If you've never participated in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm share before, then I would strongly advise you to give it a try! CSAs offer the public an exclusive opportunity to learn more about their local farmers, understand how produce is grown, try new varieties of vegetables and fruits that you simply cannot buy in store, and to have access to highly nutritious, fresh, and often organic produce at a low-cost. Depending on your area, you may have many or few CSAs to choose from. Not all CSAs operate the same way and prices can vary. Aside from the weekly produce offerings, there is more to a CSA membership that you may want to consider before you sign up.
Length of the Growing Season
Depending on your geographic location, your local farms may have produce available for six to nine months of the year, or more. When you sign up for a CSA, you will be charged a set price for a specified number of weeks. Take a moment to do the math. How much does the price work out to per week? How does this compare to what you would typically spend on produce per week at your local farmstand or supermarket? If you typically spend a lot less, you should consider whether or not you will be able to consume such large amounts of produce on a weekly basis. Some CSAs offer a split share where you pick up every other week. If your CSA doesn't offer this, you may be able to work something out with a friend: splitting the cost and then alternating pickups.
Getting to know the farm and how the food you eat is being produced is a key element of the CSA. Most CSAs welcome members to visit the farm to observe how the fruits and veggies are coming along. Check with the CSA to find out what if any restrictions there are for visitation. For example, visits may be restricted to weekdays or only with advance notice. Consider how these limitations would factor into your schedule. How does the CSA's farm visitation schedule work with your availability?
Are you looking to get involved with the farming process? From planting seeds and transplanting to weeding and harvesting there is so much to do at the farm. Many CSAs allow their members to help in the various tasks associated with farm work. Some will even offer members a discount if they work a specified number of hours. You should ask how work opportunities are communicated to members, the days and times when such opportunities exist, and for examples of typical tasks.
Usually members will receive their "share" of the produce offerings on a weekly basis at a set location. How many pick-up locations does the CSA offer? What are the dates and times? Consider whether you will be able to get to this location consistently; remember, you are pre-paying for a season's worth of produce. I've known several CSA members who've started off the season picking up faithfully only to forfeit their share halfway through because the location was too inconvenient (Note: CSAs do not offer refunds as much of the money earned from memberships is invested in seeds and equipment at the start of the season.)
Use of Pesticides
You'll need to dig deeper into the CSA's website, or better yet, talk to the farmers themselves to understand more about their growing philosophy when it comes to pesticide use at their farm. But first, ask yourself what type of growing conditions are important to you? You will need to get clarity as to whether or not they follow organic growing methods, if that is important to you. What if any pesticides are used and under what conditions? Are genetically modified (GMO) seeds used?
What's in a Share?
You're going to be paying a lot of money, so you need to be clear on what you're getting. Check to see if the CSA offers a vegetable only share, a fruit only share, or a mixture of the two. Ask about past years' yields: what types of vegetables and/or fruits have been offered in previous years? What crops have they had tremendous success with? Which plants have they had difficulty with? Have they already picked out their seeds for this year? If so, what will they be growing?
Get in Early
As I mentioned earlier, CSAs are an incredible experience. They offer produce lovers the opportunity to enjoy nature's bounty at it's peak. For these reasons, CSAs are becoming very popular. However, due to land, financial, and/or human capital constraints, farms are only able to support a limited number of families. This means the number of memberships offered to the public is limited. Memberships usually go on sale in the off season and are sold through the start of the growing season. If you miss the deadline, or if their memberships are sold out, you will have to wait until next year to sign up. This means that if you have your heart set on a specific farm, it would be good to reach out to them well before you see the local farmstand open for business.