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Dec 09

Are Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) Shares a Good Deal?

farmers market

This weekend we got a “valu-pack” of coupons. You know those envelopes of coupons and menus that local restaurants and vendors mail to your house? I typically take a quick look and then toss recycle all the offers that we won’t use (cleaning services, pet sitters, day cares etc.). But this weekend, I found a flyer from a local farm that peaked my interest. They offered several coupons to use on purchases at their local farmer’s market (the one bf and I attended this summer) and also advertised a CSA program.

If you’re not familiar (I wasn’t until a couple of years go), CSA stands for Community-Support Agriculture. According to Local Harvest, Here’s how it works, “A farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share (aka a “membership” or a “subscription”) and in return receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.” Of course there’s some risk involved, if there’s a horrible growing season or some sort of natural disaster, or if the farmer is inexperienced or has a massive family emergency of some sort. But generally, if the harvest is good and everything goes as planned, you get a box or bag of fresh, locally grown produce every week. I love that!

In the past, bf and I have participated in weekly fruit/veggie deliveries, but none of them were CSA (the fruits and veggies weren’t all grown locally and the things we received weren’t always in season because they were coming from across the country). We did that with a few different companies (we found deals on groupon and living social), but weren’t really happy with the quality of the produce and preferred to find a local farmer. We found a couple last year, but missed the cutoff date to participate. So now that I’ve found this CSA (and they have a local pickup point), it seems like it’s “meant to be”. But the cost of the share is a pretty good chunk of change, so I’m weighing all my options before I write the check.

Things I’m considering:

  • Cost- The cost of the 24-week “half share” is $530.  So the weekly cost would be $22.08. Not too bad considering each week we’d receive one half bushel box of fresh seasonal produce. Can I buy that produce cheaper at the grocery store? Maybe? That being said, $530 a lot of money to drop upfront on produce that we have no choice in choosing, so I want to make a smart decision based not only on cost, but also on some of the factors below.
  • Selection- What if I’m planning on making stuffed green peppers for dinner and that week’s box doesn’t have green peppers? Do I buy them at the store, or just cook with what’s in the box? What If I’m craving strawberries, but they’re out of season? Wow, we’re really spoiled when it comes to food selection these days, aren’t we? I bet 100 years ago people weren’t worried about if they have a midnight craving for blackberries.
  • Amount of food- We’re a two person (one dog, two cat) household and I hate the idea of food waste. Specifically, I’m a little bit worried we might not eat all of the food in the share and might end up throwing some of it away. However, we just bought a juicer, so if we didn’t eat everything we probably could juice a great deal of it. I also have hungry co-workers (wink), so if worse came to worse, I could bring the extra produce to work so that nothing was thrown away.
  • Ease of pick-up- The shares are ready to pick-up every Saturday at a local farmer’s market. Although the market is only a mile from our house, I definitely wouldn’t want to walk back with a heavy box of fruit and veggies. Which means bf would need to drive there to pick it up. Not a huge deal, but we don’t always use our car on Saturday morning (which means bf would need to walk to pick up the car-we pay for garage parking a few blocks away, the drop off the box and return the car).
  • Will I eat everything included?- There are no substitutions or changes allowed with the shares. So if I don’t like something I can’t swap it out for something else. I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to fruits and veggies (I don’t eat red meat or pork so I’m picky like that) so eating everything shouldn’t be a problem. Although there are a few fruits (cantaloupe) and veggies (fennel) that I don’t really like. I can make myself eat them, but if I got a box of cantaloupe and fennel I’d be pretty bummed!
  • Eat local, buy local. Everybody knows how hard the tri-state area was hit by hurricane Sandy. Yes many people have recovered, but many people still have not. For that reason, and many others I try to keep my money in the local economy when possible. That means supporting local farmers and businesses. Local produce means fresher produce and love the idea that I’d be supporting a local family owned farm and eating locally grown fruits and veggies.

