When the ground is covered in multiple feet of snow, the dream of farm fresh produce may feel very distant. But it's really not that far off! Yep, it's time to start thinking about joining a CSA.
In a nutshell, CSAs, or Community Supported Agriculture programs, give consumers access to fresh produce while supporting small farmers who steward the land organically. CSAs link consumers directly with regional farmers to receive high-quality, fresh, local produce throughout the growing season. Members of CSAs pay their farmer for a “share” in the off-season, to enable the farmer to purchase needed equipment and supplies. In exchange, the farmer delivers a weekly supply of super fresh, seasonal vegetables to a convenient spot in the members’ neighborhood.
Often, additional items such as flowers, herbs, grains, eggs, meat and dairy are available to members as well. Members agree to share in the risks of farming, including poor harvests in the event of bad weather or pest problems. Generally, CSA farms grow organically, whether they are certified through the USDA or not.
There are a handful of popular CSAs in our area that will be taking on new members come March.
People who join CSAs do so for a number of reasons. If you shop frequently at the farmers market, a CSA is a great way to save money on vegetables. Others join for the exposure to new and different vegetables and fruits. CSAs often provide members with helpful tipsheets and recipes to better navigate unusual items like Jerusalem artichokes and kohlrabi. Others join for health reasons.
If you’ve always enjoyed eating fresh vegetables and want to save money, a CSA is worth considering. You’ll get to know a farm and farm family and ask them those burning questions you have about how food is grown. You'll challenge yourself to eat more fresh food. And, perhaps most importantly for some, your kids can learn about where food comes from and will be partners in sustaining a small organic farm and therefore, the environment.
Locals like Liza Tripp, 30, have been thrilled with the increased nutrition, flavor, and savings that CSAs often bring.
“I knew I was saving money when I looked in my shopping cart in September and all I had was butter, heavy cream and a bar of chocolate," said Tripp, a member of the Cobble Hill CSA. "I’m getting all the fresh produce and fruit I need from my CSA.”
Just Food, a NYC non-profit dedicated to growing a more just and sustainable food system, has spearheaded the expansion of CSAs in New York City. Beginning in 1996 with 6 CSA groups, the movement has grown steadily. Paula Lukats, CSA Program Manager at Just Food, has seen the number of CSAs in NYC grow from 36 in 2005 to 100 in 2010.
Many people join CSAs near their home or workplace for convenient pick-up. Luckily, for residents and workers in Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill, there are several CSA options.
Cobble Hill CSA, 15 years old, partners with the well-established Green Thumb Farm of Water Mill, Long Island. Farmed by the Halsey family since the 1640s, today, 77 of the farm’s 90 acres are certified organic.
In 2010, a basic membership (vegetable share only) cost $507.50 for the 29-week season, June 1 - December 14. Optional shares include a fruit share ($232, or $8 a week), an heirloom tomato share ($40 for four weeks, 3+ lbs per delivery), a flower share ($70 for 10 weeks), a basil share ($10), herb share ($54 for 12 deliveries), honey and cider shares.
One interesting option they feature is a “pantry share,” a kind of a grab-bag item in which the farmer will bring you a large quantity of one item when there are surpluses – a good option for families and canning buffs. A winter share is available through a partnership with Winter Sun Farms: members receive 4 - 6 12 oz. packages of flash-frozen fresh vegetables and fruit once a month, like pureed butternut squash, crushed tomatoes, chopped peppers and blueberries.
Cobble Hill CSA members have two farm trip opportunities, for strawberry picking in spring and pumpkin picking in the fall.
Coordinator and founding member of Cobble Hill CSA Jeffrey Axelrod, 51, says what he loves most about his CSA is “quantity, price and value.” He speaks highly of head farmer Bill Halsey’s ability to provide a satisfying share.
“Bill is a master," he said. "He hits it just right.”
Most CSAs in NYC are run by a “core group” of members who volunteer their time to handle the basic member management: payments, distribution coordination and event management (trips to the farm, pot lucks, cooking demonstrations, movie nights). Often, core group members receive a free share in exchange for their time. It is common for all CSAs to charge a small administrative fee to help cover management costs; members are also often asked to contribute a number of volunteer hours (generally 2-4) to help run distributions.
