The “Farm Box”: Community Supported Agriculture Review — Does it Work?

3 out of 5 leaves

3 out of 5 leaves

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a way to purchase fruits and vegetables outside of the traditional supermarket or produce stand.  Participants purchase a share, or weekly subscription in a local farm, or farmer’s co-op.  Each week during harvest season they receive a shipment of in-season, locally grown produce to enjoy.  Is this alternative method for buying produce a good idea for busy families?

The Good

  • Better for the Environment – Local Food has a much lower carbon footprint than produce shipped to your market from all over the globe
  • Better for You – CSA produce is almost always organically grown
  • Better for your community – It’s always great to support a local small business
  • Makes you try new things – there are often veggies in the box that you wouldn’t have picked out for yourself
  • Can be convenient – if you get home delivery, the box of veggies shows up on your front porch like magic
  • Can save money – some CSA boxes contain a massive amount of produce for less than $20

The Bad

  • Not a lot of selection – some CSA programs let you de-select unwanted items, but you generally take whatever you get
  • Takes more time and work – finding and trying new recipes for new veggies is fun, but takes extra time and effort out of your busy day,
  • Timing can be tricky – if all the produce shows up ripe and ready to eat the day you get it, menu planning can get dicey
  • Extra washing required – produce straight from the farm tends to be pretty dirty
  • Can be inconvenient – some CSA programs require a weekly pickup at a specific time or place
  • Can be pricey – some CSA programs (especially those with home delivery) can be one of the most expensive ways to purchase produce

My Experience
(Let me start out by saying that I really wanted this to work for our family.  But it didn’t.)

A beautiful box of healthy goodness

I am someone who is onboard with the local food movement.  It bothers me that the contents of my produce drawer has seen more of the world than I have.  I have had friends who are part of farm co-ops, or receive weekly farm boxes, and I’ve always been a little jealous.  It just seems like the right thing to do: local food, organic produce, eating food grown in season.  Win, win win!  Because I work full time, getting to a local farmer’s market can be difficult, even though there’s practically one in every neighborhood all week long here.  And I’ve noticed in Los Angeles the local, organic produce can be really pricey.  Becoming involved in community supported agriculture is definitely a “nice to have”.

Imagine my delight one day when my husband signed us up for a LivingSocial deal for a reduced price CSA box from a local delivery service!  I was super excited as I reviewed my options and chose the “small mixed box”.  The first delivery was the following week.  The delivery service came quite early and I found my box waiting on the front porch before dawn.  My three year old was thrilled to dig through the “the box the farmer brought us”, and discover a fun variety of vegetables.

Yummy kale, straight from the farm

Our first box brought us several new flavors, and others we don’t usually buy.  I had my hands full figuring out how to use everything that we received.  I’ve been doing meal planning for a while, so the last minute scramble to make a new side dish recipe with every meal was a little overwhelming.  I quickly changed the delivery to every other week, so I could use up the last of the produce the following week.  Still there was produce that never got used, and went to waste.  Almost all of the lovely greens we received were wilting within 24 hours (bye bye leaf lettuce, spinach, and radicchio).  This was upsetting, especially after I had spent time looking for a recipe that worked with our main dish, and adjusted my weekly meal plan accordingly.

At the same time, we had a lot of successes!  I made kale chips for the first time, and they were great!  Even the kids ate them up.  We all agree that chard frittatas should be a regular part of our menu.  I got to enjoy veggies like asparagus that I never buy because my husband doesn’t prefer them.  My husband (who was juicing at the time) had lots of extra goodness to toss in his juicer.  I found myself adding extra chopped veggies into our usual dishes just to use them up. And I got to continue the conversation with my son about farming and where our food comes from.

Our farm box journey ended after two months.  I sadly called and cancelled the subscription.  I had wanted this to work so badly.  But it was just too much for me.  With small children underfoot I am in “the trenches” of motherhood.  It’s a battle to keep everyone fed, clothed, diapered, napped and generally clean while keeping my sanity.  Add on top of that a full time job, and I don’t have time to worry about new recipes every week.  I love cooking and trying new things, but I don’t have a lot of time for improvisation after work if the kids are going to make it to bed on time!  We were already eating tons of veggies – so this wasn’t really adding more veggies, just different ones.  With extra time, and wasted food, the box became more of a hassle than anything else.  And when I remembered I was paying for the privilege of that hassle…  it was time to stop.

