CSA Choices – First, The Box.

The box style CSA may be just what you’re looking for if you want extremely fresh, local food and you are adventurous, love to experiment in the kitchen and don’t mind doing a little bit of research both initially and when you get your share each week.  In my last post I introduced the concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and the fact that most CSA’s fall into two categories the Box Style or the Debit Style.  Today I’ll focus on the Box Style and hopefully explain some of the benefits and possible challenges you may encounter if you sign up for a CSA from a local farmer offering this type.

Filling share bags for the box style CSA.

Filling share bags for the box style CSA.

As previously mentioned the box style CSA typically works as follows.  You the customer will find a farm and farmer offering this type of arrangement and make an initial, upfront investment at the ‘beginning’ of ‘the season’.  (I promise a post about these seemingly superfluous quotation marks is coming soon!)  Then at some point during the growing season you will begin to receive your dividend for this investment.  The payback will come in the form of a weekly box or bag of freshly harvested, local produce (or milk, eggs, maple syrup, whatever items the CSA offers).  Now to the details.

Of course there are nearly infinite variations on each particular style of CSA but here in the Central Maine region you can expect to make an investment of between $200 and $600 for a fresh vegetable CSA.  This is quite a range I realize but think of the variables involved.  Is the produce grown organically or with poisons?  How many weeks does the CSA offer shares?  These two questions alone will determine a lot about where on the cost spectrum your farmer puts his or her CSA.  A fifteen week CSA will typically be less expensive than a twenty or twenty five week option.  But there may be other variables as well.

Many CSA farmers are now diversifying to include items other than vegetables in the same CSA.  This can include such things as a weekly dozen eggs, a gallon of milk or a cut or two of meat depending upon the farm.  There are some farms, though I am unsure of any in Central Maine at this time, which try to offer their customers a complete food share to include everything you might need in your kitchen and your stomach.  Yes, everything!  Some farms offer seasonal vegetables, meats, dairy, eggs, maple syrup and/or honey and more.  CSA’s like this can cost several thousand dollars per share.

But back to the box style details.  There are many factors that will determine, for the intelligent customer who has researched CSA options, if the box style CSA is right for you.  Some of these factors are pros and some are cons.  Indeed, what may be a con for one family might be a big plus for another.  For instance, when you receive your weekly allotment of fresh, local vegetables from your farmer you will be getting whatever he or she deemed ready to pick and pack.  In the spring that may mean you get a couple bunches of radishes, a bag of lettuce mix, a head of lettuce, some early baby spinach and so on.  In August this might mean several pounds of cucumbers, tomatoes and no lettuce.  What if you don’t like radishes?  Too bad.  That’s what your farmer grows and that’s what’s ready now so it goes into the bag.  For many people this is a turn-off.  However, I’ve met many customers through the years who enjoy this dictatorship of variety because it, in their words, ‘forces me’ to learn about new foods, learn to prepare things I might not buy at the store, etc.  If you have this type of adventurous spirit you might like a box CSA.

Another aspect of the box style that could be a minus is the routine.  You will need to commit to picking up your share every week throughout the harvest season.  As a farmer, let me tell you there are few things more irritating than people not picking up their share.  I realize it’s just a lapse of memory for the customer but for the farmer it can border on personal insult.  The farmer has put his or her heart, soul, entire life into producing the best quality, freshest food available.  He or she gets up before the sun and often goes to bed very late at night…seven days a week.  He or she puts extra care into harvesting, washing and packing the vegetables so they are presented in their best light.  And then by some miracle is able to get the box of vegetables ready and to the pick-up location on-time.  And you never show up, the food is either donated (if the farmer was made aware in time that you forgot to pick-up) or returns to the farm to be unpacked and dumped in the compost or pig pen.  It doesn’t matter to most of us farmers that you’ve paid the money and therefore you are really the only one who looses.  Doesn’t work like that.  Anytime real, amazing food goes to waste, we all loose.

CSA Picnic

Many farms offer on farm pick-up where you and/or your children can see first hand what goes on at the farm.

If you think you will have a hard time remembering to pick up your share each week you may need to either use a calendar or device with a reminder or look into a debit style CSA (which I’ll discuss in my next post).  Fortunately, many farmers offering box style shares offer pick-up at the farm.  This can be a plus for many reasons, not the least of which is helping to make pick-up easier to remember.  The reason being that it can be a very enjoyable part of the CSA experience.  Many farms offer on farm pick-up where you and/or your children can see first hand what goes on at the farm.

Which brings me to another point.  Any farmer that will not let you visit the premises does not deserve your business.  There…I’ve said it, point blank, as simple as that.  One of the biggest benefits of eating locally produced food is the knowledge that accompanies it.  You have the opportunity, indeed (in my view) the responsibility to gain this knowledge.  You can see first hand where and how your food is produced.  And you should!  You need to contact the farmer and ask if it is alright to visit the farm.  If he or she says no then politely thank the person, hang up and move onto the next farm on your list.  Any farmer worth his or her salt will not only allow you and your family to visit the farm but will be proud to have you do so.

That being said, you should not expect a full-fledged, guided tour.  Small-scale farmers are going 100 miles a minute, all the time, just to keep our heads above water.  There simply is not time to stop everything and lead an individual or family around the farm.  At Parker Family Farm my response to a question about whether or not a customer can visit the farm is simple.  “Absolutely.  But this is a working farm.  I would love to have you visit the farm and I’m always happy to answer your questions about anything at all, but you’ll have to keep up with me to ask them.”

Babies and vegetables

Hauling a cart, pushing your baby in a stroller and occupying your three year old who is ‘helping’. Yup, sounds like farming.

So if you’re willing to experiment, try new foods and new recipes and can commit to picking up an amazing bag of freshly harvested produce and goods for a few weeks you might be just the candidate to sign up for a box style CSA.  Be sure to do your research and contact several farmers.  Don’t base your selection on the prices you find on websites.  Numbers can be misleading.  Ask the farmer questions and figure out what you get for your money.  Often a bigger price tag is there for a reason.  Just like anything else, you get what you pay for and you pay for what you get.  Ask to visit the farm.  If they say no, move on.  If they say yes, schedule a time to do it.  It will be educational and fun.  More importantly, you’ll join the growing ranks of people who have seen and know first hand where their food comes from.  Local food.  Eat well – be well.

Ryan Parker

About Ryan Parker

Ryan Parker is a farmer, writer, artist and musician. He currently lives in Central Maine with his wife, two children, a golden retriever, some pigs and chickens. He raises pastured and forested animals and grows a diverse range of vegetables without synthetic chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or taxpayer subsidies.