CSA Series 2010: Time to Sign Up

I'm going to try a bit of a challenge for myself here - I want to do a series on the CSA farms in our area. I've been doing some in-depth information gathering on this, and as you know I think there are a million reasons to become a member of a CSA farm.  Among which are that once you pay an upfront fee, in exchange you get a box of  gorgeous vegetables and the chance to talk every week to the person who grew those vegetables.  It's a way to eat healthier food, support the local economy and meet someone interesting all in one package - it's an amazing deal. 

For this background research on the CSAs in our area, I'm counting the farms that are close to Ann Arbor or have a drop-off in Ann Arbor.  So far I've found more than 20 of them - including 2 completely new CSAs that are starting this year.  This is the time of year when CSAs are opening up their membership applications, so I want to share what I've learned so far.  

My friend Shannon says that "finding a CSA is like dating."  You have to find the one that is the best match for you.  So, I'm thinking about how I could set up the Match.com of CSAs.  Would anyone want to subscribe?   To go over some of the main decision points again.....

Cost/Value Proposition

This is a tricky one involving several dimensions that are probably different for everyone.  Although some CSAs may seem expensive, it's worthwhile to make an attempt at comparing apples to apples as much as possible. CSA seasons may last from 10-26 weeks - that has a big effect on the expense. So don't just look at the total cost - figure out the cost per week. And try to learn as much as possible about the impact on the environment and your health from their growing practices. You'll also want to make sure that the pick-up day and location is convenient for your schedule.  See if you can get a sense of the amount of food you'll be getting, and also whether there are certain foods that you want or don't want (some CSAs specialize in greens, some say they offer "meat and potato" type produce).  You'll also be talking to these folks regularly so you'll probably want to pay some attention to which organizational model is the best fit.

Models:  Shareholder,  Subscription, Shopper's Choice
The CSAs in our area, although they don't label themselves this way, seem mainly to fall into three main types of organizational models: Shareholder, Subscription, and Shopper's Choice. This mainly affects the interaction you'll have with your farm and the "how" of getting of your produce. In general, you'll be paying up front and getting the same kinds of produce, but what's expected of you varies according to the CSA model in practice. 

- Shareholder:  This model is perhaps the oldest of the various models and the closest to the original intent of the "Community Supported Agriculture" movement.  The Shareholder model functions like a cooperative where the members are also owners and decision-makers, and are often expected to participate in some way in the work of the farm.  As shareholders, members attend meetings and make decisions about the finances and big-picture priorities of the farm each year and make a commitment to a certain number of hours spent working on farm tasks.  Community Farm of Ann Arbor is an example of a farm that follows the shareholder model.

- Subscription:  This is currently the most common model for the CSAs in our area.  Analagous to a magazine subscription, paying in advance entitles CSA members to (generally) a weekly pre-packaged box, or share, of whatever the farm is growing.  The farmers make decisions about what to grow and how to grow it, but members understand they take part in both the risks and rewards of the season.  If there is a crop failure or catastrophe (like last year's tomato blight), you may not get any.   If there is a bumper crop of green beans, you get more.  Needle-Lane Farm is an example of a farm that follows the subscription model. 

- Shoppers Choice:  This seems to be a new but popular option that different farmers may implement with some variations. In general, CSA members pay the upfront fee (as with the other models), but instead of getting a pre-selected allotment already boxed, each week members choose what they would like from what the farm has brought to market.  You may get a punch card that entitles you to a certain amount of produce for a certain number of weeks - and if you want only strawberries or no spinach ever, that's ok.  Carpenter's Greenhouse and Organic Produce is a "shopper's choice" model.

Growing Practice: Conventional, Certified Organic, Organic Practice (which may include Biodynamic)
There are a number of Eco-Label Programs for Michigan Farmers, so it's helpful to ask directly or look for a statement about growing practices for the CSA you're considering. In general, most farms in our area fall into three main categories as regards their practices for growing food with or without chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  Most CSA members understand there is no substitute for knowing (and trusting) your farmer, whatever his or her growing practice.

Conventional:  Most CSA farmers growing conventionally are judicious in their application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  Often they will say that they want to apply as little as possible (after all, they have families too) but will spray if a pest is threatening to wipe out a particular crop. Obviously, this judgment is particular to the farmer. Because they may have somewhat lower costs, a conventionally grown CSA may be a little less expensive. 

Certified Organic:  Organic certification is a time-consuming and expensive process for a farm, requiring ongoing planning and record-keeping, inspections, and a minimum three-year transition period if the land has been previously used for conventional purposes. The requirements for organic certification often result in higher costs for labor and other resources required for growing food, that will have to be reflected in the price. The issues around organic certification are complex and worthy of investigation.  We are lucky to have certified organic farms in our area. 

Organic Practice: Because organic certification is costly and time intensive, many of the farms in our area choose to follow the spirit and practice of organic methods (for example, forgoing the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers) without being officially certified by a licensing agency (of which there are currently none in Michigan).  It generally takes 3 years for a farm to become certified organic - in the meantime they are known as "transitional" or "pending organic certification."  In addition, biodynamic methods include organic practice and go beyond it to include the entire farm as a functioning organism.  However, a biodynamic farm is not necessarily certified organic either.   

The rule is: if knowing the growing practice is important to you, visit the farm to see for yourself.  As even the USDA now says "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food." 

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