We are (in a normal year) pretty frequent farmers market visitors. Green Bay has an excellent Saturday morning farmers market with nearly 100 vendors and when we lived closer to a bike trail, it made for a nice bike ride and Saturday morning excursion. Where we live now we don’t have a convenient or safe way to bike to the market and we are a bit disappointed by the changes made to the market this year because of COVID-19. We totally understand that the changes are necessary, but it made us look for alternative ways to get our produce this summer. We signed up for a farm share and I’m excited to tell you all about it! (I’ve included photos of our weekly haul from different points in the season thus far so you can get an idea of how much produce we’re receiving and the variety).
What does CSA mean? CSA stands for Community Sustained Agriculture and is a way of purchasing seasonal produce (and sometimes other items like eggs, dairy or meat) directly from producers. CSAs and farm shares are the same thing, just interchangeable names.
How does a subscription work and how much does it cost? This varies by farm, but most of the time, you pay up front or in two installments for the entire season. Each farm determines how much produce they’ll be selling in this fashion (remember that they still might sell wholesale or at farmers markets), estimates how much produce they can commit weekly to delivering, and then sets a number of shares that they will sell each season. I’d say that most farm shares I’ve seen (in a smaller size for two people) are about $25-30/weekly. That will likely work out to about $450-500 for a season (about four months). This year we signed up for a spring, summer and fall share (27 weeks) at a price point of $30/week. Our farm share lets us pay a downpayment to reserve our spot and then once that credit is used up over the course of several weeks, we pay $30 each week.
What kinds of produce can you expect? Again, this varies by farm and by where you live! In climates warmer than Northeastern Wisconsin (aka, most other places) you’ll have significantly much more bountiful options earlier in the season. If a farm uses a hothouse (greenhouse), you’ll also have more variety earlier in the season. You can expect later season crops like tomatoes and cucumbers earlier than you might if they were field-grown. In the early season (May to mid-June), expect a lot of greens and early root vegetables (garlic scapes, radishes, beets). You might also receive some crops that were stored over winter, like onions and potatoes. As summer heats up, you’ll see more varieties of greens as well as asparagus, squash, beans and berries.
Do you get to select what produce you get? I’d strongly recommend hunting around for a farm share that allows for some customization. The CSA we have now is by far the most customizable we’ve ever subscribed to. We are able to pick from an online menu each week of produce items in season and build up our own share. We still need to spend a minimum of $30, but we can go over that amount, as well if we want to. They typically have limits on how many of each item you can get (you can’t spend $30 on just carrots, for example) to keep some in stock for other shareholders. If you don’t have time to customize each week, they’ll put together an assortment for you. I know from experience that there are just some vegetables that aren’t our favorites or that we don’t eat that much of (kohlrabi, beets, fennel are just not my jam!). We opt out of receiving those items and pick more of items we do like instead.
What if you’re going on vacation or are out of town? Again, another feature to look for when shopping for a CSA. Many CSAs will allow you to skip a week if you give them some lead time. Some do not – but they will donate your produce to a food pantry or other charitable venture. I’ve had family members take our farm share for the week if we’re out of town before. This year we aren’t going anywhere so it hasn’t been an issue at all for us.
Where do you pick up your produce? I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but again, look for this feature when you are shopping around. The farm shares we have signed up for in the past have always had pick up points. I used to be able to pick up at my neighborhood coffee shop (right next door to my office at the time!) for one, another we picked up at a drop off spot in the downtown area during set hours, and this most recent one we are trying offers home delivery on a set day of the week. Ours arrives bright and early on Wednesday mornings – we just leave a cooler by our front door at night and it is full of fresh veggies by 7 AM!
Do you have to work on the farm? Valid question. If the answer was yes, you can bet I wouldn’t be signed up! Some farms do offer a discount on your farm share if you put in sweat equity at the farm. But not all require this! If you are interested in experiencing growing the crop yourself, shop around and you may be able to find a CSA that offers a price break for labor given.
How do I find a CSA in my area?
- Check with your state Extension offices (Google your state +”Extension office”) – as proponents of agriculture, they will often be able to refer you.
- Google “CSA” + your community name.
- Ask vendors at your local farmers market if they offer CSAs, especially if you have a favorite that you regularly go to!
The bottom line for us is that investing in a farm share has been a fun way to try new vegetables and fruits that we don’t normally buy, experience eating “in season”, connecting with our local agricultural producers and something we look forward to each week. Not into the commitment of a full fledged farm share? Maybe challenge yourself to pick up a fruit or vegetable you’ve never tried at the farmers market next time you’re there!