What You Need to Know About CSAs Before Joining

by Thursday Bram · 14 comments

Getting the freshest produce available, even when living in a city, can simply be a matter of joining a local CSA. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) offers you the opportunity to get fresh vegetables and fruits literally the same day it’s picked. Some CSAs offer flowers, honey, meat and even vinegar, but it’s important to know how a CSA operates before joining.

How CSAs Operate

The typical CSA provides you with a box full of produce every week for a set number of weeks (typically based on the growing season in your area). In exchange, you pay the CSA, which also happens to be a farm, an amount that can range from a few hundred dollars all the way up to nearly a thousand dollars. That money doesn’t actually pay for your weekly box, however. It’s actually the cost of purchasing a share in the CSA’s harvest for the year. When you pick up your produce every week, you’re picking up your share of what has been harvested.

Many CSAs offer the option of working at the CSA a certain number of hours during the growing season in exchange for a reduced price. Some CSAs even require you to put in some labor as part of your payment for your produce. If you’ve got the time to invest, finding a CSA that will let you work to cover part or all of the cost of your share can be a good way to get inexpensive, high-quality produce.

It’s important to remember that every CSA has its own quirks: some require no volunteer hours, some offer different types and sizes of shares and so forth. Before you send in a check, make sure you’re aware of exactly how your CSA operates. It’s rare that you’ll know in advance what will be in your box each week, as well — while the owners know what they’ve planted, it’s hard to tell how much of each item you’ll get until you actually look in the box.

Understanding the Risk

There is one fact that is easy to overlook when considering a CSA: every farm has the occasional bad year. If you buy produce from the grocery store, you know exactly what you’re getting. The prices may vary, depending on what’s in season, but you know you’re going to get a bag of carrots or whatever else is on your shopping list without a problem. With a CSA, there is no such guarantee. You can’t take a bad bag of vegetables back and ask for new and, if you don’t get enough ingredients for the recipe you want to make tonight, you’re out of luck. Worse, if something happens to the crop at a CSA, there is a chance that you’ll walk away with nothing for the price of your share.

That’s a very rare scenario, but it isn’t entirely out of the question. You can get a great value by buying a share in a CSA, but don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

Here are 9 More Points to Ponder Before Joining a CSA

1. The CSA model is based on shared risk. If your area experiences a drought or pests or anything else that causes the harvest to be poor, your share will be smaller than expected. For those that are participating in a CSA primarily to support local agriculture this might not be as big of a concern as for those who are trying to stretch their budget.

2. Generally speaking, you won’t get to choose your produce. Some CSAs allow for a bit of swapping, but usually it’s a set share of each of the fruits and vegetables that were harvested that week. This means when kale is in season, you’re going to get a lot of kale until it’s not and then you won’t get any.

If you’re a picky eater, this can result in you winding up with a lot of produce that you don’t care for, however it can also be a great way to expand your diet and learn to like new things.

3. Pick up times are not always flexible. While a few CSAs offer delivery, most require that you pick up your share from designated locations or the farm at predetermined times. Be realistic about how much of a hassle this will be before you sign up. Most agreements state that shares not picked up are forfeited and are either returned to the farm or donated to the needy.

4. Almost all CSAs require you to pay the full subscription price in advance. This can be a challenge for those on very tight budgets. Refunds are not usually available although you may be able to sell your share to another family if you change your mind later in the year.

5. Not all farmers are the salt of the earth. There have been occasional complaints about poor customer service or CSA members feeling like they are getting the leftovers instead of being priority customers. Most CSA farmers are ethical and treat their subscribers like valued partners, but it’s best to ask around before joining any CSA to find out about any complaints or concerns.

6. It can be daunting to figure out what to do with all that produce, especially if you’re not used to cooking. Many CSAs will give recipes and ideas on how to use that week’s bounty, but it’s still up to you to cook it. If you’re not up to the task, that can mean a lot of fruits and vegetables wind up wasted.

