Whether you'd like to be a more frugal foodie or if you'd simply prefer fewer trips to the grocery store, there's a solution that you'll love: find a local farm to support, and in return you can take home a weekly share of the harvest. My family joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program four years ago, and now we associate summer with delightful weekly visits to our farm. (It feels a bit like having a zoo membership, due to the animals we get to observe and feed!)
I'm so grateful that my children will grow up with memories of a family farm and an awareness of where their vegetables are grown (besides those from our small backyard garden). And how long would it have taken otherwise for my four-year old daughter to have discovered that she loves artichokes?
How a CSA works:
You pay a portion of the farmers' seed costs, and in return the farmer provides you with a portion of their harvest. The details differ by farm, but usually you pick up a bin of produce each week throughout the growing season.
How would a CSA save us money, and how much does it cost?
CSA members pay anywhere from $50 per month to roughly $550 per growing season (usually June to October). Sometimes you pay upfront; at other farms you pay per month. The cost depends on the farm and the amount and type of produce you'll receive. When you consider the grocery store trips you won't need to take, you save quite a bit of money on food (and on impulse buying as well).
What kind of food or vegetables do you get?
The food provided depends on the farm. We get a wide variety of vegetables and herbs, and each week the variety differs from the previous week. Some weeks we also receive eggs, grass-fed beef, fruit, or fresh flowers. Our farmer chooses what we get, but we've never been disappointed with the selections. The variety has expanded our usual diet and our farmer has taught us how to prepare unfamiliar vegetables--it's been so healthy for us!
A typical bin or box in late July, for example, might include summer squash, tomatoes, basil, corn, red potatoes, garlic, green beans, and a dozen eggs. Our half-share is enough produce to get us through a week or more. We can purchase grass-fed steaks separately if we don't receive any that week.
Is it organic food?
Most of the CSA farms I am familiar with are organic in practice, but rarely are the farms certified organic. Official organic certification can cost more than $500 per year, which is more than most family farms are able (or willing) to pay. Certification also requires ongoing documentation and a lot of paperwork. But most CSA farmers use natural or organic farming methods because they own their land and want to support sustainable practices for their family's future as well as for yours.
How can I find a CSA farm near my home?
If you live in the U.S., LocalHarvest.org provides the option to search for the nearest family farms, farmers markets, and CSAs by zip code. It's also a great resource if you are searching for a specific crop such as raspberries or lavender. (I'm not sure about CSA options elsewhere, but I'm sure they exist!)
It's January! Why should I find a farm now?
Once the New Year is past, farmers start ordering their seeds and finalizing their list of CSA members. If you wait until spring, all the shares will be likely be filled. (Family farms may only offer 12 to 24 shares, and most shareholders continue their membership each year.) Get on a waiting list now if you can't find an opening!
More about our farm membership:
The farm we support, Dolan Creek Farm, is within ten minutes of our home. I confirm our membership in January, pay $225 for a half-share (due by April), and start our weekly pickup in mid-June. In addition to cows, goats, chickens, and horses, our farm also has an amazing treehouse and a sturdy old swing set that belonged to the farmer when he was a boy.
Other benefits of CSA membership:
- The flexibility and personal care: if we go on vacation, we can arrange for another pickup day. If we want to stay and have an outdoor picnic, we are welcome. Our farmers have seen our children grow from year to year, and the children enjoy helping pick and learning about how food is grown. The farmers have become friends whom we respect and appreciate.
- We've learned so much: how weather affects plant growth from week to week, how to enjoy foods like garlic scapes and artichokes, how to treat tomato fungus with copper, how to add glacier dust to soil to improve the mineral content, and how hard a farmer works!
What do you think of the concept of farm membership? Don't you find it amazing that the work of a farmer or two can provide more than two dozen families with ample produce for months at a time?