Our family indulged in our first CSA experience this year after I came across this demystifying spreadsheet shared by a friend of ours who’s a local organic farmer. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture (learn more about what that means here) and for us, was a way to access fresh edibles from June – November:
- All organic
- $380 for 22 weeks = affordable at ~$17.25/week
- And more veggies than our family of 4 can consume each week.
That spreadsheet PDF I linked to above isn’t going to be especially helpful to any of you outside the Central or Western New York areas except maybe for cost comparison, but it was just the nudge I needed to help me select a plan for our family, so maybe you can ask around in your own region for something comparable.
I’ve been singing the wonders of the CSA to basically everyone I encounter since it began; it’s one of the best things we’ve ever “invested” in – and not only for health, but for grocery savings, for efficiency, and for local community support and involvement. I have been totally enamored with it. And because now is a good time to begin planning for the 2016 growing season, I thought I’d recap our experience with our choice CSA Porter Farms here for you all to see.
The New York growing season doesn’t produce much volume until mid-June and July depending on weather, and this year the program began right around the time school let out for summer vacation in late-June. It ended the weekend before Thanksgiving.
When choosing our CSA, there were a few things I considered:
- Location. It registered with me that Porter Farms had multiple pickup locations, but the farm is actually in a town nearby where we have family about 45 minutes from Rochester. Initially, I figured that Pete’s Dad or someone could pick up our weekly share for us, but when I filled out the application that I realized that the farm had a dozen+ pick-up locations in and around Rochester, one being right in our neighborhood. A brown grocery bag filled with vegetables could be picked up at this location every Saturday morning, so while I expected convenience, that made it really easy.
- Reliable. This farm had thousands of participants and was well-established in Buffalo and Rochester.
- Affordability. This was a trial year for us – would we like it? Good/poor variety? Enough for our family? Quality of service, freshness, overall worthwhileness? I was comfortable with an upfront investment of $380, and knowing that many of its competitors were priced in the $500-$800 range and had a shorter delivery season made it easy to see the advantages of signing our family up for Porter Farms first. I am so happy with this place.
- Variety. Every farm has its own specialties. Some offer flowers! Others, cherries! Eggs! We like the sounds of all of that, but the fruits and veggies were our main interest and its other perks outweighed the fact that we would still have to buy our eggs at the store.
The results of our 22-week test were awesome. The cliff notes:
- We saved $20 on our fee by joining before mid-March – $400 marked down to $380
- Organic is obviously a nice perk. We don’t buy everything organic as it is, but it has obvious benefits. (And may I add, it all tasted very good, which makes you realize how much waxy/coatings/sprays lives on non-organic or foods treated to have a longer shelf-life in grocery stores.)
- As we all know, store-bought produce gets relatively pricy, and when I compared our weekly haul to Wegmans regular (non-organic) prices, I knew that we were saving a lot of money. Our $17 CSA bag might have cost $35-45 at the grocery store.
- We heard a lot of “why not just spend the $17 at the Public Market every week? You can get SO MUCH FOOD for $17.” And that’s true. Rochester’s Public Market is notorious – it’s big, which makes it more competitively priced – but expecting me to park and navigate that every Saturday with (or without) a toddler isn’t realistic. Smaller farm markets in each town are great too, we like wandering them every few weeks, but the selection and pricing isn’t such that I would buy all of my produce there.
- We’re creatures of habit and you probably are too; instead of selecting the same 10 items of produce every week, we were delivered new and different products that we definitely wouldn’t have bought otherwise. This goes for market shopping too; I would definitely gravitated towards the same items if I spent $17 each week at the Rochester Public Market. The CSA gave us reason us to work with new foods and try a lot of recipes. Kohlrabi. Broccoli Rabe. Poblano Peppers. Swiss Chard. Yellow string beans. Leeks. And the sheer quantity of veggies in our home has made it such that we don’t even bother supplementing our meals with other easy sides that our family gravitates to, like rice or potatoes or peas, we just made the most of whatever we had, and found more cost savings in doing that.
- We expected we could “extend” the season by freezing excess. We didn’t want anything to go to waste, and this was hard and more time consuming than I imagined it would be. On weekends, any number of hours could have been spent organizing the new haul, checking the remainder of last week’s goods to see what we should use first, identifying what could be blanched and frozen or given away, and there’s nothing quite like blanching foods in boiling water on a 90-degree day without air conditioning. There were days that it seemed like our fridge door wouldn’t shut, and even now we’re at the point where our basement deep freezer can barely close, so we’ll have plenty of frozen veggies to tap into for wintertime dishes.
- We didn’t foresee the sense of community that the CSA offered, but the farm itself had great communication with weekly emails with recipes and farm news and kept us posted on how upcoming crops were doing and how the weather was affecting the growing season. They hosted several Farm-to-Table dinners, was regularly inviting families to come see the farm in person, and even had a great fall festival (that we missed – next year!). After the fall festival, it was mentioned in their weekly email that there were literally thousands of small pumpkins free for the taking. So we did.
And that’s how we ended up decorating the front of our home for Halloween with 100 pumpkins. Pete’s mom even pickled a few of them as a special side at Thanksgiving!
Other ramblings/things to consider/things to look for:
- More fruit: Our farm didn’t have a huge fruit crop (there were tomatoes, cantaloupe, and various watermelons) but we still have a lot of local U-Pick farms on which to find other berries. We’ll hopefully always get apples from my parents’ backyard, and now we know that we can focus our own gardening efforts on establishing a solid strawberry, raspberry, and blueberry patch.
- I don’t feel good about saying “OMG, THERE WAS SO MUCH X, Y, Z” because not all seasons will be as great of growing seasons (that’s the risk), but jesus, there were weeks where we had 9 heads of 4 different kids of lettuce, 10 squash, and 12 peppers in 5 varieties. The peppers and extra squash all froze well and can be used in recipes all winter long, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be craving another salad again until next summer.
- Second freezer. For next year, we have a better gauge on how much our freezer can contain. There’s an old upright freezer in the basement that I resisted using this year, but we’ll turn on next season as a secondary place to freeze and store veggies (when you blanch them, it’s easiest to freeze them on a flat baking sheet and then scoop them into freezer bags, but horizontal space for trays in the freezer above our fridge is at a minimum which slowed my ability to preserving in bulk).
Hope you found it helpful if you’re shopping around; other recommendations/tips please leave in the comments!