Have you ever participated in CSA? If you haven’t, have you considered it? Is it crazy to spend $530 on the “unknown”

Image: apple_pathways

 

42 comments

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  1. Kali @ CommonSenseMillennial

    I haven’t participated in a CSA, but I am thinking about it for next year. I am trying to figure out if it would keep our grocery bill the same, or if it would make it go up.. it doesn’t have to go down, but I certainly don’t want food costs any higher for us than they already are! If you decide to participate, you’ll have to write up a review for the rest of us :)

    1. KK

      I absolutely love the idea in theory, but in practice I’m not sure it would work out for us. I almost wish it’s something we could try for a month or so, just to see. If we do sign up I’ll definitely try to do a little write up about how it goes.

  2. Kate

    There are lots of different CSA models out there: pay as you go (you pre-pay a certain amount and pay down your accou throughout the season) and fill up your own box/bag varieties. Ask around and find one that works for you.

    1. KK

      I’d love to find a CSA that lets us choose the items we want. I’ll have to do a little more research and see if there’s one by us.

  3. E.M.

    I love the idea of supporting local farmers, but the cost is pretty high, especially when there are so many unknown factors. You have a great point about the juicer, though. I personally wouldn’t do it as I don’t think we would be able to use it all, and I also hate food waste. We also aren’t super adventurous with trying new things.

    1. KK

      I do have worries we might end up with a lot of things that we don’t like or don’t know how to cook. Part of me thinks that’s super exciting, but part of me things it might be a disaster, because I’m not always the best cook, nor do I have a lot of time to look up recipes to learn how to cook new things.

  4. J.B.

    This is a great run-down of the pros and cons of CSAs. I’ve never participated in one myself, but a colleague has, and I’ve seen the wonderful selection of fresh, local, chemical-free produce she gets, and since she and her son eat little meat, they usually make good use of everything. My husband and I are talking about signing up for a CSA for 2014, and we share your concerns. For us, it’s going to be an experiment in learning to change our perspectives and habits: namely being spoiled; we’re used to eating what we want, when we want, and the CSA is a challenge in that respect. In terms of payment, though, several of the farms near to us who offer this service will also let you make payments rather than having to fork it over in one lump sum. If you do go the CSA route, I hope you’ll post updates!

    1. KK

      When I’m not being practical I love to think about all the new foods we’d try and all the ways I’d cook the produce, but then reality sets in and I worry I’ll end up with half a box of rotting fruits and veggies :-( I know people who have done CSA but (in my head) they are much more talented chefs that I am. I guess it would help me grow as a cook, but I’m still not sure if we’d be able to make it worth it. Maybe i need to try to find one that lets me pick the fruits and veggies and/or lets me pay as we go. Thanks for the encouragement and I’ll definitely post something if we decide to do the CSA.

  5. Mrs PoP @Planting Our Pennies

    We haven’t done a CSA, mostly because I’m pretty picky about produce, as is Mr PoP. So I’d be really worried about waste. For us, we’re better off buying from farmers markets and te grocery store than trying to figure out how not to gag on okra or some other random vegetable we find inedible.

    1. KK

      Oh okra, another veggie I’d be sad to see in my box 😉 The more I think about this, the more I think we might be better off at the farmer’s market. It’s just such a fun concept in theory.

  6. Alicia @ Financial Diffraction

    I love the idea, but I just know it wouldn’t work for us. My fiance loves certain vegetables, but others are on the “no fly list”. My friend gets a CSA and she said “I don’t even know what this thing is, I am just making a soup out of it – it’s sort of like an asian cabbage, but I don’t know it’s name”. That would definitely not work out well for us. I think we are better off shopping local at a farmers market than investing in CSA roulette.

    1. KK

      Some of my “justification” in my head uses the same principle I use for gym memberships (If I pay for it I’ll have to use it-or eat it, in this case). But going to the gym never happens for me (thus why I no longer have a membership and exercise outside and/or at home instead). So I am a little worried I’d have good intentions to eat all the food, but wouldn’t. Plus getting veggies that I don’t know how to cook sounds like a big time consumer i.e. Asian cabbage doesn’t sound super exciting or appealing to me.