Cobble Hill CSA has a waiting list; check their website for news on membership sign-up.
Boerum Hill residents and workers may find Brooklyn Beet CSA the most convenient. Now in its third season, Brooklyn Beet CSA partners with Angel Family Farm of Goshen, NY. Members also have the option to purchase fruit (from Hepworth Farm in Milton, NY), eggs and pasta from Knoll Krest Farm and meat, cheese, honey and jam from Lewis Waite Farm.
Tamara Damon, 42, member (and now General Coordinator) explained why she decided to join the CSA back in 2009.
"I live half a block away, I have a busy life and a young child and I wanted good food that doesn’t cost a fortune," she said. "I also liked the idea of supporting a farmer.”
Damon says you don’t have to love to cook to join a CSA.
“Once a week I do all my shopping around the corner. I’m really not a cook, so I love it when they send me lots of fresh lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Everything they send me I eat raw – I make a big salad. It’s an adventure, which I like.”
Brooklyn Beet CSA offered full shares (for larger families) at $470 last year; half shares – for smaller families – are offered on a bi-monthly basis, for $235. “Low-cost” shares are available to individuals making less than $30,000 and families with household incomes less than $40,000: $380 for a full share and $190 for a half share. Brooklyn Beet CSA accepts Food Stamps for payment, and donates any leftover produce to a local soup kitchen.
Brooklyn Beet CSA distributes at the local , and offers cooking demonstrations during pick-up hours that are open to the residents there. In addition to providing people with fresh, affordable produce, Damon says the CSA is “building a bridge between middle class and low income communities."
"We would love to have more members from the YWCA,” she said.
“It’s [also] great to live in a city and have fresh produce and have the farmers who grow it be a part of your life,” she added.
Brooklyn Beet CSA also does an annual fall farm trip, and they are looking for new members – email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info or to get on the list for 2011. Membership applications will be sent out in March.
For Carroll Gardens dwellers and employees, there is Carroll Gardens CSA, which partners with Garden of Eve Farm from the east end of Long Island. Garden of Eve grows organic vegetables, flowers and eggs and the CSA offers fruit from a neighboring farm. A standard vegetable share starts at $560 for 24 weeks; 12 half share deliveries costs $295. For a full combo of vegetables, fruit, flowers and eggs, it costs $1015 for 24 weeks. Individual fruit, egg and flower shares (both full and half) are also available.
Another CSA convenient to Carroll Gardens is Urban Meadow CSA. Started in 2010, they partner with Anthill Farm of Honesdale, PA. Last year they offered vegetables, cheese and eggs; they hope to add on additional products like meat and grains in the future.
A vegetable share costs $450 for the 22 weeks beginning the first week of June. Founding member Chris Barker, 29, joined due to his interest in “food-related and environmentally-related issues.” After tiring of long waiting lists at nearby CSAs, he started Urban Meadows CSA. (To learn more about starting a new CSA, click here.)
Members receive a newsletter each week through email, featuring recipes relevant to the week’s delivery of produce. The CSA has featured pickling and storage demonstrations at distributions, and is planning to expand and improve their website this year.
Now at 36 members, Urban Meadows CSA is aiming for 50 this year. Email email@example.com for info.
CSA membership can be an adjustment for some people, and each CSA (and partner farm) is slightly different in terms of the variety and quantity they offer. Often, new members hop from one CSA to another to find the right fit, whether they’re single or a household of five.
Paula Lukats, of Just Food, offers this advice to those considering joining a CSA.
“You have to go into it with an adventurous spirit. Be excited to learn about the farm, meet new people in your community, and eat fresh produce – some of which won’t be familiar," she said. "CSAs open up new ways of eating – eating more vegetables, cooking at home more, bringing the family together around food and experiencing seasonality. You may have to wait for tomatoes, but once you get them, they’re going to be delicious.”