Our Experience with Community Sponsored Agriculture

What’s not to love about Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA)? You hand them money, and every week they hand you a bag of food. You don’t have to go to a store, sort through stuff, make a bunch of decisions, or stare at weirdly shaped roots that you don’t know what they are. They pick it and give it. Win-win, right?

Once we figured out that April is gluten and lactose intolerant, we decided to buy into a CSA this year. We’ve had several friends who have done it, and it pushed all the right laziness buttons for us. We needed more vegetables, and they’d sort through and deliver them. Unfortunately, the whole experience was a bit disappointing, and like every single other person we know, we won’t be doing it again.

I guess we should have caught on when everyone we talked to said they had done it once and hadn’t renewed after that. Many of them talked about how they didn’t like some of the vegetables delivered, and most said they couldn’t get through all of the vegetables each week, but since veggies were going to be a huge part of our diet, I figured it would be OK. What I didn’t realize was that the name for the setup is really literal. This is community sponsored agriculture. The “customers” pay for the farmers to enjoy their preferred lifestyle.

Part of the issue was that this was a bad growing season, and I get that. It’s not the farm’s fault, necessarily. But the cost for this scheme came up to a little over $30 a week, paid in installments over the course of a few months, and each week we would go and pick up a load of vegetables. The word “load” probably isn’t right, because it makes it sound like a lot. I went to Wal-Mart one week and discovered we could have gotten a similar amount for $15-20 for several of the weeks. The farmer’s market is cheaper, which is funny because the big draw of the CSA is that it’s locally grown and organic. And because the customers pitch in and help harvest (each person has to spend 12 hours harvesting over the course of 2-3 days during the season), that should help lower the cost.

The sense I got, once everything was said and done, was that a CSA is sort of like a charity banquet. You go to a novel location and spend lots of money to receive relatively little in return (in this simile, a nice dinner, but not worth $100+), and it’s worth it because you’re supporting a cause. In the case of the CSA, the cause is the family running the farm: they get a house, equipment, and to do the job they love, and in return their supporters get some vegetables, though not necessarily $30/week worth.

But I didn’t sign up for CSA out of a desire to support them. I did it because I wanted an inexpensive and convenient source of vegetables. It ended up being neither, but what’s worse is that the quality of the vegetables was really bad. I get that organically grown produce is going to be more susceptible to pests like worms and whatnot, but we got a lot of food that was rotted or still had live worms eating away at it. Some of it wasn’t usable at all, but they happily gave it to us each week regardless. If we went to the farmer’s market, we’d pick out good looking produce that we could actually eat. Instead, we gave the CSA $30 a week for often rotted or worm-ridden vegetables and fruit.

It wasn’t all bad. April has pointed out that she enjoyed working on the farm, and she learned a lot about cooking with different things because we received vegetables we wouldn’t have normally received. That forced us to adapt our menus and try new foods, which is good. But we certainly won’t be buying into a CSA again, and one trip to the farmer’s market has already yielded a more rewarding bag of leafy greens that taste and look better for less than a third the price. ((As an aside, so you know what the proportions are like, a normal week would net us 3-5 peppers, 3-6 tomatoes, more herbs than we could use (they would tell us this, “You won’t be able to use all this basil before it goes bad.” And yet we still had to pay for and take it), some chard and kale (leafy greens, though they never tasted very good to me, more like dirt), occasionally a bag of spinach, some fruit (either some grapes, or strawberries, or some apples, maybe 3-8 depending on the week) and a dozen eggs. By comparison, April got enough leafy greens for the week for $8 at the farmer’s market, and a friend picked up 24 bell peppers that same day for $4. Tomatoes are a similar price, and only getting a few each week from the CSA was really frustrating because it wasn’t enough to make sauce with or anything.))

If you’re considering participating in a CSA, especially around Springfield, I encourage you to think about your goals. If you want to support a local farmer with some charitable giving, buying into a CSA will do that and you’ll get some vegetables in return. But if you want to get good, local produce, head to the farmer’s market and find what you want. You’ll get a better deal and better quality.

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