  7. Kasey @ Debt Perception

    Every time I look into CSAs they’re filled for the season. I do want to try it some day but I’d definitely be worried about not using it all. I have hard time consuming fresh produce I get from the store before it goes bad…need to change my habits before I consider signing up for a CSA.

    1. KK

      I’m horrified by how much food we waste. I’ve been trying to do better and to keep the waste to a minimum, but I swear I throw away at least 2 pieces of fruit per week. Shameful, I know!

  8. Laura @ RichmondSavers.com

    I think this is a great idea, but like you listed out there are many pros and cons. I would be most worried about waste, and not getting to pick out my own produce (if they pick it and box it up for you).

    1. KK

      In this one they do box everything for you, so I wouldn’t get to pick the particular veggies and fruits I prefer. I tend to be a little neurotic about choosing produce so this might not be the best idea for us, since I’d have no control over the items I receive.

  9. Michelle @fitisthenewpoor

    I used to do a CSA when I was hardcore dieting. It was great because it challenged me to be creative and use all of the food in the box. It was also wonderful for my vegan husband who often snacked on the veggies and fruits throughout the day.

    1. KK

      I love the idea of the creativity, but worry it would take too much time (i.e. I’m lazy!). Bf does eat a bunch of fruits and veggies, but I can’t really image him eating any of them raw. I imagine we’d do a lot of stir fries and salads, but I guess that depends on the month.

  10. Mrs. Snarkfinance

    I have always wanted to do a CSA, I like that it supports local farmers and would encourage me to eat more fruits and veggies. I think I would be inspired to try new recipies to include the ingrediants that come each week. I also like your idea of juicing left over produce at the end of the week so it doesn’t go to waste.

    1. KK

      We recently started juicing and it’s a lot of fun to figure out different fruit and veggie combos. At least if we got something I couldn’t figure out how to cook we could juice it with other things we liked and not have to worry about cooking it.

  11. Tonya@Budget and the Beach

    I’ve never participated simply because I really don’t think I alone could eat that food by myself. I’d be afraid a lot would go to waste and unlike you I stick to the same (ish) fruits and veggies because I know I’ll eat them. That being said, I know a lot of people who use it and love it.

    1. KK

      I tend to buy the same produce week to week (depending on season), but I actually like a pretty good variety of things. I guess I just get into the same habits so I buy the same things because I know how to cook them easily.

  12. Emily @ evolvingPF

    We chose our CSA specifically to get around most of the problems you talked about – my husband calls it a “beginner’s CSA.” Every week we get an email list of the produce available and the prices. We prepay for the season (we have an “individual” share, smaller than a “couple” or “family” share), so we have a set amount of credits to spend and can go over if we want and pay the extra in cash. This way we choose the things we like and avoid the stuff we don’t know how to deal with (though sometimes we look up a recipe and choose it anyway). Then we pick up the box 2 days later at our workplace so it’s very convenient.

    Even though we have just the individual share, it is still a lot of produce to eat in a week, so we often use our credits for meat that we can freeze and use later on. You have to use the produce quickly to avoid wasting it. I do not think our CSA (or the farmer’s market) is cheaper than the grocery store/Costco for most items, but we don’t mind the premium because we enjoy supporting local farmers.

    1. KK

      I love everything about the way you’re describing your CSA. That’s exactly the type that would fit our needs. I love the idea of being able to chose what we want and then pay more if we want more of something. Bf would love that yours also includes meat. The one I’m looking at has an add-on for eggs, but not meat (although I believe meat is sold at the farmer’s market). I’m going to have to keep doing my research to see what I can find that’s a little more flexible for us.

  13. Micro

    I did a CSA this past summer. The local aspect was nice but I really wasn’t a fan. I prefer variety throughout the week but with seasonal produce you get it consitently for a couple of weeks straight and then never again. Do you have the ability to look at sample shares from a past season to get a sense of what you might be getting?

    1. KK

      That’s something I’m concerned about to. Because you’re literally getting things as they are harvested, I feel like I might get bored having carrots for 2-3 weeks and then leeks for 2-3 (or whatever the case may be). I can see last years sample shares and there looks to be good variety, but I worry about wanting more of certain things and then getting other things we don’t like as much and don’t really want. For example when strawberries are in season I’d want a bunch of them and wouldn’t mind getting them 3 weeks in a row. When Fennel is in season I’d hate to get it 3 weeks in a row.

