My husband and I have belonged to a CSA for 4 years, but I decided that we are not going to re-join this spring. (For reasons which I will explain.) There are a lot of things to think about before you join.
The CSA Experience. First, our area has a ton of CSA options, but they can be really $$$ and very competitive to get into. Luckily, we first signed up when we were both grad students, so we qualified for a 1/2 price, low-income share. Since then, we have paid full price each year. Second, our CSA is just from one farm – each CSA member gets a share of the farm’s produce each week, and you have to pick it up. At the pick-up site, there are scales, bins or produce, and a list of what each share gets. Often there are options (i.e., “one bunch radishes or one bunch asparagus,” or “2 lbs. total eggplant and summer squash”). Other CSAs around here operate from several farms, and you just pick up a box of assorted produce each week. I LOVED being able to choose and pack my own produce – it gave me more control over what we ate. We originally joined as a way to introduce new vegetables into our diet and to get my husband to try new things. It worked! and I loved being forced to learn to cook new things, try new recipes, etc. Our share was supposed to feed a family of 4, and there were definitely mid-summer weeks when I felt overloaded, but we love vegetables and I am a creative cook, so this was never really a problem.
The Farm Experience. Because of the way CSAs like ours are run, you take on the same risks as a farmer would. (This is also true for “box” CSAs, but less so if the CSA sources from various farms.) You get less if there is drought, too much rain, not enough sun, a pest infestation, etc. For the most part, this evens out – you may get a great year followed by a lean year, or it may just mean that you get more eggplant than you wanted and not as many tomatoes within a given year. For the most part, I was okay with that. Another thing to think about is that you most often get produce the day that it is picked, which means it is super fresh and can be “picked at its peak.” Unfortunately, this often meant – for us – that produce was overly ripe by the time it was picked (especially melons, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers) so our produce often went bad within a couple of days of pick up. Lastly, because of the short timeframe between picking and delivery, most CSA produce is not washed or has just been minimally washed. This is not a big deal to most people, just make sure you have the time on pick-up day to clean and store all your produce (there can be A LOT of dirt, especially during the lettuce and root vegetable seasons!).
The Pros and Cons. I absolutely loved certain things about our CSA – the feeling of community, supporting agriculture in an urban environment, the fact that part of our CSA cost went to free and 1/2 price shares for low-income families, knowing that we were eating fresh, local, pesticide-free produce, the constant variety of produce available, the thrill of trying new things… But there were also things I hated – passing up good produce because I just couldn’t stomach cooking another 5 lbs. of eggplant, forcing my husband to eat things he doesn’t like, food that went to waste because it was already rotting at pick up or extremely bug-ridden (I am looking at you, sweet potatoes!), lack of variety during certain months and very little change from year to year, consecutive summers with a very sparse tomato crop due to pests… I know that none of this was our farm’s fault (they are an amazing group of people), but it just got to be too much work to make it work, given the negatives. And I was still spending $20-$40/week at the farmer’s market to supplement. So, this year my husband and I agree that I would just up my farmer’s market budget by the amount per week the CSA cost and see how we liked that experience.
Last, don’t take my experience as a negative. We had a wonderful experience for the first three years, and I highly recommend that people invest in CSAs – they do so much good! But, I just think it is important to go into the experience with knowledge of the risks, to keep an open mind, and to do your research to find a good fit for YOUR lifestyle. Best of luck!