Three tips to find the right CSA that works for you. You have decided that this is the right time for you to get your vegetables from the farm, but how do you know if CSA is a good fit for you?
You have read about Community Supported Agriculture programs, and you have decided a farm share is a great way to feed your family, support the local economy, and get great vegetables. You’ve also heard stories about programs that didn’t work out very well.
Where do you start and how do you figure this out?
Every CSA program has its own unique way of handling CSA shares, so you and the farmer both want it to be a good fit. Here are some suggestions on how to find the right farm and CSA program for you and some important questions to ask.
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Where can you find a farm that has a CSA?
Not all farms have a CSA and not all CSA programs let you come to the farm. Location matters, because it has to be possible for you to get your CSA share each week. Check with friends and neighbors to see if they have recommendations about local farms that may have a CSA.
One of my favorite resources is Local Harvest, which provides free listings for farms. Click on the Local Harvest website, locate the search bar, and put in your zip code. All sorts of places will show up, some close, and others further away. Check them all out, because you might find that the farm has a delivery close to you.
We find that most of our new customers use Google’s search engine to find us. We joke that Google knows everything! You can put in “CSA farm near me” or “farm near me” or “Delaware CSA” (if you are in Delaware) in the search bar. Location matters, because it does not help you to find a farm that is 1000 miles away from you. Another term that Google, Bing, or Yahoo will recognize is “farm share near me.” Since every farm has slightly different descriptions, it will help you to try different phrases. This will bring up quite a selection. Have there been reviews about the farm? What do people say?
Check out the farms’ websites to see what your options are. Is the crop share only on-farm pick up or are there other locations? Does the pick up day and time work with your schedule? Those times and days for off-farm locations are set solid. If you miss your day, you miss your pick up. Is there delivery? Keep in mind that the farm will charge a delivery fee, but you may feel that that is what works best for you.
Our Delaware farm has CSA sites in Wilmington, Hockessin, Newark, Bear, and Philadelphia, thus there is a reach that extends beyond where our farm is located. You can see our CSA offerings here.
How long has the farm provided a CSA?
A farm that has had a CSA for over 20 years will have all the kinks worked out and be able to provide a smooth delivery for the customers. A farm that is just starting with CSA may have some bumps along the way. This will be one of the key factors for a successful CSA. The farmer has learned how to have consistent produce to go in the boxes, and customers are satisfied to keep coming back. I am very grateful to our customers who stuck with us for the first several years as we learned how to grow for our CSAs. Now, nearing our quarter century of farm shares and add-ons, we have the systems in place to handle the year-round vegetable shares, fruit shares, meat shares, and flower shares, as well as the farm market.
You can ask, what are the farms’ retention rates? How many customers renew each year? A well-run and diverse CSA will keep most of its customers year after year. People move, and we are always sad to see them go, but we want them to find a farm close to their new location. We are thrilled that we have a lot of CSA customers who have been with us for over 20 years now.
An experienced CSA farm may have a few different shares to offer, usually a large or small, or a full or half share. Everyone seems to use different terms, so find out how the prospective farm defines large or small. We recommend starting with a small share so that you can get used to using up the vegetables in your CSA. We allow people to change to a large share during the season if they find they always need more.
The experienced farmer also has a sense of what helps people use what they get in their CSA. It’s not good for you or for the farmer if you get frustrated and feel like you are wasting food. No one wants that!
Check the farms’ websites to see how much information they give their CSA customers. Do they get recipes? Tips on how to use up their veggies? Is there a private Facebook group where you can ask questions and get help? Do you receive an email of what’s in the CSA this week? For example, we send a Saturday night email with what’s in the share next week plus some recipes to try, CSAers swap recipes in the Facebook group just for CSA members, we have guides on identification of those strange vegetables, plus tips on storing and using your vegetables. After 20+ years of running a CSA program, we know the questions our customers have.
