Considering a CSA? How To Pick One That Works for You

selection of fresh produce and eggs
Shares

For the past decade, our household has been buying much of its food from subscription-oriented community-supported agriculture farms (CSAs), rather than supermarkets or even local farmers market. CSAs offer “shares” of the produce and other products they grow to local consumers. From June through October, we get vegetables from Waltham Fields Community Farm, and year-round we get meat — including our Thanksgiving turkey — from Chestnut Farms.

Many CSAs provide recipes and other cooking guidance with their fresh food. If the idea of buying locally grown and, typically, more healthily and sustainably grown food from CSAs appeals to you, here are some questions to ask — and some tips based on my CSA experiences.

Questions for All Types of CSAs

You’ll want to determine if the CSA you choose has a distribution model that fits your needs and values. Be sure to ask:

  • Does the CSA offer enough food types that you and your household eat to be of interest? Variety in your diet is healthy and keeps meals from becoming monotonous.
  • Does the CSA offer a share size that matches the amount of food your household can consume before the next delivery? Shares, which may be referred to as a membership or subscription, should deliver the right amount of food so that leftovers don’t become waste.
  • What’s the commitment when you subscribe? Typically, you sign up for a year or part of a year, although some CSAs require no commitment.
  • Do you pay at the beginning of the season, or at each pickup? Is there an annual membership fee? Because you are subscribing to a food delivery service, you’ll want to ensure you can make changes and manage your expenses appropriately.
  • Do you have to pick up your box or does the CSA deliver to your home? If you need to pick up, does the location and pickup time work with your schedule? In my experience, meat distributions are usually monthly; produce is usually available weekly. It’s always a plus if I can avoid rush hour traffic when I pick up my food.
  • Can you share your CSA box with housemates, family, friends? Think about splitting a CSA share like buying a season ticket to a sports team — it’s great thing to share among friends to lower the cost, but not all CSAs support share-splitting.
  • Does the CSA have events at their farm or elsewhere? As with any community, you’ll want to find a place that welcomes and supports your socializing and learning. 
  • How does the CSA communicate pickup reminders and other news? How do you communicate with them? Odds are, they send email and maintain a Facebook page and/or a website — but better to ask.
  • Do you have enough fridge and freezer space? You may want to invest in a chest freezer — and don’t forget to date-label items when you put them in.

Questions for Meat CSAs

These questions might also be helpful for fish, cheese, and other non-produce CSAs.

  • Does the CSA put the meat in individual coolers (you return them empty the following month), or do you need to bring your own? Containers contribute to waste if they are not re-used. Whether it’s bring-your-own or return-the-container, like the old-fashioned milk delivery that picked up empty bottles, be sure that the CSA is minimizing waste. If the CSA requires you throw away a box every week, think about joining a different CSA.
  • What types and cuts of meat do they offer? What are the basic monthly amount choices, for example, 10 pounds, 20 pounds? For my household of two, we currently get 10 pounds, every other month. We can easily go several days in a row without meat, and that is good for the planet. Look for shares with the right delivery schedule for you.
  • Can you specify items you don’t want, for example, no pork or no red meat? Even better, can you also request some favorites, like “We love lamb!”? CSAs are evolving to be more personalized and should be able to cater to your specific tastes.
  • If you pick up your share from the farm, does the CSA have additional items for sale at the pickup location, such as eggs, bones, organ meats, smoked meat, or hamburger? Be sure to pick a CSA that minimizes your need to travel to get food. The flexibility to add to your pick-up with a quick impulse or planned purchase will reduce your travel time and environmental impact.
  • Do they offer seasonal specials, such as fresh turkeys for Thanksgiving? Always look for bargains and special offers! If there are none, the CSA may not be right for you.
  • Do they have any retail presence at their farm or other marketplace? Chestnut Farms, for example, has a permanent space at the Boston Public Market near Boston’s Fanueil Hall.
  • Can you skip months or make other arrangements to deal with vacations and other scheduling conflicts? Note that due to laws in some areas, un-picked-up meat can’t be brought back to the provider, so you’d be liable to pay unless there’s a way to make advance arrangements.

Questions for Produce CSAs

Last, but not least, here are some questions to ask farmers about your options with their produce CSA program.

  • Do you get a choice of items each week? Ask the farm what they grow and how frequently they provide different varieties of produce. 
  • If you pick up your share, do you select and bag your produce, or is it pre-boxed? This is another variety-related question. If you like to pick through the produce at the store, imagine selecting from an entire farm — but if you want a boxed offering, you’ll still want to know about quality assurance in your produce.
  • If you select and bag, do they provide bags — larger ones for the full pickup, smaller ones for individual items like that pint of okra — or do you need to bring your own? Of course, it’s best to bring your own reusables, but good to know, in case you forget your bags or containers.
  • Does the CSA offer pick-your-owns? If they do, consider wearing sneakers or hiking shoes for walking on dirt and mud through the rows of plants. And take a sun hat.

As you can see, half the trick of successful CSA-ing is picking the right one that offers the right selection for you. The other half is getting the hang of using what you get: A few sharp knives and a few more cookbooks may be helpful.

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Daniel Dern

Freelance Writer at Trying Technology
Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology and business writer, primarily about computer/Internet technology, including related environmental aspects of heat/cooling/power, manufacturing, and "end-of-life" recycling. His articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, Byte, ComputerWorld, IEEE Spectrum, and TechTarget. He also writes science fiction and kids stories (some are both), doing his best not to recycle plotlines.