7. While you can often get a half share, sometimes singles and couples find that they still receive far more produce than they can use with a CSA. Some items can be frozen or canned for future use and splitting a share with another household is always an option. Even so, it might be more hassle than it’s worth.

8. You will probably still need to supplement your CSA. Unless you are 100% determined to only eat what’s in your box, you’ll probably still need to buy things to make your favorite recipes or fill a craving. Don’t count on the money you spend on your subscription to be it for your produce budget for the season.

9. Some CSAs require you to volunteer to help out on the farm or with distribution as part of your subscription price. Others offer a discount to those who are able to help. Make sure you understand the requirements before you sign up and think about how difficult it will be for you to find the time to fulfill them.

If this sounds like I’m trying to discourage you from joining a CSA, I’m not. Community supported agriculture has many benefits, including:

  • Fresh, local produce. Nothing is better than fruits and vegetables picked at the height of ripeness and eaten right away.
  • The ability to put your money where your mouth is and support local, sustainable agriculture.
  • Being able to see where your food is coming from and talk to the people who are producing it.
  • Learning to love a wider variety of foods.
  • The fun of being creative in finding many uses for your bounty.

Most CSAs have already started taking applications for this summer’s subscription, so if you’d like to join, now is the time. You can find a CSA in your area at localharvest.org. Remember, you are not just limited to fruits and vegetables, many areas now have CSAs that offer baked goods, dairy products and eggs, meats and flowers, too.

Are you part of a CSA? What are your experiences and would you recommend others joining?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Susan Cole says:

    I am enjoying a CSA for the first time this year. I joined to support a local farmer whose produce I had bought at the Farmers Market in years past. I especially like the Wednesday delivery to my home and the variety of fresh greens. I will supplement at the Farmers Market on Saturdays. I grow a few tomatoes but don’t have a vegetable garden.

  • theo says:

    CSA has been a great financial decision living in NYC. In my past experience the benefits of joining a CSA:
    1- Spend less at restaurants (eat at home more often)
    2- Spend less money on groceries (bulk veggies = less meat & not meal oriented purchases)
    3- Easier to budget grocery purchases (pay for 6 months at a time)
    4- Spend less time in the grocery store (If you are indecisive this is a relief)
    5- Eat healthier, fresher produce (spend less carbon emissions on shipping)
    6*- Support local agriculture (a benefit for others)

  • Amy says:

    I’m coming into my fourth year of CSA. I’m fully aware of the risks, but so far, I’ve had no problems. A couple of years ago, there was some flooding that hurt several CSA farmers in my area, but other farmers banded together and helped provide produce for them, so everyone continued to get veggies. My CSA farmer has a “swap box” at the pickup site–you can drop off things you don’t like and take others that you do like. I agree with the others who have said it forces you to try new vegetables, and I have some favorites that I’d never tried before getting my regular box.

  • Liz says:

    We’ve been members of our CSA for going on 5 years now and we’ve never had cause to regret it. Most of the time, we’re concerned with how we’re going to use all the food we get. We even went through a bad year a couple years ago when the region experienced 150 year floods, but it was very encouraging the way the CSA and the community rallied and made a recovery. Keep in mind: you are with them for the bad years, but also the good ones. When that extra raspberry harvest comes in, it’s a nice surprise.

  • Scoutsigns says:

    This is a “penny wise, pound foolish” proposition, in reverse.

    There is risk with CSA’s, since you are actually purchasing a share of a farmer’s output. If he wins big, you do. If he loses, you do.

    What you are actually buying is not just a bag of veggies all summer, but you are helping to maintain local agriculture.

    Absolutely you can shop at a farmer’s market, and you should. The variety and quality of the foods available can’t be beat. Many CSA’s also man a booth at a farmer’s market.

    We have participated in CSA’s for a couple of years now. The funds may get us about the same or slightly less than what we could spend the time to shop for–but the trade is time for the slight difference in price.