Is someone available to answer your questions? Whether by phone, email, or in a Facebook group, a response can be right away or in a few hours. Keep in mind the farmer is probably out farming, so allow for a little time to respond. Do you need immediate response? Then a farm where you can call and get information is more important for you. Can you wait a few hours or till the next day? Then a farm that can email you the information will work. You need to weigh how important this is to you.
Check the growing practices. Most family farms growing for farm shares are dedicated to sustainable practices and grow without synthetic chemicals or pesticides; after all, this is what their family eats. It’s good to check and see if the produce is organically grown, if it is certified organic, or if it is conventional produce. This is the benefit of talking directly with the farmer; you can find out. There should be easily available information about this.
Is there any flexibility in the program?
The classic CSA has a start and end date, and you commit to pick up each week during the growing season. You pay 10%-50% of the fee to hold your spot before the season begins and then pay the balance at the beginning of the season. This provides the farmer with a guaranteed sale of the crops.
What if you move in the middle of the season? Is there a refund policy? Do you need some wiggle room in a CSA program? Do you have times when you will be away? Does spreading out the payment help your budget?
Many programs now have the ability for you to pay for your share as you go or to put your share on “hold” and to skip one or two weeks. Our CSA program allows you to schedule out your “skip” weeks so that you do not have to waste food or money, as long as you put it on hold three days in advance. We also offer a CSA all year, so that you have the option of eating locally grown vegetables every season.
Some CSA programs are more like a market-style CSA, where you use your card as farm market credit and buy down from your account whatever you like from the market. If you want to pick your own vegetables each week, then this is a better program for you.
Can you add to your share? Do you want to be able to add eggs or honey or Flowers to your share? See if the farm has an egg CSA, a flower CSA, a meat CSA, or another way to add special items to your basic CSA box. Do you need to get eggs every week or can you add them as you need them?
Can you try four weeks or do you have to commit to a whole season? I understand, it’s hard to know if a CSA will work for you and your family if you do not try it. We recommend that people try at least four weeks to see how it works. Other farms may have a Sampler Share where you try a farm box once a month. You may find that you eat out a lot and then you are not using up all of the vegetables in your share. You may find that you use up all the vegetables in three days and you need a large share instead of a small. If you are uncertain about eating the CSA way, then try a few weeks before making a season commitment.
Conclusion: You are ready to select a CSA!
Now you have lots of information. You can compare locations, days to pick up, quantities, and costs for the different farms’ CSA programs. You have the information to judge if the farm will be able to deliver consistently. Does your schedule work well with the farm schedule? Does the payment method work with your budget? Will you be able to get any extra vegetables or products added to your share or when you pick up at the farm?
You decide what matters most to you. You need to have a good sense of what to expect when you get a farm share. Some weeks you will be thrilled, and some weeks will be “What do I do with this?” Knowing that you will have some mystery vegetables adds to the adventure. If you don’t like new or unusual vegetables, then a CSA might not be a good fit for you. That’s ok, you can always shop at the farm market and make your own selections.
Ready to find your CSA match? Good luck and happy eating!
Some examples of what goes in our CSA:
Every week we publish what we think will be in the CSA shares for that week. Here are previous weeks so you can get an idea of what may be included and when.
About Ruth: I am the 6th generation of my family to farm here at Highland Orchards in Delaware. I grew up here, learning from my grandparents and parents how to plant, weed, harvest, and store fruits, vegetables, and flowers. My graduate degree is in history, so I love to research anything and everything. I have taught at all levels, including university and continuing education. I have done everything on the farm from planting to harvest to selling to social media. I love that I can share knowledge with people through blogs and courses.
If this has been helpful, check out our courses. Growing something in the garden is good for you! We share how we grow on the farm in these courses.
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About Highland Orchards: Completely surrounded by suburbia, our small farm has been growing beyond expectations since 1832 in this location.
Growing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and flowers, Highland Orchards provides true “farm fresh” for the community all year. If you want to shake the hand of the farmer who grows for you, here is the farm! With plants in the ground or under cover in tunnels, we grow for every season. A family farm, we have three different generations involved in running the farm right now.
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