How I love this time of year. For me it is a time of much anticipation. So close to once again being able to feed my family fresh, locally grown produce. Time to get out of the grocery stores and back to the farms! It is also the time when many of us consider joining a Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) program. Choosing a CSA can often be confusing and overwhelming. Do a farm’s growing practices align with my food quality standards? Will I be able to choose the items I need each week? Will the offerings be the fruits and vegetables my family enjoys? The choices are many.
Our first CSA experience was not the best it could have been. We joined before I was as in tune to the differences in how produce can be grown and since then my food quality standards have shifted. The more I learned about their growing practices the more I look back on that experience and wish I had chosen otherwise. I also left each week with items I wasn’t familiar with, had no idea how to prepare and ended up wasting. After two years with that particular farm we switched and I could not be happier.
So how do you choose a CSA that is right for your family? For me it comes down to three factors:
- Growing practices
- How shares are distributed
- Selection of crops
Growing practices vary from farm to farm and sometimes even within the same one depending on the crops. Some farms are USDA certified organic while others adhere to organic growing standards. Others go beyond organic and focus on restoring and enriching the nutrients of the soil in which crops are grown. Some farms use chemical fertilizers, herbicides and/or pesticides while others implement Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies which also allows for the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Others practice a little bit of everything. While offerings from one farm to another can appear alike they can be anything but the same, and navigating this maze can be challenging. Thankfully we live in an area where high quality, non-genetically modified and toxin free produce is available and this is what I look for first and foremost when choosing a CSA.
How a farm distributes each week’s harvest usually falls into one of three categories. Some farms pre-box their weekly offerings for convenience and to make sure all shareholders receive the same items. Others provide a pre-selected list of items, similar to a grocery list, and allow you to pick them from their farm stand. Others leave it completely up to you by simply providing the week’s harvest and allowing you to choose whatever you like. Since I’m still learning to be adventurous in the kitchen, I look for complete freedom of choice so I can pick the items I know my family will eat. Many farms also offer ”pick your own” fields that I find to be an added benefit.
The selection of crops varies from farm to farm as well. Larger farms typically offer a wider variety of crops. Some farms focus solely on vegetables while others include additional items in their shares such as fruit, eggs, and cider to name a few. I enjoy having fruit in our shares so I look for a CSA with that option.
As I’ve navigated my way through researching and exploring which CSA will serve my family best I’ve learned not to be bashful in asking questions. My hope is that this will help you ask the questions that are important to you as you choose the CSA and farms that are right for you and your family. Enjoy the harvest!