Guide to Choosing a CSA

Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, farms provide customers with a share of the harvest through regular distributions all season long.  CSA members generally pay up front, providing the farm with income during the season of planting and preparation, although many farms offer payment plans. CSA members share some of the risks of farming, and may receive more of one product and less of another depending on weather and other factors.

In 2014, Pioneer Valley CSAs offer vegetables, meat, fruit, eggs,flowers, native plants, medicinal herbs, and milk.  You can find a list of CSA farms here.

Local CSAs offer a wide range of options for choosing, receiving, and paying for your share.  Think about what’s most important to you, and choose a CSA that provides what you need.

  • Convenient pick-up:  Look for a CSA that will deliver to your home, office, or a convenient pick-up point.  Many farms will consider delivering to new locations if you can offer a suitable drop-off site and drum up enough interest among co-workers or neighbors to make the trip worthwhile.
  • Payment options: Ask CSA farmers if they offer payment plans or accept SNAP/EBT – this is becoming increasingly common.  UMassFive College Federal Credit Union members can also take advantage of an interest-free CSA share loan (CISA community members are eligible to join UMass Five!).
  • Just right sizes: Some CSAs offer half-shares for those with less voracious appetites. Other farms will help you find a partner to split a full share with – an easy way to do this is simply to alternate share pick-ups.
  • Picky eaters:  Find a CSA that allows you to mix and match a share that meets your needs, or a farmers’ market or farm stand share that allows you to spend your farm credit on whatever you choose all season long. Look for “market shares” or “free choice” in the listing for the most control over what you receive..
  • Farm and community connections:  Ask CSA farmers whether they offer potlucks, workshops, pick-your-own, work days, farm dinners, or other activities you and your family might enjoy. Talk to other CSA members about their experience as part of the farm community.
  • One-stop shopping: Want to save yourself a trip to the store, or want to do a lot of canning? Some CSAs offer other local farm products for sale through their farm store or share add-ons. This often includes the opportunity to buy in bulk from your CSA farm or other farms.
  • Flexibility:  Going on vacation for part of the summer? Ask farmers what happens if you miss share pick-ups. Consider a farmers’ market or farmstand option that will allow you to pay for a season’s share, then choose what you want, when you want it. Or introduce a friend to your CSA by offering them your share while you are away. Most CSAs donate shares that are not picked up to local food pantries.
  • Year-round seasonal shares:  Some CSAs offer late fall, winter, and spring shares as well. Consider whether you’d like to find a farm that provides food all year, or if you would enjoy visiting different farms in different seasons. CISA publishes a list of winter and spring CSAs in the fall.
  • Delicious eating:  This is a benefit of all CSAs, but if you have particular favorite vegetable varieties, want to try new or unusual things, or want cooking ideas, talk to the farmer about what they offer. One of the best reasons to join a CSA is that you can talk to the person who grows your food—take advantage of their knowledge and experience!

CSAs provide a variety of products, including:

Vegetables and Small Fruits
Many CSAs offer a full seasonal range of vegetables, greens, and small fruits like strawberries and melons. A summer share provides early season treats like greens, carrots, and asparagus, and moves through summer’s tomatoes and peppers to winter squash, onions, potatoes and garlic in the fall. Most CSAs include both favorite vegetables and some specialties, and provide recipes, tips, and samples to inspire members in the kitchen. Often, CSA members can also enjoy pick-your-own on the farm. Some CSAs offer add-on shares or a farm store stocked with additional local products like eggs, pickles, meat, flowers, or tree fruit.

CSA shares usually come in different sizes to fit different families. Depending on the farm and the distribution site you choose, you may receive a pre-packed box, or the CSA distribution may resemble a farm stand, letting you pick and choose among the week’s harvest to select a share that works for you. Some farms offer a farmers’ market option:  you purchase a credit at the beginning of the season and spend it on whatever you want at the farmers’ market or farm stand all season long.

Meat
Eight different farms are offering meat shares in the Pioneer Valley this summer.  These provide chicken, beef, pork and lamb to Valley residents in bi-weekly or monthly installments.  Some farms offer on-farm pick-up or visiting opportunities, and others deliver shares to locations around the Valley, sometimes at the site of a vegetable CSA for convenience.

Other Products
To round out your local diet (and medicine chest),  a variety of other products are available through CSA arrangements.  Small Ones Farm in Amherst has a fruit share (it even includes an apple pie!).  If you are a home brewer, consider the “malt of the month” from Valley Malt!

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