Community Supported Agriculture: Tell me about your CSA!

Do you have a share in a community supported agriculture program (CSA)?

How does your service work? What kinds of things do you get? Do they deliver or do you have to pick it up? Do you get to choose your items or do you just get a box of random stuff? Are you happy with what you get and how you get it?

Tell me all about your CSA!

There are like a dozen different ones in the DC area, at least, and I’ve tried a few of them.

The first one was a home delivery service, and you chose what size box you wanted and you had a choice between vegetables, fruits, or both. You didn’t get to choose what came in the box. That was the part we didn’t like about it, because they kept putting the same stuff in the box every week. I like green onions fine but I don’t go through three bunches of them every week.

A different one we tried you went to one of their stands set up in different places around the area and you picked what you wanted from what was available. I liked the “my choice” aspect of it, but the pickup spots were not super convenient to me and the times they were open were right during rush hour, meaning once a week I had to make a extra stop on the way home on my already shitty drive. Plus like 90% of the fruit they had available was peaches. My wife likes to get fruit to take to work, but she likes to get different stuff. Nothing but peaches all summer. Peaches are fine, but again, I don’t want 5 pounds of peaches every week.

Currently we are using Imperfect Produce and are happy with it. They deliver to the house and you get to pick exactly what you want. They charge you only for what you buy, and they have stuff other than just produce. It’s not exactly a CSA, and with the grocery items available it’s more like a grocery delivery service than a CSA, but it works much better for us than the “real” CSAs ever did.

Although so far we haven’t yet actually gotten anything that’s super “imperfect”; everything has been quite normal looking. We’ve not received any eggplants that look like Winston Churchill or anything like that. It’s somewhat disappointing in that respect.

I used Angelic Organics a couple years back. They’re pretty famous; they were the subject of an award-winning documentary and have been around for years.

If I had a LOT more disposable income or a fair bit more free time for cooking, it might have been a positive experience. Unfortunately, I don’t. For what we got, it generally felt overpriced. The boxes were VERY heavy on brassicas, especially kale and kohlrabi and mustard greens. There were also a few oddball veggies that took more prep work and recipe searching to use. The classic garden veggies I like like cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and onions were in pretty short supply. We found ourselves having to buy supplemental produce too often if we wanted variety. To the CSA’s credit, they were pretty clear in communicating that the year had a difficult growing season and the mix wasn’t their usual target. It was mixed for convenience; they don’t deliver but there’s a bunch of different pickup spots so there was one only about 10-15 min out of the way on my commute.

More recently, I’ve used Imperfect Produce a bit. They’re…fine. It’s convenient and affordable but the quality is very spotty. We’ve had a lot of waste either from produce spoiling quickly or extremely low-quality items. While they advertise “imperfect” as meaning strangely-colored or oddly-shaped items, our experience has been that it more commonly means undersized or split produce, which both require extra prep time and occasionally throw off recipes.

We’ve found that some of the produce items are often very ripe and need to be used immediately. This is good for some things, like cantaloupe, not so much for something like those giant cucumbers the size of my thigh that they sent us a couple of weeks ago that were fine in the box, but mush the next morning.

And then there were those brussels sprouts whose “imperfection” was they were “oversized.” In reality, they were much closer to “undersized cabbages” in my opinion.

But even with these occasional oddities, we’re still mostly happy with Imperfect Produce.

I actually operate a CSA, albeit a non-traditional one.

I own an organic lawn and garden company. We produce a shit-ton (pun intended) of vermicompost that we use on our customers’ lawns, but also sell it, along with a vermicompost tea that we produce. We used to sell the vermicompost by the bag (and tea by the gallon), mostly at farmers markets and online to local gardeners. Then we got sick of farmers markets, so we decided to try something new: a Worm Compost CSA and a Worm Tea CSA. Our customers pre-pay for large quantities of our vermicompost or vermicompost tea, then when they need some, we deliver it to their front door. Plus, by pre-paying, they get the product at a greatly discounted rate. It’s greatly surpassed our expectations this year (our first doing it).

As customers: We’ve bought into an egg CSA in the past, as well as a meat CSA. We now have chickens and we stopped eating meat, so we’re no longer in those. We did a veggie CSA this year that we bartered with a local small farmer (we gave her $200 in Worm Tea in exchange for $200 in veggies). She gave us a pre-paid card with $200 on it, then whenever we want some veggies, we go to her farm stand and pick up what we need, and swipe the card which deducts the amount we take.

We have used several CSAs over the past five or ten years, and the main issue we’ve had with it is that it’s kind of unpredictable; you might get a box one week with a bunch of squash, chard and like 3 okra pods, and some other stuff, and then another week you might get an onion, 3 winter squashes and some tomatoes, etc…

It never seemed to me like I really ever got a consistently useful quantity of some things, and we got a lot of others that are just easy to grow- squash, greens, cucumbers, that we honestly could have grown ourselves in the yard.

The original idea of CSA’s was that the farmer(s) and a group of members would get together over the winter, plan out what to grow, work out a budget including seed, fertilizer, equipment costs, land use costs, pay for the farmer(s), etc.; and divide up that cost into the cost of shares. The food produced would then be divided up among the members. The planning over the winter included sorting out what the members were actually going to want to eat – if everybody hated kale, the farm wouldn’t grow any kale; while this couldn’t entirely remove the problem of people getting the “wrong” things in the box, it did help. The members would generally do a large part of the organizing and delivery, and often some of the farmwork. A crop loss due to weather or whatever was everyone’s loss; the members were taking on their share of possible loss as well as their share of the gain in food.

Very few people do it that way any longer. What was supposed to be a way for people to join in a close connection with an individual farm or possibly two or three farms going in together, and to get a better understanding of what was happening on those farms, as well as to support the farmers, has pretty much turned into a box-delivery system, in which the people getting the boxes may never even see the farm. I’m sure there are still a few exceptions out there.