With the growing season getting ready to kick into high gear, farmers markets will be once again be dotting parking lots and the freshest and best fruits and vegetables will be on offer. While it can be fun to shop each week for fresh produce from a variety of vendors, more and more people are opting to support a single farm and join a community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

The gist of a CSA is that consumers become partners with a farmer by agreeing to share the bounty of the farm in exchange for advance payment of the produce they will receive. Participants in the CSA program buy a 'share' of the farm's expected output.

The total cost of the share is due at the beginning of the season to help the farmer pay the costs of production. In return, the participants (also called members or subscribers) receive a box or bag full of fresh produce each week throughout the season. Some farms also have animal production, and their CSA members may receive items such as eggs, honey, cheese and meat in their weekly CSA shares.

Becoming a member of a CSA is a great way to support a local farmer. Family farms were almost extinct until the proliferation of farmers markets occurred and CSA programs became more common. Small production farmers are good stewards of the land and help make our environment healthier, in addition to supplying local communities with the freshest and best fruits and vegetables. A byproduct of the family farm is the production of artisan foods such as jams, cheeses and bread - another plus for local consumers.

Every CSA is different with respect to cost, type of food that is produced, length of growing season, pick-up and/or delivery options, whether the farm is organic, etc. Below is a quick overview of community supported agriculture, reasons why you should join and questions you should ask so you're sure to find just the right farmer/partner for you.

What is a CSA?

  • CSA stands for "Community Supported Agriculture"
  • Many local farmers offer this program
  • Consumers join by purchasing a share of what the farm will produce in the upcoming season
  • These share owners are members of the farm's CSA program
  • Throughout the season each member receives a weekly box of super fresh, just-picked produce

Why should you join?

  • You get the freshest, best tasting, most nutrient rich food available
  • You help support a local farmer
  • You will be exposed to new fruits and vegetables
  • Some CSA shares include eggs, cheese, honey and other products
  • Locally and sustainably grown food is good for you and good for the planet

What should you ask before joining?

  • Is your farm organic? Many small farms are not certified organic as this is a costly process, however they often farm without the use of harmful pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Ask about their practices before you buy.
  • What quantities should I expect to receive each week? CSA's tend to be generous in terms of the amount of food included in the weekly share. Since you don't want to have too much produce which often leads to waste, sometimes farmers offer 'half' shares which is more appropriate for 1 or 2 people. You might also choose to split a share with a friend.
  • What types of fruits and vegetables should I expect to receive? Not all farmers plant fruit, and it's good to know what to expect as the season progresses. For example, you'll usually you'll receive lots of greens, peas, spring onions, and berries at the beginning of the season. Peppers, squashes, tomatoes and melons come later followed by potatoes, beets, winter squashes and apples.
  • What happens if I am out of town and/or can't pick up my share for a week? Often you can appoint someone to pick up your share on your behalf, or maybe the farmer will offer to add extra to your box the following week. Policies differ, so ask the farmer if missing a pick-up is a concern.
  • Can I request specific items and/or more of something in my share? Again, policies differ - ask before you join. Sometimes farmers will offer special products that can be added for an additional cost, such as eggs, jam or even grass fed beef. Receiving an extra large potion of a specific item will likely depend on the abundance of the harvest.
  • Can I visit your farm? Most small farmers are happy to have visitors and welcome the opportunity to show off their farm to customers. Be skeptical of those who are evasive or don't embrace the idea of visitors.

Are there any drawbacks?

  • If there is a catastrophic event at the farm and the harvest is affected, you share the risk with the farmer and other share owners; you will probably not get a refund on the amount you paid to own a CSA share.

How do you find a CSA in your area?

  • Ask at your farmers market
  • Check www.localharvest.org; they list all sorts of small food producers by area
  • Check with your local Slow Food chapter - they often keep lists of local food producers and where you can buy their products