committed to minimal packaging and minimal waste as “non-biodegradable waste has infiltrated oceans, freshwater systems, usable land and air quality.” 

Bossard says she wants consumers to understand that the cost of heart-healthy wild salmon, and other wild seafood should not be compared to farmed seafood because they are not comparable products in terms of flavor and nutrients — similar to how there’s no comparison to the local purple heirloom tomatoes or pink-flesh plums you get from your farm CSA vs. those that were shipped two weeks ago from Costa Rica to the Walmart grocery aisle. 

Time To Find The Right CSA For You 

Our best piece of advice is something you’ve no doubt employed 100,000 times before: Just Google it. Think of what you’d like to try (or make a note of what types of foods you use the most of) and then do a search to see which farms or farmer’s markets near you may have a CSA offering. 

If you don’t see anything online that you like the look of, or if you just prefer to kick things old school, then inquire at your local health food store or farmer’s market, or check the message boards at your local library, coffee shop, or other neighborhood meeting spot. 

Before you sign up, ask yourself (or the CSA you’re signing up with) the following questions: 

  • How often is delivery, or pick up? Can I skip a week or month if I need to? If pick-up, what’s the location? 
  • What size box options are there? Is there an option for singles and for families? 
  • What usually comes in the boxes each season? Do I have any say in what comes in my order each week? Am I likely to get 80 beets and one carrot, or do the farms make an effort to offer a variety? 
  • If your box is coming from several farms, try to get a sense of the farm(s) participating, and whether you’re going to be seeing leafy greens, purple carrots, giant melons, gourds, or some combination. 
  • Ask if there’s a friend who might be interested in going in with you — If you find out that the shares will simply be too big for your needs, or if you worry that you won’t be able to pick up your box every single week, going in with a friend could be the best option. 
  • Ask yourself what kind of recipes you can start trying with your newly-discovered ultra-fresh and ultra-local produce. No matter what you sign up for, you’ll want to make sure you get your money’s worth and make use of the whole box.

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