Saturday, June 11, 2011

CSA 101: What is a CSA and how does it differ from a co-op?

In this post, I will explain what a CSA is (and how it differs from a co-op) and where to find one. In a separate post, I will explain how to make it work for you.

So, what IS a CSA? CSA stands for "Community Supported Agriculture" and in the most basic of terms, it just means that you buy a "share" of a farmer's crop for the season and therefore get a share of the harvest each week throughout the season. Of course, as part-owner of the crop, you enjoy any extra bountiful harvests but you also suffer with losses due to forces of nature like flooding or drought or an invasion by a particularly nasty new insect. Not common, but it happens and you should know this is part of the risk you take.

The number of weeks in a harvest season will depend on the CSA farm itself, how experienced they are, how much cold-weather mitigation they do, etc. Where I am (in Northern IL, growing zone 5) it is not uncommon to find the CSAs doing a 16- or 20-week season. Some offer a partial season (11 weeks). Some offer a "bonus box" near Thanksgiving and Christmas. But this is a critical factor in determining the cost-benefit.

Most CSAs will give you a fraction of the harvest and simply divide up what they have by the number of members; but others will give you a weekly number of "points" and then assign each item (or amount of an item) a point-value--so you pretty much pick whatever you want until you use your points. This allows you to avoid the stuff you don't really like. But for the most, you get an allocated portion of the whole harvest. Some even offer eggs as part of their harvest if the farm keeps chickens.

Some CSAs also offer pick-your-own rights on the farm. So if you want to drive out, you can add to the bounty by picking something of your own. We belonged to a CSA back in NJ that delivered your share to a local drop-off point, but if you wanted to drive out the farm--you could pick your own things that weren't in your regular share. Usually fruits and berries. Others offer all sorts of different things--farm tours, training, pot-luck dinners, etc. The experienced ones publish a newsletter with helpful recipes and information about what's going on at the farm. After all: you're part-owner, so you have the right to know!

CSAs differ from co-operatives (co-ops) in that a CSA is a farm share where a co-op is a usually a buying club. As a result, co-ops can operate year-round with some level of stability in the quantity of what you will get because they are not locked into a single farm for their food. If one farm suffers, they can go find their food elsewhere. Some co-ops require members to participate somehow in the workload; but I have belonged to co-ops that don't (or that let you "sell" your workload to another member with the time to do it). Co-ops also operate on different frequency schedules. Most of the ones I belonged to had bi-weekly deliveries (to a drop-off point)... which stinks if you need food every week.

Co-ops and CSAs also differ in when you can get involved in them and how you pay for them. Because co-ops are not defined or limited by season, you can usually get involved in them at any time of the year. You can also pay-as-you-go with a co-op. I have yet to see one where you don't pay in advance of the delivery, but it is not like a CSA--where (most often) you pay for the season in-full before the first harvest. That can be a hefty bill. Some CSAs allow you some form of modified payment, but I haven't yet found one that isn't paid in full before the first harvest.

To that end, a farm only has a limited number of people it can feed. I've found that the well-loved and/or better know CSAs (or those with the cool features like pick your own or special items) are generally sold out a few months before the first harvest. This helps the farmer know how much to hold back if they are not sold out. Back in NJ, some of the CSAs were sold out in March. Others (and these were good ones, but lesser known or requiring further distance to pick up and/or less convenient pickup times) could be gotten into later in the spring. But start investigating now.

Either way, there is sometimes a "try before you buy" option by offering to buy (or just pick up free of charge) someone's share when they're on vacation and they can't find someone else to do it. That allows you to see first-hand the quality of the produce and the amount you get. This option exists in both CSA and co-op situations. Just let the farm or the co-op coordinator know that you're available for this and they will likely have a few boxes for you over the course of the summer. If it's a co-op, you may also wind up with a share during the December holidays or spring break--always during prime vacationing time.

Sometimes you can do work for the farm or co-op to offset the cost. I hosted a co-op delivery site for a while and because I provided the hosting location AND did the recruiting and financials, my food was practically free. I certainly worked for it, but if you're in a position where you don't HAVE the dollars but can do the effort--it's something to ask about. It's not always known.

Finding a local co-op or CSA isn't always easy. Great if you know someone that's getting stuff already, but if you don't or you're new to an area--that's another story. A good place to start is LocalHarvest.org . You can search for CSAs, co-ops/groceries, even farmer's markets. Farmer's markets might be a place to find them, too. Sometimes they are selling the produce that isn't assigned to a shareholder yet because they didn't sell out their shares (especially if it's a new farm, but lately the economy could put any farm in this position) or because they specifically grow extra produce for market. If you have a local chapter of the Holistic Moms Network or Weston A. Price Foundation, they may also know where to find a CSA or co-op. Just e-mail their chapter leader and ask!

Feel free to post additional questions (or resources) if you have them!

Oh... and when you're ready, be sure to read "CSA 102: How to make a CSA work for your family"

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