Here’s How a Community Supported Agriculture Program Can Save Grocery Money

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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.

Sometimes it’s hard to finish everything from one week’s box before the next one arrives, but keep in mind you are saving money and you can always share the bounty (and the cost) with a friend, neighbor or family member.

Do you want to try this brilliant (and delicious) way to save money for yourself? Here’s what to know and do.

What Is a CSA?

A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program is a system where consumers buy “shares” of what a farmer is growing. The money is paid in advance of planting and harvest. This community-based commerce program is a way to help fund farms and for consumers to get fresh produce directly from the fields.

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.

How Does a CSA Work?

Consumers pay in advance for the produce from a farm and it is delivered in a couple of ways. Either consumers pick up their share of produce at a specific time and location, or it is delivered to their homes.

The produce delivered is what is ready to be picked that week and each box will contain a variety. Some CSAs let consumers say which fruits or veggies they don’t want. Since one of the goals is to cut waste, CSAs don’t want to deliver what people don’t want. Though, primarily, consumers get what the farm is delivering.

Every farm has different offerings, and the produce varies throughout the season (and by climate and region). Many areas of the U.S. start 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. If you live in warmer locations, such as Florida or Arizona, the most productive growing season is in the winter months and early spring.

Late summer in most of the U.S. brings tomatoes, squash, peas and herbs, then the fall brings 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.

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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.

You may also need to bring bags or boxes to weigh and sort your veggies. Some CSA farms 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 and Cons of Joining a CSA

We’ve rounded up the advantages and disadvantages of joining a CSA so you can decide if this way of buying produce is right for you.

  • Lower prices than stores
  • Wide variety of produce
  • Community involvement

  • Upfront costs
  • Extra work
  • Too much produce

More About Pros of Joining a CSA

Ready to sign up for a CSA? Here are details about the benefits.

Lower Prices than Stores

CSAs can provide a wide variety of high-quality vegetables for a relatively low price in part because you aren’t paying for grocery store overhead or delivery. 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.

Wide Variety of Produce

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.

Community Involvement

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.

More About the 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.

Upfront Cost

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.

Extra Work

Once you’ve gotten your produce box, you have to figure out what to do with all those fruits and veggies. Developing a meal plan and cooking or storing the vegetables can take quite a bit of time and be a bit daunting. Also, you may have to work into the CSA’s schedule on when to pick up the bounty. If you can, look for a CSA that delivers.

Too Much Produce

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.

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.

Look for Recipes for New and Unusual Items

Visit Pinterest and search “recipe + [veggie]”, or check out these ideas for how to tackle what’s in your CSA box.   Many CSA programs also offer a newsletter and recipes suggesting what to do with each week’s share, especially the less common items.

Plan Ahead for 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.

Janet Keeler is a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder and a longtime food writer. Additional Penny Hoarder staff contributed to this report.