Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, is a hyper-local food system built on a symbiotic relationship between consumers with local farmers.

Coronavirus is exposing structural flaws in America’s food system. While lines at community food banks get longer and longer, struggling farmers are euthanizing 700,000 pigs each week, dumping 3.7 million gallons of milk per day, and tilling perfectly good produce back into the ground.

Right now, we’re seeing a lose-lose-lose scenario and the failure of a system that relies on too many moving parts. Farmers are losing profits, consumers are missing out on good food, and our already over-burdened planet is bearing the stress of resources wasted.

The parties above aren’t to blame for this failure, especially not the planet. However, farmers and consumers can be part of a solution by participating in Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA.

What is Community Supported Agriculture?

Simply put, CSAs are part of a food system with almost no middlemen or moving parts. That means fewer people touching, packaging, and hauling around your food. In a CSA, consumers buy shares in a local farm and in return get direct access to goods from that farm, often in the form of weekly boxes of meat, produce or dairy. This system gives individual consumers the power to invest in agricultural practices they believe in and see very real, very intimate returns on their investment in the form of fresh local food. Likewise, revenue from CSAs allows independent farmers to operate on a small, sustainable scale.

To summarize: that’s fresh, healthy food for the consumer; revenue for independent local farmers; and less packaging, transportation emissions, and harmful agricultural practices for the planet.

Or, in other words, a win-win-win food system.

2020 Farm Guide cover. Artwork by Angie Hinojos Yusuf.

Tilth Alliance Program Director Sheryl Wiser literally writes the book (nine of them now!) on CSAs in Washington State, a resource known as the Tilth Alliance Farm Guide. Wiser called CSAs “a symbiotic relationship between eater and farmer, and an investment in the economic viability, a healthy local food system.”

According to Wiser, the first thing to know about CSAs is that no two are alike — hence an annual 60+ page guide.

Things to consider while choosing a CSA

  • Geographic location: Are you willing to drive to the farm for pickup? Does the CSA have a drop site nearby? Do they offer home delivery?
  • Farming practices: What are you supporting? Is the farmer certified organic, do they use regenerative practices? Is that information available online?
  • Available goods: Every CSA offers a unique mix of goods that may or may not include vegetables, fruit, dairy, meat, honey, bread, mushrooms and more. Take a minute to find out which CSA suits your diet and family size. (Wiser tip: keep your eyes peeled for add-ons!)
  • Cost/Duration: The upfront cost for joining a CSA may induce sticker shock. However, it’s important to remember the duration of the investment. For example, Wiser’s fresh fruit CSA costs $500 for 20-weeks of delivery, or $25 per week. CSAs can cost less than $15 per week or over $30 per week. The cost will vary based on duration, share size, type of goods, and delivery/pickup method. (If the cost is out of the question, that’s ok! Keep reading for budget-friendly ways to participate in local food systems!)

Since farmers literally use your investment to plan out their season, summer-fall CSA sign ups typically open in January and February. However, there are CSAs available for all seasons, and if you feel like you’ve missed the bus, get on a waiting list! Farmers may open up more shares if they have a surplus.

On the flip side, CSAs are an investment and are therefore subject to risk, including crop failure, which the farmers and shareholders bear together.

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Finding a CSA

In Washington State, there is no better resource than the Tilth Alliance Farm Guide or its online interactive Find A Farm map. This resource sorts and labels local farms by available products and features, including CSAs. Tilth Alliance vets and approves the farms before they can be listed in the Farm Guide or Find A Farm directory.

Wiser recommends the following nationwide resources:

  • Barn2Door is an online platform that connects farmers and consumers within 200 miles of each other. Simply punch in your zip code and search local products and CSAs.
  • LocalHarvest is a nationwide directory for farms, farmers markets, co-ops, farm stands, U-picks and CSAs near major cities. Search by product or procedure to find local foods and products.
  • Harvie is an international (Hi there, Canada!) directory of farms and pick up locations. Use the map to connect with local farm programs and buy products online.

CSA alternatives

If investing in a CSA just isn’t in the cards, there are several other ways to support local agriculture and get fresh, healthy food. Those include:

  • Farm Stands – Use the directories above to find a local farm stand. Instead of driving to the grocery store for produce, buy it directly from a local farmer!
  • U-picks – Remember that 3rd grade field trip to the apple orchard? Relive the glory days and cut out all the middlemen by signing up for a local U-pick program. (Wiser tip: U-picks are a great way to supplement your vegetable CSA and perfectly suited for people that like to preserve fruit by canning or freezing.)
  • Farmers Markets – Wiser called farmers markets “heavy lifters of food and community.” Many are adapting to be coronavirus compliant. Take a minute to research which farmers markets are open near you and their COVID-19 procedures.
  • Co-ops and online platforms – Community co-op programs like KitsapFresh are popping up to adapt to the times (that’s what farmers do, after all). In this program, a network of 40+ farmers list their products online on Friday, consumers have the weekend to shop for them online, and the the orders are picked up at designated times and locations throughout the week.

And increasing number of farmers markets, farm stands, individual farms, and some CSAs are accepting SNAP/EBT benefits and other assistance programs. Use the Tilth Alliance Farm Guide or a similar resource, or contact your local farmers market for more information.

Wiser suggested researching COVID-19 procedures beforehand by checking the farm’s Facebook, website or calling ahead. Farmers are very adaptable and will update their procedures at a moment’s notice to follow best practices.

“Farmers taught me how to eat and cook”

Wiser said it’s important to be prepared for what happens when a box of fresh food comes into your life. Your CSA farmer may give you a heads up about what’s coming and send information on how to prepare and store the items. Or, they may not!

Did you know humans eat just 200 of the 50,000 edible plant species on Earth? See why trying new foods contributes to the health of our planet!

Wiser had the following tips for new CSA shareholders:

  • Be in a place where you can spend 30 minute unloading the box, taking stock of what you have and store things properly (Wiser tip: cotton mesh bags come in handy for storing fresh veggies!).
  • Have fun unpacking the box — treat it as a surprise and a treat, and think about where it came from. That food was in the EARTH yesterday just 50 miles away.
  • Cook something every day. Have a little moment of food prep each time you’re in the kitchen and get creative about incorporating your CSA items into your snacks and meals. This NPR may help.
  • Ask the farmer when you are picking up your CSA share or when it’s being dropped off.
  • Let the CSA change how you eat. Wiser said years of shopping through CSAs has changed her diet and cooking habits to make fresh, healthy, local food the centerpiece.

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Feature photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash.