Thursday, March 3, 2011

CSAs: Time to Sign Up

Last summer, Manatee and I participated in a CSA. I can honestly say it was one of the best things we have ever done. We are entering into CSA sign up season so I wanted to take some time to tell you about CSAs, why I think they are amazing and share some information with you about signing up.

What is a CSA?
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Essentially, you pay a local farm a set fee and then have vegetables delivered either to you or to a pickup location every week. This benefits both parties as the farm is guaranteed an set income for their produce and you get locally grown food. There is something pretty amazing about eating vegetables that were picked yesterday and were grown down the road. 

Our Experience

We learned about CSAs through a good friend of mine who was into CSAs before they were popular. This was prior to my life as a graduate student but I always thought the concept was cool. When I returned to the Madcity, I knew I wanted to participate in one. I have to admit that our research consisted of me calling said friend and asking her which farm she used. We lucked out in that it ended up being a great match for us.

We were warned that we should start with a half share because there was no way we would ever eat all of that fresh produce. I hate wasting food, especially produce, so we had a plan. Once we got our share, we would map out all of our meals based on the produce we received. Three days later, our share was gone and we couldn't wait for the next week and a half to go by so we could get our next one. This lasted for about a month and then we decided to 'upgrade' to a standard share. This just meant that instead of getting a share every other week, we got one every week.

So, how much do you normally get? Here is our picture from one of the last shares we received which I would say was small compared to what we were getting for most of the summer.

  • Bag of red potatoes
  • Three types of squash-including butternut squash 
  • Broccoli
  • Garlic
  • Kohlrabi
  • Bag of spring mix 
  • Bag of carrots
  • Bag of sweet potatoes
As I mentioned, this was near the end of the CSA so it was in the Fall. During the summer, we got everything from strawberries, melons, snap peas, cucumbers, tomatoes (oh the tomatoes!), sweet corn, popping corn, garlic scapes, and eggplants. We also got fresh herbs and garlic (which we just recently finished). 

Benefits of CSAs

In addition to supporting local farmers and getting to eat very fresh produce every week, a CSA also forces you to try new vegetables and fruits. Our CSA included an information sheet with everything we received, how to store it and ideas for preparation. They also sold a cookbook that included all of produce we would receive and had additional recipes on their website. So not only do you try new things, you also learn about them.

I have found that since participating in the CSA, I am more adventurous when I go shopping. I am much more likely to try new vegetables or fruits. Talking with others who have participated in CSAs, this seems to be a common theme.

If those weren't enough reasons, many insurance plans also give you a rebate for participating in a CSA. Check out your company's wellness initiative benefits to see if this is included. We found that the amount we saved in not buying as much produce plus this rebate really made this cost effective choice for us.

I will also say that for most households, you wouldn't need to buy any produce at all if you were receiving a CSA. Manatee and I are an exception in terms of the insane amount of produce we eat on a daily basis. 

Drawbacks of CSAs

As I mentioned, Manatee and I may be an exception in that we both love produce, we aren't picky when it comes to produce and we eat a ton of it. If you are picky about what vegetables you like or you don't eat a lot of produce, a CSA may not be the best option for you. As I mentioned, we were initially told to get a half share since there was just two of us. If you are open to trying new vegetables but are not sure you would eat it all, most CSAs offer a half share option or offer to let you share a standard share (or even a half share in some cases) with another household. I know this is very popular in our area.

Some CSAs also overload you with certain types of vegetables. We have heard cases where people got tons of peppers or tomatoes but not much variety. We have also heard where some CSAs did not offer tips on preparation so people felt confused or overwhelmed with the variety of produce because they did not know how to prepare it. 

How do I sign up?

In Madison, there is a CSA fair on March 13th at the Monona Terrace. Click here for more information. My friend who got me into CSAs told me that this is how she selected her CSA.

You can also check out this website to 'shop around' the Madison CSAs.

Manatee and I use Vermont Valley and we have been very happy. I am happy to answer any questions about our experience with them.

But I'm not a Badger.

Here are some websites for you non-badger readers.

Find a Chicago CSA
Slow Food

Twin Cities:
Twin Cities CSA Directory

Central Wisconsin:
Wisconsin Rapids CSA Directory

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