Today, my guest is writer, Cynthia Owens, with her review of utilizing a CSA to purchase food locally.
The Pros and Cons of Using a CSA
My husband and I are frugal spenders, but one of the areas where we don’t skimp is the quality of our food. Grass-fed meat and organic produce are important to us, but they’re not budget-friendly. To compensate, we grow some herbs and vegetables, but we’ve yet to find a way to hide a chicken coop in our back yard or a 1,000-pound Jersey cow. (I can just imagine the letters our homeowners association would send.)
So last spring, we decided to try a CSA—that’s Community Supported Agriculture. Basically, we invested in a local farmer and received a percentage of everything he harvested for a predetermined fee. We were intrigued by the high quality food our local CSA offered and had calculated (based on average yields) that we would save money on our weekly budget.
This is what we found:
- Excellent quality produce—We received organically grown items picked that day. They tasted fantastic and lasted much longer than store produce.
- Excellent quality meats—There’s no beating pasture-raised, grass-fed beef, pork, and lamb purchased directly from the farmer.
- Better Cuts of Meat—Since the farmer distributes the whole animal, we received better cuts of meat than I would have purchased from a store. My husband still drools over our Sunday roasts.
- Amazing Eggs. If you’ve never eaten a just-picked-from-the-coop-that-morning egg, you’re in for a treat. You’ll think the yolks were dyed orange. They’re not. That’s just the way they look if chickens are eating all the bugs and snacks God made for them.
- Unusual Meat Offerings—This farm had a variety of meats including some hard-to-find options like lamb, venison, rabbit, and goat. CSA’s will let you choose what kind of meat you want included. We tried the lamb and venison but couldn’t bring ourselves to eat rabbit.
- Apples to Apples Savings– Food in the shares cost less than the same level of food purchased at the grocery store.
- Shares Can Eat a Lot of Your Grocery Budget—The standard share from our CSA was more than we could eat in a week. This allowed us to save a lot of meat for the winter but made our summer grocery budget pretty tight. Our share covered almost our entire weekly grocery budget, and we still had to purchase supplemental foods—fruit, lettuces, items that are in-season but not available that week, etc.
- Share Size too Big—One share was far more than my husband and I could eat in a week. The shares are designed for families of 4-6 and there were no ½ share options. We froze the meat, but the produce was harder to handle.
- Share Size too Small—On the other hand, one share is not enough to do batch canning. We never received enough tomatoes, green beans, fruit, etc. to can the items. Items had to be used quickly or blanched and frozen in small amounts.
- Unfamiliar Produce—Trying new foods can be great if you have the time to research recipes and your family is adventurous. But when you receive a different type of greens for the 4th time in six weeks, the natives may start to grumble.
- Farming Is Uncertain—If certain crops fail, you’re out of luck. Our farmers lost their strawberry crop. They compensated with other produce, but our fruit portions stayed low.
So how can you tell if a CSA is right for you? Here are some tips:
- Find out how many people a share supports. Does this fit with your family?
- See what discounts are available. Some CSAs offer discounts for repeat customers, purchasing both meat and produce shares together, or purchasing multiple seasons at the same time.
- Ask to see pictures of a typical basket or see a list of items in a typical basket along with the amounts (2 lbs carrots, 1 cantaloupe, 3 bell peppers, etc.). Are these the weekly amounts appropriate for how you cook and what you like to cook?
For us, we’ll definitely get a meat share again. We currently have a stocked freezer, but come next spring, we’ll be ready for a refill. For the produce, I think we’ll try a different approach. Our CSA provided wonderful fruits and veggies, but we’ll be buying it from their Saturday store. This way we only get the produce we know we’ll eat (and know how to cook) and can get larger quantities for preserving.
What about you? Any other tips for best utilizing a CSA? Have you had a different experience with your local CSA?
Cynthia Owens is Co-Director of 3-2-1>Go! a program that prepares students for their best college and career experiences. Cynthia’s writing has been featured in Love Is a Verb (Bethany House) and Fighting Fear (Lighthouse Publishing). Her organizing and home skills blog Practical Light Living is re-launching October 5th.
Have a Thrifty and Nifty Thursday!