Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2015 and has been updated.
Eating healthy is a lot easier when a giant box of farm-fresh organic vegetables arrives in your kitchen every week. If you participate in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, you’ll get just that. You’ll also likely develop a love of new and unusual veggies (radicchio, anyone?) while you get the added benefit of saving money.
In 2014, I partnered up with a friend to join a CSA. We split a “half share” (which cost $305) that provided 16 weekly boxes of produce. For my “quarter share,” I paid $152.50, which came to $9.53 per week over the course of the season. That’s less than $10 a week for what turned out to be basically all-you-can-eat organic vegetables.
Sometimes it was hard to finish everything from one week’s box before the next one arrived, and the last few weeks of the season provided so much produce I could barely carry the bounty.
Do you want to try this brilliant (and delicious) way to save money for yourself? Here’s what to do.
How Does a CSA Work?
CSAs are great ways to receive a large amount of farm-fresh, often organic produce that typically costs far less than you’d find at a farmers market or even the grocery store. You sign up with a local farm for a “share” in that farm’s seasonal crop.
Every farm has different offerings, and the produce varies throughout the season (and by climate). The farm whose CSA I joined started off the season in mid-June with leafy greens, baby garlic, and herbs, then transitioned to heartier vegetables, such as turnips, sugar snap peas, bok choy and kale.
Late summer brought tomatoes, squash, peas and herbs, then the fall brought a basket full of root vegetables, such as onions, beets and potatoes, just to name a few.
How to Find a CSA
Local Harvest is one website that can point you in the direction of a farm with a CSA program. You can also Google your local area and “CSA farm” or simply ask around. Local farmers markets are a great source of farmers who may have CSA programs.
What to Expect From Your CSA
Typically, you’ll pay for the full season in advance, either purchasing a whole share or a half share. The size and contents of that share can vary considerably based on the particular farm, what they’re growing this season and how the season develops. Some years have bumper crops, while other years are a little on the leaner side.
By participating in a CSA program, you have to be willing to roll with the variety, and you can’t get upset if you receive fewer tomatoes than you’d like but more arugula. That’s just part of the deal.
You will usually sign up for a specific pick-up time and location when you buy your share. Many CSAs offer a variety of pick-up dates and times. My pick-up time was on Tuesdays from 5-7 p.m. at a downtown location, and if I wanted my veggies, I had to be there during that window. If I couldn’t make it, I could send a friend to pick them up for me, but if I missed the pick-up, I would miss that week’s veggies.
You may also need to bring bags or boxes to weigh and sort your veggies. My CSA farm set up its pick-up site with bins of veggies, scales and a whiteboard listing how much of each item to take that week. Everyone would line up and collect vegetables, weighing each variety to make sure they were taking exactly the right amount. The friendly farm staff would walk around and chat with people, checking names off their list for the week’s pick-up.
Some CSAs offer more convenient options, like pre-packed bins or even delivery, so be sure to ask about those features before signing up.
Pros of Joining a CSA
Ready to sign up for a CSA? Here are some more benefits.
CSAs can provide a wide variety of high-quality vegetables for a relatively low price. To save even more money, ask about volunteer opportunities. Many farms allow people to volunteer on the farm in exchange for free vegetables or a discounted share.
Joining a CSA is a great way to sample new recipes and try new vegetables that you may not have otherwise tried. You might find some aren’t to your liking (anyone have a good pea shoots recipe?), but you may also find some new favorites.
Some farms hold potlucks for members to get to know each other and develop a sense of community. Working on the farm is another good way to get to know fellow shareholders.
Cons of Joining a CSA
Your fresh veggies come with a couple of strings attached. Make sure you’re aware of these potential drawbacks before you sign up.
Instead of allocating a few dollars for vegetables in each week’s grocery budget, you have to come up with the full price of the share at the start of the season. Some farms may offer payment plans, but you’ll still have to plan ahead and spend more money at once than you would otherwise.
Summer’s a busy time for many people, and it can be hard to set aside a consistent time each week to pick up the veggies. Once you’ve brought them home, you have to figure out what to do with them. Developing a meal plan and cooking or storing the vegetables can take quite a bit of time and be a bit daunting.
Some people freeze, pickle or can extras, but if you don’t have the time, skills or inclination, those tasks can be daunting. It’s easy to end up wasting food, even with the best of intentions.
How to Make the Most of Your CSA Membership
If you’re keen to try a CSA this year, don’t let those cons scare you off. Here are a few strategies to prevent or minimize the hassle.
1. Split a membership with a friend or family member.
You’ll each pay less, and you’ll be able to switch off pick-up dates and times. Many farms only sell full and half shares, so it makes sense to find someone to split a share with if you’re looking for a smaller size. If you don’t know anyone who might want to split a share, the farms can often help pair you up with another shareholder.
2. Look for recipes for new and unusual items.
Visit Pinterest and search “recipe + [veggie]”, or check out this Buzzfeed post, which shares recipe suggestions for “confusing CSA vegetables.” Many CSA programs also offer a newsletter and recipes suggesting what to do with each week’s share, especially the less common items.
3. Plan ahead of time what you’ll do with extras.
Consider freezing, canning, pickling, or giving away some of your bounty. You could even make your own root cellar in your backyard!
Kristen Pope is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.