Joining a CSA (community-supported agriculture) is an excellent way to ensure a steady supply of fresh, local produce.
These questions will help you find the CSA that's right for you:
- What does the farm grow?
Ask for a crop list and harvest schedule. If you eat salad with dinner every night, make sure the farm staggers their salad greens through the growing season and grows several varieties. On the other hand, if you're allergic to strawberries, don't join a CSA that prides itself on a prolific strawberry harvest.
This guide to Seasonal Fruits & Vegetables will give you a sense of general growing seasons. Or see these Guides by Season and Guides by Region & State.
- How do they grow it?
If organic certification is important to you, be sure to ask about the farm's status. Be aware, however, that many small farms practice organic and sustainable farming without undergoing the sometimes costly process of certification.
- When do they grow it?
In some parts of the country CSAs operate all year, but it is more common to have a season that runs from spring to fall or early winter. Ask for scheduled start and end dates.
- Are shares delivered to your home or will you need to pick-up from the farm or a drop-site? Is the pick-up location and time convenient?
Most farms harvest and deliver weekly for their CSA members. Some farms deliver to people's homes or offices, but most make larger deliveries to drop-sites where members then pick up their share. Check drop-sites, delivery days, and pick-up times and see if they're a good fit with your schedule.
- How big is a standard share?
A full brown paper grocery bag or wholesale produce box—often described as enough for a family of 4 for a week—is standard. Some CSA programs offer different sizes for smaller or larger families.
Note that, depending on your region, share sizes may remain relatively constant throughout the season or start and end quite small, with some much larger shares during the height of harvest.
- Do you want a seasonal, quarterly, or monthly payment and/or membership program?
Many CSAs ask for a full year or growing season payment in advance, but more and more are offering payment options, shorter memberships, and trial periods for newcomers.
- What happens when you go on vacation?
Some CSAs offer partial refunds if you let them know in advance that you'll miss a week, but most suggest you either have someone else pick up your share or the farm will donate the food to a local food bank. If you are out of town a lot or have an unpredictable schedule it's worth joining a CSA with a flexible program.
- Does the farm have any share or back-up arrangements with other farms?
Some CSA farms team-up with other farms to combine forces and offer their members greater variety (as well as a back-up in case of unforeseen circumstances at one farm).
- How often do you cook? For how many people?
Be honest here. For people who cook at home 6 or 7 nights a week, a large or double share might make sense. If you eat out most nights, try to join a CSA that offers a small or "snacking" share with mostly out-of-hand fruits and vegetables.
- Do you want extras, like flowers, eggs, and poultry or meat?
Many CSAs offer flower bouquets, fresh eggs, and other optional items for a fee. Most farms also offer members-only u-pick days, harvest dinners, or other special events for their customers.