If you've been considering joining a CSA, now is the time. Most CSAs in New England start to accept payment in January and February. If you're lucky, there may still be spaces in some CSAs as late as June. But the popular programs, particularly the ones that have city drop-offs, can fill up early.
Just to review, CSA is an acronym that stand for Community-Supported Agriculture, and it's a way for farmers to market their products directly to the consumer. By paying in advance for a whole season's worth of food, you give the farmer money when s/he needs it most. In return, you get a box of food each week that is as fresh as can be.
Different CSAs have different structures. Some require that, in addition to the money you pay for the food, you volunteer some amount of time at the farm. Others don't have any sort of requirement. Some ask you to come to the farm to pick up your food; others have drop-off locations one night a week. Some have only large shares available; others offer the option of full or half-shares to make the program more manageable for small families and couples. Some may include some items, like strawberries, on a pick-your-own basis.
Different CSAs offer different products as well. Almost all include the basic vegetables, starting with salad and cooking greens in the early summer, then offering tomatoes, corn, zucchini, peppers and summer squash in high season, and finishing up with winter squashes and pumpkins. But some also include unusual vegetables, seasonal fruit, meat, dairy, and even flowers.
Some are organic, some IPM, others conventional.
It's worth doing a bit of research on your farm share, because it will provide a large portion of your food for about half the year.
It's a big investment, and not for everyone. Some things to consider:
1) Can you commit to picking up your box every week? You don't want to spend a lot of money on food you never manage to get.
2) Are you flexible with your cooking? You have to be willing to experiment with new vegetables or find new things to do on the fourth week of kale.
3) Do you eat a lot of produce? Most CSAs give a generous box of vegetables every week. There is nothing more depressing than a fridge full of rotting vegetables.
I have been very pleased with my CSA the last two years. I like the rhythm of getting my vegetables one the same day each week, planning my cooking for the same day, and so on. I liked the challenge of not choosing my produce. I like how fresh everything was. And I liked the sense of community I got by getting in line with the other CSA members, talking about what we got last week and what we made with it.
Alas, this year I don't think I'm going to be able to join a CSA. I am starting school at night and I don't know what night my classes will meet in the summer or fall. With a varying schedule, farmer's markets seem like a better choice. Fortunately, there are quite a few markets that are convenient for me, so I won't have any problem getting local vegetables.
I'm putting together a listing of New England CSA resources that I hope to add to the sidebar links soon, in case anyone is looking for a farm share to join. I can also recommend Parker Farms, the IPM farm I received my share from the last two years. No website, but you can call Steve Parker at 781 209-8644. He's a nice fellow, and there are drop-offs in Cambridge and Somerville.