How to choose a CSA

 

If you want to join a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, farm this year, now is the time find out what’s available in the Ottawa region. Some CSAs have begun accepting applications for the 2013 season (VegetablePatch.ca is already sold out), so don’t leave it until March or April to purchase your share.

As a CSA member, you pay a flat rate for a share of what the farm produces that year. In return, you receive a weekly basket of the farm’s freshest seasonal produce.  CSAs are becoming more popular across North America. With food safety a hot-button issue these days (think the XL Foods recalls in 2012 or the 2008 listeria scare), consumers want more information about where their food comes from and how it’s produced. Belonging to a CSA offers the kind of transparency people are looking for, as well as a chance to support family farming and the local economy.

To choose the CSA that’s the right fit, you’ll need to do a bit of homework.

Consult the Buy Local Guide

Find out what CSAs serve the Ottawa region by consulting Just Food’s Buy Local Guide. In most cases, there’s a link to the farm’s website so you can click through for more information. Call the CSAs you’re interested in, and consider arranging an in-person visit as well as speaking to current members.

Compare CSA features

Take note of:

  • pick-up/delivery arrangements. CSAs are usually located outside the city, but most will have drop-off spots in town, and a small number do home delivery.  Others ask members to collect their baskets from the farm gate.
  • types of products. Vegetable CSAs dominate, but some supply additional products — preserves, flowers, honey, eggs, pastured meat and poultry — that can be added to the weekly basket or purchased at the farm. Several CSAs provide meat and poultry only, such as Grazing Days (beef), Natural Lamb (lamb, turkey, chicken) and Upper Canada Heritage Meat (pork).
  • season length. The typical season runs 16 to 18 weeks, from June to October. However, several farms extend the season by growing in greenhouses or hoop houses; others offer one or more winter storage baskets (e.g., Ferme Lève-tôt, Rainbow Heritage Garden) stocked with root vegetables and greens.  Bryson Farms, a large non-standard CSA, grows and delivers food year-round.
  • price. Traditional CSAs charge a flat rate per share for the season that varies according to share size (different shares are available based on household size), product types and season length.  Non-standard CSAs charge per weekly box rather than per seasonal share.
  • member involvement. If being part of a community is important to you, look for a CSA that organizes educational workshops, volunteer workdays or seasonal potlucks.

Match CSA features with household needs

The CSA that suits a single person living in downtown Ottawa may not be the best fit for a 4-person household in the suburbs, so set clear priorities (flexible share sizes? home delivery? winter baskets?) and pick your CSA accordingly.  And don’t choose based on price alone: consider the total value the farm offers, including additional products and services and on-farm activities.

Make the most of the experience

To get the most from CSA membership, remember that it’s a very different experience from grocery shopping in a big-box outlet.  For example, as a CSA member, you:

  • share the benefits and risks of CSA farming. The goal of CSAs is to bring farmers and eaters into mutually supportive relationships in which they share the benefits and risks of growing food.  In other words, with good weather and good harvests, weekly baskets are plentiful; when poor weather or pests reduce crop yields, weekly baskets will be smaller and less varied.
  • become a seasonal eater. CSAs don’t offer the same foods year-round as supermarkets do. Instead, they bring you the best of the season. This may include items you’re not familiar with, so be willing to experiment. And while many CSAs provide members with recipes with each week’s basket, it makes sense to think ahead: learn what’s in season when, and make sure you have a supply of recipes on hand.

Are you a CSA member? How did you choose your CSA?

Related posts: 5 easy steps to seasonal eating, Join a CSA farm in 2013

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