You may be wondering how in the world this could be a win-win for the shareholder when one could simply shop at the grocery store for all bounty and no risk. And you would be asking a good question. So, let's look more closely at the structure and workings of a typical CSA.
Most CSA farms are small, independent, labor-intensive family farms. Most also practice ecological, natural or organic agriculture by avoiding pesticides and inorganic (not natural) fertilizers. Some are USDA certified organic farms, which means the soils have been chemical-free for 3 years, some are Certified Naturally Grown, but almost without exception, CSA farms follow environmentally best-practice methods. These farms typically grow vegetables, herbs and fruits. Some offer eggs, organic meat and poultry, cheeses and even flowers. The farm determines the number of shares they can support and the cost of each share. The weekly share may be enough for a family of 2, 4 or 6 and the price will be commensurate. Distribution of the weekly shares may be by home-delivery, farm-pick-up, or pre-determined pick-up points at designated times. The growing season in our area is typically 20-22 weeks from about mid-May through October and the cost of a share for a family of 4 generally ranges between $450 -$950 for the season, depending upon what the farm offers, the length of the season, and distribution methods.
That's the way a CSA typically works. So what are the benefits that make CSAs a win-win proposition? Simply put, healthier bodies, a healthier environment and healthier local economies. Sure there's the possibility that a bad growing season will increase the risk of sharing in a local farm, but considering the benefits, I hope you'll agree that it's a risk worth taking.
When we're talking about the health advantages of a CSA, we're not talking about junk foods and obesity. That's another conversation entirely. What we're comparing are the health benefits derived from local, farm-produced fruits and vegetables to large-scale, industrial farm-produced fruits and vegetables found in your nearby grocery store. The two benefits of local farm-produced food are freshness and naturalness.
Freshness is very important because produce begins losing its nutritional value from the moment it is harvested. So the sooner those vegetables get from the farm to your dinner table, the greater the nutritional benefit to your family. This is the crux of the “farm-to-fork” concept. Some farms actually offer wonderful and elaborate dinners at tables set up right in the fields!
Naturalness is really the absence of chemicals: inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. Agricultural chemicals are detrimental to human health. The best way to avoid chemical-laden foods is to buy either certified organic or natural foods. This is exactly what CSAs offer. Locally grown produce is fresh, natural and tastes great!
There are two primary environmental benefits to CSA farms. The first is the absence of chemicals and the other is the minimal transportation required.
Chemicals are not just harmful to our bodies, they are harmful to the environment. They are in the soils and, through run-off, in bodies of water, which has a negative impact on the ecosystem on land and in water. Over time they can leach into ground water. CSAs eliminate all of this by using best-practice methodologies of organic farming.
Transportation of food over long distances is costly and burns fossil fuels which contribute to carbon dioxide emissions, which in turn effect air quality and impact the acceleration of atmospheric warming. So, when we go to the grocery store and buy asparagus from Peru, tomatoes from Mexico, or lettuce from California, we should consider the economic and environmental cost of those decisions. We may purchase distantly-sourced produce in winter, but in the spring, summer and fall, we are blessed with the choice of locally-produced food, which comes with the added benefit of helping to reduce carbon emissions.
Healthier Local Economies
The CSA structure provides a guaranteed market for the farm through the pre-paid sale of shares to its members. This essentially provides the cash flow to finance the farm's operations, reduces risk to farmers, and allows them to concentrate on quality growing. It also helps to level the playing field in the food market which economically favors large industrial farms. CSA farms can be competitive with the large industrial farms also because their transportation and distribution costs are much lower. CSA farms themselves contribute to the local economy by hiring, keeping our rural areas vibrant, our farmland fertile and protecting our environment.
Being part of a CSA is a gratifying experience. Along with supporting local agriculture, there is an opportunity to turn back the clock to the days when there were no freezers or commercially canned food, when summer canning was the norm. To re-discover what it's like to open in February a jar of green beans, tomatoes or peaches that you canned in August, to bring the flavors of summer to your winter table, is to combine modern-day living with the healthy, simple traditions of generations past.
Choosing a CSA Farm
I hope I have convinced you to consider membership in a CSA. Below is a list of 9 CSA farms that are in the Northern Neck and Central Virginia areas. The list is not all-inclusive and more may be found on the Virginia website www.vagrown.vi.virginia.gov. CSAs vary in size, season, share cost and farming methods. Beyond geographical proximity to you, here's a check-list of considerations when choosing a CSA.
Is the farm certified organic, certified naturally grown, or using best-practice farming methods? Even farms that are not certified generally follow the natural and organic farming guidelines.
Many CSAs offer seasonal shares, meaning you can purchase a summer share, but not a fall or winter share. Usually, the more seasonal shares you purchase, the better the deal. Consider the length of each season and the quantities you will receive each week. Some CSAs will estimate the number of people the weekly basket will provide for; others estimate the number of items in the basket.
Ask what they grow so you know what you can expect every week. Are there fruits as well as vegetables? What other products are available, either as part of the CSA share or for additional purchase? If they provide farm eggs, organic meats, poultry, cheese, honey, etc., it may be a wonderful one-stop shop opportunity.
Where are the food products sourced? Do they all come from the farm, or does the farm include items from other sources?
How are the shares distributed? If it's farm-pick-up only, you'll have the lovely experience of visiting the farm each week, but you want to know how far you'll need to travel. If there are pick-up points or home delivery, the price per share will reflect that extra service.
If the farm sells through farmer's markets or road-side stands, ask for their assurance that the CSA shareholders are the first priority to receive produce. If heavy rains wash out half the crop of spinach, the reasonable expectation is that the remaining half will be divided among the shareholders.
Most CSA farms welcome your visit and some have pick-your-own programs. These experiences bring us close to the land and make great family outings.
Areas served: Richmond and Williamsburg
Blenhelm Organic Gardens
On Facebook and listed at www.localharvest.org
Areas served: Northern Neck
Fall shares available
Areas served: Williamsburg and Middle Peninsula
Holly Hill Organic Farm
Area served: Middlesex County
Area served: Williamsburg
At this writing, 3 out of 100 shares remaining
Areas served: Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula, Northern Virginia
Areas served: Culpeper, Fredericksburg, King George
Current season shares available
Rocking F Farms
Area served: At Lee Area
Current season shares available
Area served: Richmond
There are many cookbooks whose focus is on fresh, local produce. One such book is Eating Local by Sur la Table. Another is Eating Well in Season, by the publishers of the Eating Well magazine. Books by Alice Waters, the doyenne of the local and sustainable food movement, are always fun and insightful. Many CSAs include recipes in their weekly boxes or newsletters and CSA members exchange recipes too.
I hope you'll get involved in this “growing” trend (pun intended) and that you agree CSAs are a win-win for health, environment and local economies. CSAs are fun, affordable, and offer us new ways to connect with the farms and food that healthfully nourish and sustain us.