How to Choose a CSA Farm

A harvest crate of Sweet Corn

There is more to picking a CSA farm than cost, drop-site location, weeks of delivery and box size.  Sure these are factors in your decision as to what CSA to pick.  But they shouldn’t be your only criteria and quite possibly not even your main criteria.  Cost is a good example.  A difference of $100 per share translates to only $5 per week.  Is the cost of a Grande Latte a large enough difference to choose one farm over another?  Perhaps, but most likely not.  Here are some other things to consider:

What types of produce do I like to eat?  This is the most important question to answer.  Each CSA farm grows a different mix of produce.  Some focus on a smaller number of more popular items.  Others provide a wider range.  Some grow a lot of heirlooms.  Others choose to grow hybrids for more consistency.  To figure out which farm is best for you, you need to figure out what you like to eat.  If you are adventurous choose one that grows a large variety.  If you are more particular then find a farm that grows those crops you like.  No matter how cheap the produce or how convenient the drop site, you don’t want a box of produce rotting in your fridge each week.

Do I want to visit the farm?  Many families join CSA farms with the expectation of visiting the farm with their children.  Then life gets in the way and finding a whole day to visit the farm never seems to materialize.  If seeing the farm and participating in farm activities is important to you then choose one that is close to your home; the likelihood of you actually making it to the farm is far greater.  If you don’t care to see the farm or don’t plan to participate in any farm activities then the location is less important (though still important from community support and economic standpoint [see below]).

Does the farm support the community?  CSA is a two-way street.  The members support the farm by providing capital early in the year when farm expenses are highest.  But how does the farm support the community?  It supports the members by sending them fresh, delicious produce, but is that all it does?  If supporting the community is important to you, ask the farm what they do in this regard.  Do they donate excess produce to local food shelves?  They are delivering to your area anyway; perhaps they should drop off the excess at one of the regional food shelves.

Do I want to support a small, family farm?  Some people see CSA as a way to support small, family farms.  However, not all CSA farms are small and not all are owned by a family.  If supporting small, family farms is important to you then find out how big the farm is.  Ask who owns it?  Is it incorporated?  An LLC?  How many shares do they offer?  How many acres do they farm?  Do they have a wholesale business?  Some CSA farms are as small as 25 shares.  Others have over 1000 shares.  Just because it is a CSA farm does not mean it is a small, family farm.

Is supporting the local economy important to me?  If so, find a farm that is local to you. A farm 100 miles away does not support your local economy.  All the money you pay for your produce ends up 100 miles away.  A local farm and their employees will spend their earnings locally.  They will pay local property taxes, local sales taxes and state income taxes. 

Where do they get their employees?  With the current economy, more people are concerned about where their money goes.  If supporting the local economy is important to you then finding a farm that hires local residents should be important to you as well.  There is nothing wrong with hiring legal migrant farm workers; they are frequently the most productive help.  But a lot of the money they get paid doesn’t stay local.  It certainly helps struggling families in other parts of the country or other countries, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing.  But it doesn’t help the local economy.

Is it important to me that the CSA farm is a pure CSA farm?  Some CSA farms are pure CSA farms.  All the produce they grow goes to their CSA members.  Other farms have additional avenues for selling their produce.  Many sell at farmers’ markets. Larger operations have significant wholesale businesses.  The important question to ask is “if there are competing sales channels how do they insure the CSA members get what they pay for?”  Saying “We fill our members’ boxes first” may or may not be a sufficient answer.  Ask more probing questions like what happens if there is a flood?  What if the tomatoes don’t produce as well as expected and you have a contract to fill with a local co-op?  Which contract – your CSA members’ or the co-ops – do you uphold?  You paid the money upfront.  You took on the added risk.  As a member of a CSA farm you deserve to have your contract filled before any others.

Are other farm related products of interest to me?  Some CSA farms see themselves as only farms.  Others see themselves as an alternative delivery mechanism for small, family farms.  The farm itself is just one of the farms supported by the delivery mechanism.  The former type sells only their produce.  The later resell other farmer’s products, whether it is cheese, eggs, fruit or meat.  By purchasing through the farm you have the convenience of picking up your other food items at the same time you pick up your produce.  This provides a local, alternative outlet for other small, family farms (though check to make sure what they resell is in fact from small, family farms if this is important to you). 

Do I want to support the general growth of CSA farming?  If so, then maybe you should look into joining a relatively new farm.  New farms will be much less consistent.  It takes quite a few years for a farmer to figure out what grows best in the conditions a farm presents.  Newer farms/farmers may not have figured it all out.  But if no one supports the new farmer there will eventually be no farms.  On the other hand, if you want lower risk, choose a farm that has been in business for a while.  Five years in farming is a good yard stick to determine success.