Spring may seem far off, but now is actually the perfect time to sign up with a farm to receive produce boxes for the 2011 growing season.
Community Supported Agricultures are a different way to buy vegetables. You pay in advance for 10 to 20 weeks of produce direct from a local farm. Your payment is actually a sort of investment in exchange for a share of the farm's harvest. You don't usually get to choose what kind of vegetables you receive. Some CSAs deliver to your door, but most drop off boxes at a central location such as a farmers' market or neighbor's porch.
CSAs can be a slight money saver, but if you end up not using up the produce you're paying for, they could end up being a money-waster.
Before you jump into a membership, make sure you're a good candidate, advises Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest.org, a website that connects consumers with farmers.
"Sometimes people with good intentions use the idea of the CSA as a way of trying to change their whole way of eating, and that doesn't generally work," Barnett said. "If you don't cook already, if you don't eat a wide range of vegetables, you may find that joining a CSA is challenging."
There are two main factors in choosing which CSA to join: delivery location and the size of the share.
Some farms offer just one size box. Because you ended up with too much last year, pick a farm that offers options.
I recommend comparing prices before committing and contacting the farm directly to verify pricing and claim any discounts available. Price comparison is not easy, because the farmers only provide estimates, at best, as to how much food you are going to receive.
"What's in the CSA [box] is going to be contingent on the success of the farm that year," said Rob Gardner, editor of TheLocalBeet.com, a website about eating local. "That's the whole beauty of the CSA -- you don't really know what you're getting until you get it."
To get a feel for the volume, and even more important, the quality of the produce and the reliability of delivery, ask customers. Local Harvest posts customer reviews and ratings. Or just ask around in your community.
Another important person to speak with is the farmer, Barnett said. Ask how long they've been participating in community-supported agriculture. Also ask what happens if you decide that you don't like being a member partway through the summer.
"Some farms make it very clear that if you want out for any reason, they'll prorate the balance of your season and you can leave," she said. "Others say, 'This is a seasonlong commitment, and once you're in, you're in.' "