There are subscriptions for everything from Netflix to dog treats and geeky T-shirts. So why not organic vegetables?
My family subscribes to Global Growers, a local community supported agriculture operation in Georgia farmed primarily by refugees. We like the social mission, but our goal was to eat local – cheap.
CSAs are great way to do that. We “subscribe” to a farm and get a $25 basket of produce every week for 15 weeks. Although our CSA will pro-rate subscriptions up to the midpoint of the season, generally folks pay up front, before crops come in. We usually get more food than we would in the grocery store, partly because it costs less to ship a head of cabbage from down the road than it does from Indonesia.
Save money buying local — sounds good, but it’s not for everyone. Here are three things you’ll learn if you sign up for a CSA…
1. Life is like a box of chocolates
CSAs can keep prices cheaper than conventional crops when consumers are willing to share the costs of farming and trade complete control over what’s in their refrigerator for extra produce.
“First of all, if you’re going to compare $25 of produce here with $25 you’d get at the farmer’s market, we try to exceed that standard,” says Susan Pavlin, chairwoman of the board of Global Growers. “I think you’re going to get more for your value, generally speaking.”
The trade off, though, is shared risk. In a great year, CSA members may literally have more food than they can eat. But in a poor year, some products aren’t going to show up in the baskets.
Take pumpkins, for example. This year produced a bumper crop. We had a giant 41-pound monster pumpkin sitting in our front yard for Halloween, soon to become pumpkin soup and pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie and roasted pumpkin seeds. We are the Bubba Gump pumpkin company.
But last year, that company would have been bankrupt. It’s easy enough to match supply and demand for pumpkins at Halloween, assuming the weather cooperates. But for most other products, a CSA basket reflects regional variation in agriculture and local conditions.
2. When to save
Consumers expect to buy tomatoes year round, thanks to refrigerated container ships coming from Argentina. Many have no idea when they’re in season locally.
Farmyard, a CSA in Phoenix, sends baskets with arugula and a cooking green mix in late October, along with Swiss chard, eggplant, red onions, radishes, squash and — unsurprisingly, given the locale — chili peppers.
“The chilis really start to kick in when the weather cools off,” says Sarah Kidwell, owner of Farmyard. “They really kick it into gear now. But there are chilis throughout the summer.”
Hot peppers, in Phoenix? A snap. Produce the day after it’s picked? Sure thing. But if you ask Kidwell to produce blueberries for her CSA, I suspect she’d laugh pretty hard.
Blueberries don’t grow in Arizona. Try Michigan. And while Kidwell is producing chilis, Global Growers in Georgia might have bags full of basil or spinach.
“Everyone wants salad greens throughout the summer time, which isn’t feasible in Phoenix,” Kidwell says. “I try to accommodate tastes, but I don’t cater to it.”
A CSA effectively teaches the local cuisine to subscribers. Over time, CSA members re-learn seasonality in local produce, so that when they go to the grocery store — or the farmer’s market — they’ll know when they can expect to buy tomatoes cheap.
The federal government seems to agree. It’s planning to test a program encouraging food stamp use on local produce. The most recent farm bill set aside $100 million in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to effectively double the value of food stamps when used to buy locally-produced agricultural products.
3. How to cook new things
“We try to include from five to seven products, depending on size and volume,” Pavlin says. “One of those things is usually an add-on product. One week we did eggs, one week we did goat cheese. Right now, this time of year during cool weather, you’ll see more greens like lettuce, spinach, turnips, carrots, and beets.”
Now, suppose you don’t eat beets all that much. Perhaps you’re not the sort to pick up beets at the grocery store. But you open up your CSA basket and there they are — half a dozen giant beets staring you in the face like Super Mario Brothers characters, waiting for you to throw one at a turtle.
Better learn how to love a beet.
“It challenges you to make the most of it, to use it,” Pavlin says. “Most of our subscribers end up eating at home more to make it interesting, to learn how to cook.”
The bottom line? A CSA subscription isn’t for everyone. But for people willing to view an armful of kale like it’s the secret ingredient on an Iron Chef episode, they’re an excellent way to save money.
How to find a CSA near you
If you’re game, LocalHarvest has a CSA locator showing options by ZIP code. Their directory lists more than 30,000 family farms and farmers markets, as well as restaurants and grocery stores that feature local food. When choosing a CSA, LocalHarvest suggests asking farmers a few questions…
- How long have you been farming, and how long have you been doing a CSA?
- How big is your subscriber base?
- How much of the food you deliver comes from your own farm, and how much is coming from somewhere else?
- How did last season go?
- Can I talk to some references before committing?
Subscribing to a CSA is an investment of sorts. A typical cost might be $400 for three months of weekly deliveries, although prices vary depending on location and the size of one’s weekly basket. As with many things, you get a discount buying in bulk: Half shares generally cost more on a per-pound basis than full shares.