  14. Liz

    We have considered joining one before but we ultimately didn’t want to put so much money up front for the producce. We also didn’t like that we had no choice on what we would be getting. I think they sound fun now but its just not something I feel like we can afford right now.

    1. KK

      I think that’s part of it for me too. Although $500 isn’t a ton of money relative to what we spend on groceries, If I didn’t feel like I got my money’s worth, I’d be kind of bummed. We’re often away for a few weeks during the summer too, which means we wouldn’t get those week’s boxes and wouldn’t get our money back (but they would be donated to a local pantry, which I like).

  15. anna

    A coworker participates in a CSA near us and I think for me, it’s not having the selection or being able to choose the produce (I’m that weird one in the store who examines everything that goes into her cart). Some of the stuff was pretty unfamiliar to me, as well, so I would be worried about finding a recipe for it or wasting it. I think I just mostly stick to my basics. :)

    1. KK

      Sometimes the basics are the best. I’m a little picky about my produce too, so I’d want to look through everything and pick the best ones (which obviously can’t happen with a CSA).

  16. La Tejana @Debt Free Tejana

    I lived in Austin for a while and they are really popular there. I like to be able to know what I will be cooking with before it arrives. So while I support CSAs, they just aren’t for me.

    1. KK

      While part of me loves the aspect of surprise, I think I might get a little crazy not being able to meal plan in advance. I try to do a big cooking day each Sunday and if I didn’t know what I was receiving I’m not sure I’d have to time to plan and cook everything.

  17. jefferson @SeeDebtRun

    I have a friend that participates in one of these, and i think it is so awesome. The best part is that she gets teo eat a ton of different fruits and veggies that she wouldnt have tried otherwise.

    1. KK

      I think it would definitely make me more adventurous with my eating. I’m sure there are a bunch of fruits and veggies I’ve never had before and I’d definitely like to try them. A CSA seems like a good opportunity to try all the stuff I’d never buy on my own.

  18. Anne @ Unique Gifter

    I have never participated in a CSA because none have been available since I finished schoo”. However, I have had the products of them at friend’s places and they have been awesome. One thing I hear consistently is that people end up trying out new recipes and dishes as a result. Plus, for a lot of people, it increases their fruit and veggie intake!

    1. KK

      I know I don’t eat nearly as many fruis and veggies as I probably should. I suspect if they were around I would eat them, it’s just a matter of knowing how (and if) to cook them :-)

  19. Holly@ClubThrifty

    We have never done a CSA before but probably would if the price was right. We eat all sorts of fruits and veggies so I know we would eat whatever they sent us.

    1. KK

      I hate to waste food so I’d probably eat whatever was sent, unless I really hated it and then I’d try to pawn it off on a co-worker 😉

  20. Tara @ Streets Ahead Living

    I was in a CSA and didn’t stick with it after leaving the area. I got SO MUCH KALE it was ridiculous. But I now love kale (and other veggies I never had before like kohlrabi).

    If you love soup, you can’t waste the veggies. You do get big bounties in March/April but during that time, you can always give it away. I’m a member of the Park Slop Food Coop so I don’t need a CSA now but I do miss the convenience of picking up all of my veggies once a week and not “spending” any money to do so.

    1. KK

      Not going to lie I just had to google kohirabi 😉 I do like soup quite a bit so I think I’d end up just tossing everything into a pot with some stock. We have a couple of decent health food type stores by me, but the produce is usually pretty expensive so we typically end up going to shoprite or A&P (or BJs once in a while).

  21. Edgar @ Degrees and Debt

    I have some friends in college who participated in a local one and they loved it. It was passed down from friend to friend over the years, every one was always happy from what I remember. Never hurts to buy local and eat healthy!

    1. KK

      I would have loved to do a CSA in college. I had plenty of time to cook everything and I’m sure nothing would have gone to waste. If only I was into that sort of thing during my younger and more foolish days.

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