    Also, that farmer’s market farmer will continue to be there week after week if his income needs are met. Once they aren’t, his farming days are over. A CSA helps to stabilize that income flow.

    There are a lot of arguments to be made about supporting local agriculture–quality of food, knowing the source of your food, stability of food supply, and more.

  • ChefZ/MB says:

    We are doing a CSA for the first time this year and the points made in the article are very valid. For us, it was a huge investment. We calculated the cost/benefit to us and determined that it was the route to go. Now, we are a childless couple and we bought into the farm for a whole share (enough for 4-6 people) that includes eggs, soup and sauces. The reason that we did this is because we determined that if we bought a full share they we could do small batch canning and freezing in order to stock up on enough food for the winter so we wouldn’t have to buy outrageously priced produce.

    Before we made the choice, however, we went to the farm and spoke to the farmer directly. We also made sure to try some of his products from the farmers market so that we knew what quality of goods we were to be getting. Like our farmer says, “chickens make unreliable employees” and this can extend to the full CSA as nature takes its course. We were willing to take the risk though because it is so slight and because we know our farmer has a wide variety of products.

  • Chris M says:

    We did a CSA for the first time last year. At first we were disappointed in the size/assortment for the first few weeks. But then… it picked up a *lot*. In the end, we were quite happy with it. One benefit we really enjoyed was it forced us to try some new vegetables we’d never had before.

    We liked it enough that we’re doing it again. Yes, there’s some risk– but if you have the $, it’s worth considering. Even in the worst case scenario (which is VERY rare), you’ve at least helped a local farming family.

  • Jenna says:

    I’m part of a CSA and LOVE it. My mom and I split a share with another family, since typically we get more veggies than we can eat for a week. It’s like a farmer’s market but with one stop shopping. We get an email update with what to expect the week before which allows us to plan our meals in advance. We sometimes get a veggie or two we have no idea what to do with so it forces us to try new recipes. I learned last year I actually like beets. Plus, you get to support a great small business and get locally sourced and in our case, organic foods. Plus, it is a community activity, meeting up, selecting veggies, catching up with the actual growers and sharing ideas. (We don’t volunteer at the farm but love it anyways). I would definitely encourage people to sign up and join.

  • MoneyNing says:

    Buying into a CSA is definitely more like investing than shopping. For those that have a membership, why not grow your own garden and then ask your neighbors/friends to buy into the harvest?

    • marci357 says:

      We’re more into just swapping and giving away here 🙂

      I swap tomatoes for green kolhrabi, and purple kolhrabi for cabbages,
      and green beans for carrots, and herbs for beet tops, etc…
      There are a couple of us who grow different things, and then we just swap around so we each get a variety, plus my family gets a lot of mine also 🙂

      • MoneyNing says:

        Swapping is better, but I’d be happy to buy some from my neighbor since it’s a fair trade too (unless I also have something to share of course).

  • marci357 says:

    No I’m not a member of one, altho they are available in my area.

    1. There’s no way to know the quantities nor varieties you’ll be getting.
    2. It’s a major gamble and you’ll have money invested. Lucky or unlucky?
    3. You could end up with stuff you really can’t use (allergies, don’t like)
    4. Between local farmer’s markets and u-picks, I can get basically the same foods, in the amounts I want, and of the quality I want, for a set amount of money, no gambling on whether the crop will come in or not.
    5. If you are going on vacation or out of town, what happens to your share?
    6. Mostly, why pay for something I can do myself? (and enjoy doing) If you have any yard/lawn at all, you can probably grow more than enough for yourself in your yard. (yes, it’s still a gamble, but there is rarely any money invested – my way – other than watering cost)

    On the plus side, if you can get a working share (mostly time, little money) it could turn out to be a good deal for you – and no more gambling than you’d have in your own back yard.

  • Stephan says:

    Wow, the fact that you could end up getting nothing or not enough each week seems to be a huge negative, and defintely one that would stop me from buying into a CSA

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