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From Farm to Basket: The Ins And Outs Of CSAs

Written by DC EcoWomen blogger Dawn Bickett

A Beginner’s Guide to CSAs

For months, we’ve slogged through barren produce aisles and mourned the loss of our weekend farmers market journeys. No longer. It is finally happening: fresh produce is back! And for me, that means the return of my weekly run to the Adams Morgan Farmers Market — where I pick up my CSA share from Licking Creek Bend Farm.

Maybe you’ve overheard talk of CSAs from your foodie friend or hippie sister — or perhaps you’ve been told CSA horror stories (kohlrabi for months?) that scared you off. Maybe you’re thinking about joining one this season! If any of these sound familiar, this blog is for you. I spoke with Esther Siegel and Charmaine Peters — the women behind Licking Creek Bend Farm and its CSA — to give you the rundown on CSAs, and to help you figure out whether one is right for you.

What is a CSA?

First off, the acronym stands for Community-Supported Agriculture. The concept is new one — developed within the last 50 years — where community members support a local farm directly. But unlike a farmers market stand where you purchase what you want, CSAs rely on members supporting the same farm throughout the season, regardless of the outcome.

Esther explains: “Individuals or families invest in the yield of the farm. The farmers get the money upfront so they could do all the things that they need to do. And in exchange, that family would get a weekly basket of the yield. It’s a shared liability because if there is a disaster, the farmer can’t sell produce and you don’t get a share. But when things are abundant, everyone shares in that.”

And CSAs aren’t just crowdsourcing funds for farmers. CSA are also focused on providing local, seasonal, and often organic produce to their customers.

How would it work for me?

CSAs take many forms, but share a few key features. After customers pay upfront for a share, they receive an fresh-from-the-field bunch of produce or other products every week. Some farms ask you to pick up a bag of produce at the actual farm or at a designated pickup location in the area. Others allow you to pre-order the veggies you want each week and then deliver them to your door.

What are the benefits of a CSA?

Of course, CSAs offer security to local farmers. But CSAs are more than an insurance policy or a loan. Compared to a farmers market or a grocery story, the CSA can be a much more personal experience for both farmers and customers. “There’s something more to the CSA, something more than just providing vegetables,” says Charmaine. And its true. CSAs can bring people together, whether it’s a quick recipe swap,or a potluck with other CSA members.

For customers, CSAs are also an exciting way to eat! New vegetables show up in your share every week, creating great opportunities to experiment in the kitchen. And because CSA members share in any bounty on the farm, a flat of heirloom tomatoes or enough sweet potatoes to last all winter is always possible. This means CSA members can often squirrel away enough produce via freezing, drying, or canning to last well after the season is over.

As Esther describes it: “It’s as if you lived on a farm, and instead of writing a grocery list and going to the store and getting the produce you plan for, you are really going out into the field and seeing what’s for dinner.”

Lastly, CSAs are local so the food they provide is not only seasonal and fresh, it also has a lower carbon footprint than vegetables at the store. Most CSAs practice organic farming methods as well. And as the idea of CSAs has gotten more popular, it’s not just vegetables anymore. You can join cheese, meat, flower, even dessert CSAs!

What are the challenges?

If you’re considering joining a CSA, Esther would be the first to tell you that CSAs aren’t for everyone. “What I tell people is that if you work late every night and you don’t have time to cook, a lot of the food is going to go bad. If you only like certain things that may not be what grows in our environment, this might not be for you. Its a way of life that is exciting, but it’s something that you have to grow into.”

In addition, many CSAs don’t have flexibility on what specific produce they’re offering each week. Then there’s the issue of size. Most CSAs consider a share to be enough to feed 2-4 people in a week. If you go into a CSA alone, the sheer amount of veggies may be overwhelming. At the same time, CSAs aren’t meant to be all the food a person needs in a week, so a trip to the store is still required.

For farmers as well, CSAs offer a specific set of challenges. CSAs require lots of logistics: from recruitment, to managing pick up locations, to making sure that produce is fairly distributed. On top of that, Charmaine details the difficulty of managing people’s expectations in the face of the realities of the local climate: “Our tomatoes aren’t ready here until September, but people see them in the store in June.” And beyond that, she adds, some popular produce like broccoli or rosemary is difficult to grow in the region altogether.

I’m in. What’s next?

You’ve carefully considered your eating and cooking habits, and you have grabbed a friend/roommate/partner who wants to embark on a vegetable adventure with you. Great! Here are some resources to help find the perfect CSA for you in the DC area:

Check out this fantastic interactive map to find CSAs in your area. You can also, visit farmers markets near you to find out if they offer CSAs. And for more on Licking Creek Bend Farm, visit its webpage or just come to the Adams Morgan Farmers Market on 18th and Columbia on Saturday mornings.

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