Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, is a hyper-local food system built on a symbiotic relationship between consumers with local farmers. Residents of Washington State have a great resources for finding the right CSA in Eat Local First.

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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
  • Less packaging, transportation emissions, and harmful agricultural practices for the planet

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

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Finding a CSA in Washington State

In Washington State, there is no better resource than the Eat Local First CSA Finder. Just check a few boxes to specify your needs (type of food, season, distribution method, organic), punch in your zip code, and hit search. Up comes a list of CSAs in your area that meet your criteria.

Screenshot from Eat Local First.

Or, for the visual learners, use the interactive map! I used the map to find Local Color Farm and Fiber — which is so close to my house I can see it when I walk my dog. You bet your buns I’m signing up for their CSA!

Eat Local First launched in 2020 through a collaborative effort by The Local Food Trust, Pierce County Fresh, Sustainable Connections, Tilth Alliance, Washington State University Food Systems, and Washington State University Regional Small Farms Program.

Even in its first year, this resources is basically The Avengers of eating local. It already includes more than 1,700 local famers, food business, and local food resources. It also has helpful tips for handling fresh food and wonderful stories about Washington farmers. If you have any interest in joining a CSA in Washington, go visit Eat Local First!!!

If you stumbled into this article from another state, try these nationwide resources to find a CSA.

  • 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.

Things to consider while choosing a CSA

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.

  • 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. (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. Cost varies 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.

Ready to whip up some local food? Check out these eco-friendly kitchen products!

CSA alternatives

If investing in a CSA just isn’t in the cards, there are other ways to support local agriculture and get fresh, healthy food — many of which can be found using Eat Local First Local Food Finder.

  • 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.

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“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!

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.