Although my experience was probably a 2 out of 5 leaves, I’m rating it a 3 because I really, really wanted it to work.  I think it could work!  I’m sure if I was a SAHM, with more flexibility to spend on the cooking and meal prep, my experience could have been much different.  My hope is that one day, when I am in a different stage in life, I can try out community supported agriculture again.

Have you ever tried out Community Supported Agriculture?  What was your experience?

Shared at Monday Mania, Homestead Barnhop, Better Mom Mondays, Living Green, Teach Me Tuesday, Titus 2sday, Fat Tuesday, Hearth & Soul, Domestically Divine Tuesday, Frugal Days. Sustainable Ways, Women Living Well, Your Green Resource, Simple Lives Thursday,  Fight Back Friday
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28 Responses to The “Farm Box”: Community Supported Agriculture Review — Does it Work?

  1. Carol says:

    I used to get the Aussie Farmers (I’m in Australia) home delivery box of fruit and veggies and loved that it forced me to create new and different meals. The downside was that there were only 5–6 potatoes in a family sized mixed box and that was only enough for one meal containing potatoes (we love our potatoes), so I was still having to go to the shop to top up on potatoes when needed. There was never enough fruit for my fruit-loving hoard either. I would have persevered with it, but it was supposed to be fresh from the farm and some of the produce was starting to look suspiciously like it was old stock used to top up the box, which was disappointing.

  2. Carol says:

    I used to get the Aussie Farmers (I’m in Australia) home delivery box of fruit and veggies and loved that it forced me to create new and different meals. The downside was that there were only 5–6 potatoes in a family sized mixed box and that was only enough for one meal containing potatoes (we love our potatoes), so I was still having to go to the shop to top up on potatoes when needed. There was never enough fruit for my fruit-loving hoard either. I would have persevered with it, but it was supposed to be fresh from the farm and some of the produce was starting to look suspiciously like it was old stock used to top up the box, which was disappointing.

    Oh and before I forget, I’m growing kale in my backyard at the moment, so would love to know what your recipe for kale chips is!

    • Victoria says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience Carol! I wondered if the “not quite always fresh” experience I had was just a thing with my service.
      And stay tuned – my Kale Chip review is coming up later this week!

  3. We will be starting our third year with a CSA in June. I, too, experience most of the disadvantages that you listed: no control over produce selection, extra time and work, and extra cost. (My CSA is much more expensive than purchasing conventional produce at the grocery store, although it is less expensive than buying organic at the farmers’ market.) There are, of course, also great advantages (like delicious produce!) but there’s no denying that the CSA model can be inconvenient. We’ve decided to persevere, though, because this is one way that I can financially support local food. I don’t always manage to use all the food every week (and sometimes we deliberately leave some at our drop site because of dietary restrictions) but being part of a CSA is important to my husband and me on a philosophical level. In order to grow I think local food needs support now, even though it’s not a perfect system.

    This is not to knock your decision at all – I just thought I’d explain why I stick with it despite the disadvantages. I have the freedom to spend extra time on food prep but I know that’s not an option for everyone so I can easily see how the CSA system wouldn’t work for many people.

    I am surprised about the fact that your produce started to go bad so quickly. All of the produce for our box is picked the day before or day of delivery. Most things seem to last a while since they’re so fresh when we get them. Maybe I’m just lucky in this respect.

    • Victoria says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience Meghan! It’s rather comforting to know that others have run into the same disadvantages I have. Not all of my produce was super ripe, mostly the leafy greens and always the strawberries. BUt I also had a lot of veggies that happily hung out in my vegetable drawer for a couple of weeks. (And I swear, the avacados never ripened!) I’m hoping once the kids are older, or maybe I can stop working so much, that I can get back invovled in CSA again.

  4. We’re starting our second year of a CSA and I’m excited about it. I do have to say though, that I am a SAHM and that we ended up splitting the share with my in-laws because it was waaaayyy too much produce for 2 adults and 2 kids under the age of 4. I found it made me more accountable for eating lots of veggies since I was determined not to waste the food and I loved the new recipes. The good thing is that initially, it is hard to think of ways to use the veggies, but eventually, you get used to it and stop messing around with recipes; all you need for most things are olive oil, salt, pepper, and maybe one other seasoning.

