For many college students and young professionals, starting a garden can be a time-consuming expenditure. Not only do you have to take time to set up your space, select plants that suit the climate in your area, and prepare seedlings- but you also have to dedicate considerable amounts of time to tending to your plot. If you're living in an urban space, you might not even have access to a space where you can garden! But, there is a great alternative out there for those who want to get away from dull supermarket produce, cull unnecessary plastic waste, and support local farmers at the same time: community supported agriculture!

Community Supported Agriculture (also known as CSA) is a program in which people can purchase "shares" of a farm's produce before the start of every season. In exchange, farmers distribute the produce to shareholders on a weekly or biweekly basis. The programs are risk-management tools for farmers; they can invest in the capital (i.e. tractors, soil, and seeds) they need to start the season. This makes CSAs a great option for farms looking to initially get off the ground and start producing. It is estimated that there are nearly 4,000 CSA farms nationwide. 

What kinds of CSA types are there? 

In recent years, many farms have introduced "mix & match" style plans that allow customers to choose what kinds of veggies they would like in their basket, as opposed to getting whatever produce the farmer produces. Many farms put limitations on certain items (i.e. strawberries) so that all shareholders can have access to as much variety as possible. 

Some CSAs also produce more than just fruits and veggies. You can find many that offer eggs, farm-raised meats, breads, and cheese. In an effort to offer more variety to consumers, several farms might team up together to offer combined shares from the farms. 

How much does a CSA share cost? 

Many CSAs disclose the cost of their subscriptions on their websites or FaceBook pages. The majority of programs offer different subscriptions based on household size (this can be the difference of receiving five pounds of veggies versus twenty). These either come as "half shares" or "full shares." 

Share rates vary drastically by location, so it's worth doing your research before you sign up for one. On average, most shares cost between $10-$20 per week; which averages about $450-$600 per season. As a tool to retain members, many operators offer payment plans for participants. If you're interested in getting your hands dirty (in the soil that is!) you can look into if your local CSA offers work-share programs to offset the cost of a weekly basket. Many CSAs will also subsidize shares for local community members in need or donate extra produce to local food banks. 

What are some of the potential risks of participating in a CSA program? 

CSAs are dependent on consumers' ability to pay for the shares upfront. This means that if the harvest doesn't pan-out to be as successful as the farmer hoped, the shareholders typically won't receive a refund. That being said, CSA farmers are people who hold their community in high-regard, so they try their best to deliver a good harvest. If you're the type of person worried about "getting your money's worth," you might be better off paying high premiums at a farmers market. 

Do I drive to the farm to pick up my CSA shares? 

Some farms offer pick-up directly at the farm, but many will also bring shares to pickup at community centers, farmers markets, libraries, or at individual homes. 

What if I get food that I don't know what to do with? 

First off, CSAs operate around the seasons, so don't expect to find bananas in your basket if you live in Minnesota! The value of a CSA is in getting to eat more seasonally and getting to know where your food comes from. If you're only used to eating a certain variety of foods and aren't willing to stray from the norm, CSAs may not be for you. 

Many farms offer resources and community-events to help shareholders get creative for what's in their baskets. You can also look at Pinterest or meal-sharing groups to find ideas. Neighbors, family members, and friends all may have creative ways to use rhubarb- you just have to search them out! 

What are some resources to find CSAs near me? 

Local Harvest contains one of the most comprehensive lists of CSAs as well as tips and tricks for first time members.

So I don't think a CSA is right for me. What other options do I have to support local farms?   

There are so many other options! You can purchase food from a farmers market vendor, leave a positive review on a farm's social media, go to different restaurants that source their food from local vendors, or talk about CSAs with your friends! If you have a farm-stand near you, you can also purchase "credit" in advance to help supplement the farm-stand's income for the rest of the season. 

Jeez, Sara- CSAs come with a lot of caveats! Why would anyone want to participate in one, anyways? 

Ah, a great final question! CSAs, down to the root, are community-supported institutions. Many CSA operators are not large enough to offer wholesale options that you would find at a grocery store, so they rely on direct-to-consumer marketing in order to support their operations. Farmers markets might supplement a portion of their income, but not all of it. 

When you purchase local food from a CSA farm, you are putting money back into the local economy rather than in the hands of corporations. The money you spend on your shares goes to both on farm expenses like seed, capital technologies, and equipment, but also to off-farm expenses like kid's soccer games, community potlucks, and into the pockets of your neighbors. This is called the multiplier effect; and it is the phenomena that describes how money stays in the local economy.

As a consumer, you also have access to [often] more ecologically and ethically sound food. Many CSAs utilize organic practices including low-till, non-synthetic pesticide use, and rotational grazing for livestock. All of these practices mitigate potential environmental damage while maximizing quality of the food. 

My favorite part about CSAs is their role as a community-builder. Not only do CSAs in my area host seasonal potlucks, community gatherings, and events, but they also encourage agro-literacy among members. You can stop by the farm at any time to ask about what they're growing, tour the fields, and lend a hand in producing what will eventually make its way to your table. I have a lot of confidence in the people who produce my food, and buying from a CSA makes me feel like I have a tangible impact within my local food system.