    And about the produce going bad…one thing that helped me (and it can help with grocery store produce as well) is to buy those “green bags” that are advertised on TV. If you wash the produce and put it in those bags with a paper towel to absorb the moisture, it will stay fresh for a few weeks most of the time. I once had a bunch of kale last for three weeks that way.

    Sorry it didn’t work out for you!! Maybe another time!

    • Victoria says:

      Olive oil, salt and pepper – that’s a gret veggie prep tip! I will most certainly try CSA out again when I move on to another phase of my life. California produce is too wonderful to walk away from!

  5. I really appreciate your thoughtful review! I grow most of my own produce from spring through fall (and some of it straight through the winter), so I have never taken part in a CSA. Thanks for sharing this with the Hearth and Soul Hop.

  6. Marlo says:

    Dont feel bad, I bailed on a CSa once too! It is really hard because of all the unusual produce. You really do need a significant amount of creative time to find recipes and make it work. I plan to try again when my kids are a bit older!

  7. Marlo says:

    More explanation please of “green bags”?

  8. I love using our CSA. In the winter I use delivery programs (Suburban Organics and Fruit Guys) and the rest of the year I pick up at our farm. I like the fact that it forces me to use up the produce quickly. All of the programs I use tell us what to expect each week, so I can plan our meals around that in advance. The price is a little more than what we would pay at the supermarket, but it is more than we would normally buy, too. The set price makes it easier to budget. I don’t find that it takes too much more time, and I hope to continue!

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  10. I found your blog via the Your Green Resource link-up. My father and I moved into my aunt’s house here in Central California. When we moved here, she was subscribing to a local CSA program, where she’d go to a designated location to pick up her food every week. She had to pay for a 16 week block of deliveries or something like that. So it was a lot of money up front…and we did get a LOT of produce. However, more often than not we were getting things that we had ZERO idea what it was, how to prepare and/or eat it. So when the subscription ended, she did NOT renew it. We just bought our organic produce at a local produce stand instead.
    Then a few months later, a friend told me of another local CSA program that has free membership, they deliver to your door ….and the beset part is that you pay as you go. So you can order every week, every other week, or once a month. You decide. It’s really easy on my pocketbook and I get a nice variety of things. Oh, they also send out a weekly email letting their members know what’s going to be in the boxes that week. It’s been a real blessing. So my first CSA experience was bad. The second one has been very, very good.
    Love and hugs from the ocean shores of CAlifornia, Heather 🙂

    • Victoria says:

      Thanks for sharing Heather. Your second CSA program sounds a lot like the one we tried out in Southern California. I’m glad it worked for you!

  11. AGinPA says:

    Not all CSAs are created equal. The fact that your greens were wilting by day 2 means they were not fresh picked or handled and delivered well. I’m stunned by the quality of the produce I get in my CSA and by the length of time it lasts in my fridge, including delicate things like lettuce. But I made sure to sign up with a farmer who takes great pride in the quality of his produce. So if you decide to try another CSA in the future you should definitely shop around.

  12. April Harris says:

    We don’t have CSAs here in England but I have always thought they are an interesting idea. I have an organic vegetable and an organic fruit box delivered most weeks, and I try to buy anything else locally. However I have a lot more flexibility with my organic delivery scheme, with advance notice of the contents and the ability to cancel individual boxes if they are not appropriate for us. This is a well thought out and insightful piece – thank you so much for sharing such an honest review of your experience.

    • Victoria says:

      Thanks for reading, April. I’ve only recently learned that England is big on gardening, so I’m suprised there aren’t farm co-ops there. Or maybe everyone is growing flowers instead?

  13. 'Becca says:

    We love our CSA! I also work full-time outside the home. I think what makes the CSA work for us is that we always split our share with another family (so it’s not an overwhelming amount for us) and we started doing it before we had a child, so we already knew how to use a lot of the veggies before we had him underfoot!

  14. Kirsty says:

    River ford (one of the big players in uk organic delivery) started as just one farm delivering to a very local area, but is now a network of farms that supply their local areas, and they’ve branched out into dairy and meat. Ordered through one central system though (to keep costs down). A similar idea has just started here in Houston (it’s expanded from austin) with a group of farms supplying the two cities, via an organic delivery service. Again you don’t have to commit though to the whole season which is where it is different to csa’s. Similar idea though and saves having to have one farm produce everything.

    • Victoria says:

      I think this is how the CSA I tried out worked too. Each bit of produce came from a different farm in California. Perhaps I might have gotten fresher produce if the whole box came from the same farm?

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